New York City Ballet, Mixed Bill, Sadler’s Wells

Posted: March 14th, 2024 | Author: | Filed under: Performance | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on New York City Ballet, Mixed Bill, Sadler’s Wells

New York City Ballet, Mixed Bill, Sadler’s Wells, March 9, 2024

New York City Ballet, Balanchine
Anthony Huxley and Megan Fairchild in George Balanchine’s Duo Concertant. Photo © Paul Kolnik

The term ‘mixed bill’ generally refers to a grouping of separate works on the same program that highlights the diverse artistic vision of the company presenting it. The New York City Ballet’s Mixed Bill presented at Sadler’s Wells certainly does that — whatever one might make of the artistic vision — but also mixes a surprisingly disparate level of choreographic craft and technical execution. It is difficult to understand the artistic decisions that led such a prestigious company — a company built by Lincoln Kirstein and George Balanchine with fabled dancers and an equally fabled repertoire of works by Balanchine and Jerome Robbins — to come to London after a 16-year absence with such a very mixed bill. The one token work by Balanchine, Duo Concertant, danced by Megan Fairchild and Anthony Huxley, serves as a salutary reminder of what had made the company world class. Balanchine gives equal emphasis to Stravinsky’s score for piano and violin (played by Elaine Chelton and Kurt Nikkanen) and to the dance. Fairchild and Huxley listen to the opening movement while standing behind the piano, and when they dance it is as if they are improvising in the moment to what they are hearing. Gestures are clear, shapes are clean, and the dynamic is in perfect accord with the music.

Of the three other works on the program, at least Pam Tanowitz’s Gustave Le Gray No. I has a strong sense of identity. Set to Caroline Shaw’s Gustave Le Gray for solo piano, a quartet of dancers perform an uncompromisingly austere reverie in flowing scarlet costumes by Reid Bartelme and Harriet Jung that immediately call to mind winged beings. Like Duo Concertant, it begins with the dancers grouped behind the piano and as pianist Stephen Gosling plays the first four repeated chords the dancers move away one by one to begin their mysterious ritual together. The weightless, timeless style of Tanowitz’s choreography is so far from Balanchine’s that the dancers — Naomi Corti, Adrian Danchig-Waring, Ruby Lister and Mira Nadon — seem ill at ease. Moving the piano across the stage at the end while Gosling follows on foot as he continues playing is a gag that does little to resolve the mystery of the work but gets some laughs.

New York City Ballet
Naomi Corti and Adrian Danchig-Waring in Pam Tanowitz’ Gustave Le Gray No. 1. Photo © Erin Baiano

The evening opens — we have waited 16 years for this moment — with Daniel Ulbricht lying supine on stage in Justin Peck’s Rotunda: the returning hero washed up on a foreign shore. It’s a fitting image, but rather than allowing us to indulge in it for even a moment, Peck has Ulbricht scamper up with a romantic gesture of longing towards the audience as soon as the curtain is up. It’s almost as if he’s embarrassed to be discovered napping. His friends arrive and form circles from which solos, trios and ensembles evolve to a commissioned score by Nico Muhly, played by the Britten Sinfonia under Andrews Sill. The costumes, like Balanchine’s but without the formality of black and white, are pastel-coloured tights and leotards, and the overall sense of the work is relaxed bonhomie. The fabric of the choreography seems in danger of falling apart in one especially intricate solo which is just the wrong side of being, in principal dancer Sara Mearns‘ characterisation of the company’s approach to performance, ‘spontaneous and in-the-moment’. Ulbricht’s tightly executed and rigorously musical steps stand out but it’s not enough to save a lacklustre opening work.

New York City Ballet
Company members in Justin Peck’s Rotunda. Photo © Erin Baiano

If there’s already a sense of programming disorientation by the second intermission, the final work of the evening, Kyle Abraham’s Love Letter (on shuffle) to a recorded selection of songs by James Blake, heightens it further. If William Forsythe hadn’t already used tracks by Blake to create a whole new aesthetic and a scintillating physical technique to display it in The Barre Project: Blake Works II for a group of New York City Ballet dancers and friends during lockdown, Abraham could be forgiven for setting his choreographic colours to the same mast. But where Forsythe had made the score integral to his choreography, Abraham has simply pasted a romantic notion of classical shapes and steps on to tracks by Blake that makes them unsuited to each other. Dressing his dancers in designs by Giles Deacon serves only to widen the disparity of the collaboration.

New York City Ballet
Christopher Grant and Peter Walker in Kyle Abraham’s Love Letter (on shuffle) Photo © Erin Baiano

Perhaps there are unseen technical, logistical and financial circumstances that have limited the company’s repertoire choices at Sadler’s Wells, not to mention injuries and substitutions to the casting, but we in the audience can only react to what we see. If, as the New York Times states, the company’s repertoire is the envy of the world, it is unfortunately not evident on this visit.

Pam Tanowitz, Song of Songs, Barbican Theatre

Posted: December 13th, 2023 | Author: | Filed under: Performance | Tags: , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Pam Tanowitz, Song of Songs, Barbican Theatre

Pam Tanowitz, Song of Songs, Barbican Theatre, 11 October

Pam Tanowitz, Song of Songs
Pam Tanowitz dancers on the set of Song of Songs (photo: Maria Baranova)

When Pam Tanowitz’s father died in 2018, she wanted to honour his memory with a new work. As a means to not only return a debt of gratitude to her father but also to explore her Jewish family heritage — her very identity — in choreographic form, she made what was to become Song of Songs. Co-commissioned by, and premièred at, the Fisher Centre at Bard where Tanowitz is the first choreographer-in-residence, Song of Songs was presented at Barbican in October. Its choreography has the expansive feel of a devotional elegy, complemented by David Lang’s score based on the Biblical text and by the architectural environment in which it is set. Each element of the work is consistent with the others, a result, no doubt, of the singular focus Tanowitz brings to its creation. While she is credited with the choreography, she is also part of a team with Harriet Jung, Clifton Taylor and Reid Bartelme who are responsible for the theatrical setting and costumes: a white stage hung on three sides by alternating strips of black and white material that leave a corridor between them and the wings, while at the back the vertical strips descend to the height of a small area set up for the musicians. On the inside of the vertical strips are gently curved moulded benches in a luminous teal tint that define the shape of the stage and match in colour and material a wide circular platform just off centre. It could be the setting of an art gallery before the paintings have been hung.

In a way, Song of Songs is, from the moment we see the setting, a work of spatial art, one to be contemplated as we wait for the performance to begin. Those vertical black and white stripes can, on one popular cultural level, suggest a grayscale image of a seaside Punch and Judy booth, but on another, given Tanowitz’s desire to research her Jewish history, it is not impossible to imagine those same stripes as the pattern and colour of concentration camp uniforms, here transposed to a space of celebration and respect through which time and the dancers can move freely.

Lang’s lush, carefully modulated score for two sopranos, alto, viola, cello and percussion starts off with an acapella voice, luring into the spatial setting the element of dance. Meile Okamura begins her opening steps, opening up in her fragile and almost translucent flow of movement a world of the spirit that is nevertheless robust, an indivisibility of strength and ethereality that underlies Tanowitz’s inspired realisation.

From silence the music builds, and from silence the dance evolves. The aural component of Song of Songs floats on the air, while Okamura’s limbs and torso seem to draw on it. The entrance of Melissa Toogood, slipping silently like a shadow on to a bench at the side, is masterful, and when she moves, her shading is darker than Okamura’s, more visceral, but builds on the contours of Okamura’s lightly stretched, diaphanous movement. Zachary Gonder presence reflects the sensuality of the text, with his smooth jump and pointed foot like playful, barely perceptible punctuation, while Kara Chan has an almost hard-edged clarity. In this way Tanowitz weaves the qualities of her eight dancers into finely tuned duets, trios, and ensembles. Within such a spatial setting, at once material and immaterial, the way the dancers move pulls the performance towards one of two qualities: overt traits of personality or training that remain in their movement are reminders of the secular world, while the apparent absence of personality — the pure merging of the dancer and the choreography — speak of a world remembered, without weight, silent.

Tanowitz’s research takes in, quite naturally, Jewish folk dance, beautifully transposed in Song of Songs into her own choreographic forms, playing out an eloquent sense of community, of tradition, of ties that bind. The raised and angled hands have a naïve, uplifting quality while the legs keep their earthy contact with the floor. All the surfaces are used, transforming the art gallery-like setting into a theatrical stage. When the vertical strips at the back descend to hide the musicians, the music stops while the dance continues, but for the duration of this divorce we can neither hear the dance nor see the music. Each element of Song of Songs is so well balanced with the others that to lose one is to lose them all. But when they support and enhance each other, they together produce a transcendent sense of limitless time and space.