Pennsylvania Ballet’s recent World Premieres program at the Merriam Theater featured danceworks created for the company by three contemporary choreographers- Yin Yue, Garrett Smith and Juliano Nunes. The concerts proved a substantive modern ballet sampler bursting with choreographic muscle and thrilling artistry by the dancers.
The curtain came up on Chinese choreographer Yin Yue’s ‘A Trace of Inevitability’ scored to original music by Michel Banabila for the cast of nine dancers. Yue is director of her own internationally acclaimed company and was BalletX’s first choreographic fellow in 2015 and has created what could be a signature piece on PAB.
Yue’s ballet idioms fused with grounded modern movement and cultural classicism is vital choreographic ground. As danced in the November 9 evening performance, it flows with urgency and liberated technical precision.
Yue‘s opening duets stating some of the intricate choreographic themes, and vividly danced by partners Aleksey Babayev-Kathryn Manger, and Alexandra Hughes-Albert Gordonas, and soon other partners sweep onstage in distinctly different movement scenarios, some more abstract that others, and not hinting at any gender character roles.
Banabila’s score ‘Dragonfly II’ progresses from lyrical themes to a more industrial rhythmic drive, as the full ensemble gathers in cryptic unison configurations that seems cut loose from what came before. Though the final partnering with one of the dancers slumped in another’s arm adds another layer of mystery.
The propulsive drive of ‘Inevitability’ is matched by the dramatic images of the next ballet, Connection by Brazilian choreographer Juliano Nunes. Scored to haunting orchestral music by Enzio Bosso, the curtain comes up on 10 dancers in fleshtone micro-corsets in sculptural ensemble circles with bodies seeming to bloom out in communal ritual.
But at the end of one of those configurations Zecheng Liang is shoved away and it becomes a different narrative.
Lyrical classicism is laced with explosive solos and duets. Liang is a consummate technical dancer and dancer-actor in both story ballets and abstract works. Also in top form, a dramatic duet by So Jung Shin and Russell Drucker who hypnotize with Nunes’ geometric interlocks.
There is a most riveting moment when Nayara Lopez flies in the air in an arc-back leap partnering Jack Thomas and an electrifying trio danced by Oksana Maslova, Jermel Johnson and Arian Molina Soca.
American choreographer Garret Smith’s Reverberance is scored to Bach Cello suites ‘recomposed’ by virtuoso Peter Gregson who plays the live accompaniment with passages also supplemented with electronica.
Even though the cellos are danced in and out against the cobalt blue light and visually has playful charm, enhanced by bluenoir atmospherics by lighting designer Michael Mazzola. Garrett’s uncluttered choreography has such a naturalness of ballet classicism, but the hook of the cello props, however playfully the partnering, runs out of steam.
But Reverberance has many entrancing pure dance elements and admirably Smith keeps Gregson’s musical variations of Bach the equal partner onstage.
Smith’s concept is the varying responses to the music, perhaps in moments, ala Balanchine’s Concerto Barocco, where the dancers embodying the string lines, but also idiosyncratic reactions of the music, that are abstract and not meant to be symbolic and unforgettable moments like Yuka Iseda and Sophie Savas-Carstens darting through the air in a gravity defying straight line. Wonderful silky blue ensembles designed by Monica Guerra also give a dreamlike quality.
Since becoming artistic director Angel Corella has been upping Pennsylvania Ballet’s expansive artistic goals, with productions both on conventional tracks with revivals of story ballets, as well as a re-alignment of a neoclassical aesthetic of George Balanchine. This program definitely one of the most dynamic for PABallet dancers making the most of in ballet fusion styles and Corella continuing to strengthen a new generation of stars.
Dance is the most
ephemeral of the performing arts and writing about dance, as a reporter or a
critic in meaningful ways is a precarious journalist venture. If a picture is worth a thousand words, how
does a dance writer report two hours of living, breathing moving pictures in a
dance concert with three choreographers presenting different concepts in
The challenge brings to mind Hans Christian Anderson’s observation “Where words fail, music begins” which definitely applies to dance, since both art forms are languages unto themselves. For dance writers, translating movement into concrete and hopefully interesting text is often insurmountable.
Consider Martha Graham sage words “The body doesn’t lie.” Not to mention her metaphysical pronouncement that “Dance is the hidden language of the soul,” so perhaps beyond the realm of what can be articulated in words. But that doesn’t stop journalists who write about dance from trying to decode what they see and hear. A dancewriter’s checklist would include things like aesthetic intent of the choreographer, the music, the production values, the performances of the dancers- and substantiate the critical points that brings it all together or make it deflate. And usually in under 700 words.
In the 20th century during the heyday of daily American newspapers, dance writers dealt with editors (still) routinely considered the dance a merely decorative art at best and many clueless about the genuine artistic or physical components. Music critics were often dispatched to cover dance, sometimes a sportswriter would have been better suited. Now, with few exception dance as a subject worthy of consistent coverage in any newspapers ‘Arts’ section is to be consistently on the chopping block.
news is that there are more outlets online that provide comprehensive coverage,
and it’s not a stretch to think that it will ever get better for print
publications, including dance niche magazines, which continue to shrink. The
bad news is that fees for all arts writers continue to be reduced almost all
across the board. Meanwhile, dance writers, cultural archivists and arts
journalists continuing to document the art form in all of its manifestations continues
no matter how meager the pay.
Feature stories about dance usually interface with broader cultural resonance and that is fine, but often to the exclusion of other areas of dance, which remains as important from a technical understanding alone, but as an ephemeral art form, a vital record of dance expression over millennia, as important as any of the allied arts. Outside of popular tv dance contests, dance-theater and the world’s most influential choreographers and dancers are virtually invisible to the popular media culture.
Also he movie reviewing with its thumbs up, thumps down mindset has had a dumb-down effect on live performance in general and sad to say that dance magazines in their physical form continue to shrink.
To write about dance with authority one must have a working knowledge of a schools of dance, both cultural and formal dance disciplines. A partial list would include- the various schools of ballet technique, and no less important, neoclassicism, folkloric, acrobatic, sacred, |social, baroque, ritual, mystical, abstract, classical, postmodern, tribal, fusion, ceremonial, showdance, psychological, comedic, erotic- and any combination of those categories including of course the physics of dance that evokes pure movement of bodies in space without any literal or defining an inherently enigmatic context- (see Cage & Cunningham as a starting point).
For a business that continues to be in freefall, one positive trend, for the moment at least, is that there are more dance books being published and here is a preview of three this year’s notable titles, starting appropriately enough, with a compendium of the good, the bad and the ugly of more than a century of indigenous dance writing.
With commentary by editor Mindy Aloff and a foreword by Robert Gottlieb | Library of America
America’s ‘Dance In America’ is a fascinating, and an often frustrating
anthology of articles, reviews, essays, poems, and bio-history of dance in
Editor Mindy Aloff contextualizes each entry with bio-history of the writer and subject of the piece. Aloff teaches dance history and criticism at Barnard College, how difficult it was to chose the pieces to include in the book and admits to giving in to subjectivity. In his forward to the book, Robert Gottlieb also explains in some cases there also may be difficulty in getting author, publisher, or in the case of deceased authors, estate permissions. Also costs also might be a factor that would prohibit re-publication.
But even with these disclaimers, this volume covers a lot of ground and many of the entries belong in everyone’s permanent dance–theater-music library. If just for the words of American dance legends Isadora Duncan, Ruth St. Denis & Ted Shawn, Martha Graham, Katherine Dunham, Paul Taylor, Jerome Robbins, Merce Cunningham, Twyla Tharp, Agnes de Mille, and Russian ex-pat George Balanchine and Ballets Russes/Red Shoes star choreographer Leonide Massine, among many others lesser-known, but equally important dance artists.
Then there are the literary figures who are inspired by the dance- from poet Emily Dickinson, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Harte Crane, Charles Dickens, and 20th century dance enthusiasts from American balladeer/songwriter Johnny Mercer to writers Susan Sontag and John Updike.
Thumbing through the book, here are a few indelible passages: Stuart Hodes’ essay ‘Onstage with Martha Graham’ takes us through Martha’s rigorous technique class with always started with which always began with Martha cueing the dancers with “And” to execute the rigors of her meticulous methods. Hodes writes “Working with Martha was like going into battle. Physically demanding, emotionally charged and fraught with danger…an adventure of a lifetime.”
Choreographer Katherine Dunham who was also a ethnologist, anthropologist
applied to her choreography and ‘physical anthropology’ of dances of Africa, Caribbean
and island culture. Dunham was also an international stage star of the American
musical theater and social activist who knocked down racial barriers on stage
and screen. In her essay “Thesis turned Broadway” she writes of her growing
interest “to know not only how people dance but, even more importantly, why
they dance as they do.”
Isadora Duncan was the earth mother of dance, embracing classicism as a new form of modernism as the anti-ballet creating modernist movement template by reclaiming pagan classicism and putting it all in perspective by writing “I am asked to speak upon the “Dance of the Future” – yet how is it possible?In fifty years I may have something to say.”
Meanwhile, the clarion voice of Mark Morris has a lot to say in his essay on the relationship of music and dance as vital human ‘ritual’ in a reprint of his commencement speech at the Longy School of Music.
Aloff’s collection is both a survey of dance literature side-by-side with dozens of samples of critical writing over the last century from the leading dance critics including Anna Kisselgoff, Jennifer Dunning, Joan Acocella, Deborah Jowitt, Alastair McCauley. Et, al. and genre defining writers like critic and poet Edwin Denby.
One of the most interesting, and instructive aspects in this collection is how the same critic, can completely hit a home run in describing a performance but also, completely strike out, by being overly descriptive or not descriptive enough. The challenge remains, if every picture tells a story, then movement onstage can tell a thousand in one night. We can all take a lesson from their journalistic hits and misses.
Dance in America is slight on a lot of important aspects of contemporary dance history. Just glancing reference to Lucinda Childs, Anna Sokolow, Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane, for instance, so one can only hope that there is a follow-up more inclusive volume, to make up for this edition’s slights to giants in the field and a new gen of dance artists that have emerged in this century.
There are three articles by Arlene Croce, but missing is any commentary about Croce not attending choreographer Jones’ 1994 docudance ‘Still/Here’ in The New Yorker but still reviewing it, because she argued that it was outside her critical reach because Jones cast with people living and dancing with terminal illness, insisting it was “victim art.” Putting that aside, does include Croce’s seminal piece ‘Dance in Film‘ that is not only engrossing dance history but a masterclass essay in critical analysis.
And there is a huge chunk of missing history with little reference about a generation of gay dancers and choreographers lost during the 80s & 90s to AIDS, many of the artists creating dance while battling the disease. The impact of their work and deaths and the impact on the entire dance world is inestimable and should never be forgotten.
look for part 2 of this essay later this month- Dancemakers finally explain it all for you – Three upcoming titles of indelible note are autobiographical books by Jerome Robbins, Mark Morris, and Twyla Tharp.
Choreographer Roni Koresh tripped the light fandango with his latest premiere La Danse, The Koresh Dance Company’s 2019 spring premiere at the Suzanne Roberts Theater. La Danse ostensibly inspired by the Henri Matisse’s ‘Five in the Nude’ impressionist painting, which Koresh discovered was part of the larger canvas of movement expressions.
La Danse’s 14 scenes are also more than the sum of its parts. The choreographer’s last long-form work ‘Inner Sun’ was more cohesive, but with La Danse, even with plenty of his Koresh signature, Roni was tapping some new choreographic streams.
The full company opening titled ‘Glow’ has the five men and five women of the company paired off. The music a simmering salon tango. The ensemble almost in classic tango salon tableau, first sharply silhouetted unison couples, with clean line, then sweeps over the stage, smoldering gazes between the couples in abrazzo variations.
The follow up is ‘Hold My Breath’ a stunning duet danced by Melissa Rector and Devon Larcher, this is one of Koresh’s most intimate and erotic duets. Larcher a newer dancer with performing with sharp technique and Rector simply hypnotic in sequences with steely lift patterns and solo moves expressing the emotional dynamic of this dance.
Other duets followed that showcased the strong partnering in various duets- Calie Hocter and Micah Geyer in ‘Put on the Red’, a very athletic Flashdance, with supple arc back positions and intricate lifts. And the very expressive and breathless paced ‘We Live and We Let’ danced by Kevan Sullivan and Sarah Shaulis. Joe Cotler’s dramatic solo ‘Without Thought’ has and improv energy with drama that let into his duet ‘Red Hand of Love’ with Paige Devitt.
Fang-ju Chu Gant commands also as she fandango’s through five potential male partners in ‘Dance Around the Sun’ and dances the guys around before choosing Joe Cotler.
‘Five in the Nude’ is the centerpiece on Act I. Koresh animates Matisse’s painting of the same name. Fang-Ju Chu Gant, Cali Hocter, Paige Devitt, Sarah Shaulis, and Melissa Rector in silky dresses, in fiery light, arms entwined, an earthbound, free dance ala Matisse. Koresh’s classicism and paganism set in motion, Koresh just letting the images flow with female mystique and powerful energy.
Nothing ponderous about ‘Sisters in the Trees’ which danced in Act two with the jazzy orchestral underscoring a trio Rector, Paige Devitt, and Hocter, in bright color 60s de la Renta-esque cocktail dresses, in a jaunty 60s dance camp ala Valley of the Dolls.
Later, ‘Fingernails Drop in the Universe’ another comic trio with Paige Devitt in a black sequin mini as the Vegas-y femme fatale flanked by show boys Robert Tyler and Geyer. It is pure tongue in cheeky Koresh as the men duke it out for her moves, but Devitt’s got them chasing their own tux tails. She also clocks them more than once, before they even have a loser’s chance in hell with her.
Choreographically Koresh is expansive, as is the original music by frequent collaborator John Levis. Levis careens from industrial sound blocks to mystical percussive to Latin-French fusion melodies that cleared the stage for Koresh’s variations of sensual male-female partnering, always fertile ground for the choreographer.
The ‘let’s dance’ lover theme though is disrupted at various times by allusions to a world in peril. The movement cued by Karl Mullen’s’ poetry as part of the soundtrack. Mullens’ beautifully narration though can cloy with sophomoric poetry. But his of Yeats’ ” center not hold” motif, lifted from ‘Yeats’ The Second Coming and a bit heavy handed on repeat, and especially in the same lines quoting Bowie’s ‘Let’s Dance,’
Koresh is more ponderous in the full ensemble sections, as Levis’ score also has more darkly atmospheric implications during ‘The Hidden Room’ ‘Unrest’ and ‘American Dream.’ Movement canvases dancers emoting anger and angst. And give way to Koresh’s enduring motif of communal understanding and cathartic dance rituals.
The finale ‘La Danse’ with the ensemble back in couple formation, the elegant tango lines, but with a less dreamy certainty, that this won’t be the last La Danse.
Lighting designer Peter Jabubowski’s lighting design in La Danse was a dazzling partner for everyone onstage throughout the entire program-Sculpting dramatic crossbeams of light, creating enclaves of infinite perspective, bodies that are swallowed in darkness or smoldering fades that let the emotional truth of the dancer linger, This was a La Danse lightshow par excellance.
La Danse’s performances mark the end of a company era with veterans ( and much beloved) dancers Fang-ju Chu Gant and Joe Cotler retiring from the company after many years as premier Koresh dancers. Their artistry will indeed be missed.
PABallet dancers once again ShutUp &Dance for MANNA at the Forrest Theater
For the 27th time, the dancers of the Pennsylvania
Ballet will perform their annual Shut Up
and Dance benefit concert for MANNA (Metropolitan Area Neighborhood
Nutrition Alliance). The one-night-only dance event is staged at the Forrest
Theater in Philadelphia and directed for the second year by PABallet soloist
Two weeks before the event, Hughes was in rehearsal as
one of the muses in the company’s upcoming performances of Apollo, as well as orchestrating
all of the benefit performance details. Hughes has performed and worked behind
the scenes for the event since joining the Pennsylvania Ballet eight years ago.
Putting on the show is just one aspect of the dancers’
volunteer work with MANNA, “they are such an amazing organization,” Hughes said
in at a rehearsal at PABallet studios last week, “what they do for our
community is so vital and important. They are pro-active in their mission and
expanding their reach all the time.”
MANNA’s provides free nutritional meals to clients
with HIV-AIDS, cancer, diabetes and other life-threatening diseases, 365 days a
year in the greater Philadelphia region.
“Just the cost of medical treatment sometimes prevents people from being
able to afford to buy proper food. I’m happy that for all these years they
allow us this opportunity and they can count on us to help them on their
mission. We don’t usually don’t get to use our art form to benefit the
community in this way.” Last year the
event raised upwards $125,000 for the
The event is a
showcase for the company dancers and guest from other dance troupes to choreograph
and perform in a broad range of dance styles.
One constant in the performance is a boffo opening number and closing
numbers, traditionally choreographed by the director in collaboration with the
dancers, “I’m going to keep the opening and closing a secret for now. No political themes, everybody is talking
about that stuff, but I’d rather keep the focus on MANNA and dance and this
wonderful organization.” The show
usually is a sell-out, and equally popular is the VIP cocktail reception before
the show that takes place in the Forrest Theater.
But Hughes did announce the soloist who will perform
Mikhail Fokine’s ‘Dying Swan’ an annual event in itself. it will be danced will be Ian Hussey, a
PABallet who is retiring from the company after this season. Hussey started
dancing with the company 25 years ago as a child in the Nutcracker and retires
as a =principal dancer and audience favorite.
“It’s going to be Ian Hussey. Ian and choreographer
Colby Damon are going to re-imagining ‘Dying Swan’” Ian is retiring at the end of this season
with the company. He’s been such an integral part of Shut Up & Dance. So
this seems a perfect way to honor him too,” Hughes said. The iconic solo was choreographed by Russian
master Mikhail Fokine, scored to music by Camille Saint-Saens and will be
performed live by cellist Jenny Lorenzo and pianist Patricia Wolfe.
Hughes said among that there will be much more live
music in this year’s show, always a different dance concert experience for both
the dancers and the audience. The benefit concert has been a showcase for the
dancers and guest dance artists to create their own choreography that shows not
only their contemporary ballet artistry but their range in other dance
idioms. Also performing in the opening
and closing numbers, are the house down divas Martha Graham Cracker and John
As is the
tradition, several choreographers are from the PABallet roster, including
choreography by PABallet dancers Aaron Anker, Adrianna de Svastich, Lillian
DiPiazza. And guest dancemakers include contemporary classicist choreographer
Durante Verzola; dancer-choreographer
and visual artist Gunnar Montana; Caili Quan and Richard Villaverde, both
soloists from the BalletX; dance
Acrobatic troupe Almanac. Also Hughes said that she was excited about a late
entry on the program by Emily Davis, a member of the PAB corps de ballet “There
will be Irish step dancing from Emily, who was a world class competitor at one
time in that field. I think she’s going to bring the house down.”
the always electrifying young dancers from the University of the Arts, who are
students of former Pennsylvania Ballet principal dancer Michael Sheridan, who
was one of the co-founders of the event in the early 90s, to raise money for
MANNA, at the height of the AIDS crisis, whose initial mission was to provide
meals for people battling the disease.
And Hughes hints at a few other surprises “The sense
of diversity and inclusion of the dance community and audience engagement
continues to be so powerful,” Hughes intimates, “yes, it’s my favorite dance
Dance Theatre of Harlem returned to the Annenberg Center in
Philadelphia the first weekend in March as part of their 50th Anniversary tour
and a year of commemoration in memory of legendary founder Arthur Mitchell, who
died last year.
Coincidently DTH’s performances in Philly fell on the same
days that the other New York premier black company, Alvin Ailey American Dance
Theater, was performing at the Academy of Music across town. Both companies
played to sell out houses with many Philly dance fans getting to both on
The concert opened with Garland’s ‘Nyman String Quartet, no.
2’ set to British composer Michael
Nyman’s lush chamber work. The wending string lines have with some baroque DNA
laced through and choreographer Garland is expert in characterizing the music
itself. His choreography a fusion of
ballet vocabulary- impeccable line,
dynamic pointe work, air slicing jetes, tight ensemble unison, pirouettes, and
arabesque variations, but Garland works in witty and unexpected has
transitional phrasing with club dance moves and post-modern idioms.
Garland essays fluid choreographic dialogue of styles, both
propulsive and inside Nyman’s music.
Garland uses Nyman’s adagio movement to choreography a meditatively and
arresting solo by principal dancer Da’Von Doane. The blending of many idioms, and with
movement quotes- from Nijinsky’s angular Faun to a raised fist iconic gesture
of black power.
Next was a work by African American choreographer Diane
McIntyre, that had its premiere in 2016, a work inspired by women she writes in
the program, black, brown and beige- who have been warriors for change in the
world. At this performance Lindsay Croop, Yinet Fernandez and Daphne Lee danced
this inspiring trio. McIntyre scores the
ballet with African – American historic songs performed by the Spellman College
Glee Club and original percussive music by Eli Fountain.
The women are first costumed in sheer black dance gowns, are
subdued, fragmentary but expressive movement, as if in anguished mourning.
Croop breaks away on her own path, she lets out the first vocalization, a
primal scream as she steps powerfully on pointe and reaches skyward. Each of the women has solos, now dressed in
vibrantly colored singlets and moving with uninhibited grace and
fearlessness. McIntyre symbolically
expressing the black women through history who triumphed over oppression and
Choreographer Darrell Grand Moultrie’s 2017 ballet ‘Harlem
On My Mind’ was scheduled for this performance
but was switched at the last minute. One
of Garland’s signature pieces ‘Return’ was performed instead. The ballet is set
to music by the Godfather and the Queen of Soul- James Brown and Aretha
Franklin, but a great concert finale nonetheless, with soul hits including ‘Baby, Baby, Baby’ and ‘I Got the Feeling.’
Opening with the extended version of Brown’s ‘Popcorn’ which takes off with
infectious funk exuberance right out of the gate. Garland combining modernist
neoclassical ballet of black dance in America during the 60s & 70s.
Aretha Franklin’s ‘Call Me’ opening scene with soloist
Crystal Serrano who moves between three potential male partners, as she
humorous playing the field as Aretha coyly sings ‘I love you’ to each one.
Serrano navigates these partners to dance with Dylan Santos after some intricate
group lifts. Serrano and Santos smolder in this beguiling dance.
Philly native choreographer Robert Garland, told the DHT
audience before the premiere of his ballet, that both companies paid a surprise
visit to Joan Myers Brown at her Philadanco studios in West Philadelphia,
Meyers-Brown’s school and company, Philadanco was where many dance artists from
both companies started their professional careers. Myers-Brown was in
attendance at the performance, just back from her own company performing that
day at Longwood Gardens in suburban
The finale of the Brown’s ‘Superbad’ for the full ensemble,
Christopher Charles McDaniel’s breakout solo grooves drew audible delight and
applause, not only for his James Brown glides, but his thrilling grande pirouettes and entrechat quatre.
Garland uses the original extended track of‘ Superbad’ he
lets break into a Soul Train dance line.
The full ensemble cuts lose with
signature inventive Soul line moves from the day, with some updates from this
generation of dancers that had the audience panting for more.
Former principal dancer Virginia Johnson, now DTH Artistic
Director re-established the full Dance Theater of Harlem after an eight-year
performance halt but keeping the school
and touring ensembles going. Arthur Mitchell was then director emeritus, as
Johnson piloted DTH’s full rebirth in 2012. Since then her vision and
leadership technically and artistically on
full display on their 50th Anniversary Tour, where the company will be performing
different programs of company signature ballets, from Balanchine classics to
newly commissioned repertory.
Johnson’s vision for the company is ballet forward,
visionary contemporary dance and bringing the company’s technical and artistic
excellence to a new generation. All of Johnson’s goals were present on the
Annenberg performances in this performance.