Archive for May, 2012

Apollo’s Girl

May 31, 2012

New York City Ballet
Which Came First: the Dance or the Music?

This time, it was all about the music. I had heard Nico Muhly’s Dark Sisters (a triple co-production) last year; directed by Rebecca Taichman, it had a powerful story with contemporary resonance and some outstanding performances. But most of all, the score was emotionally compelling, listenable, and definitely worth multiple exposures. opera site

So when I learned that Muhly was preparing Two Hearts, a new ballet for NYCB with Benjamin Millepied (their fourth collaboration), I made sure to see and hear it. What a good move! Like Milliepied, Muhly understands the necessity for peaks and valleys, fast and slow tempos, lush harmonies and unison passages—but never at random. And, as in his earlier dances, Milliepied is equally adept at filling the stage with complex movement and many dancers, or creating high-voltage solos and duets. (See post of March 7, 2011)

Two Hearts is a joint venture that makes every move, every measure, seem inevitable.The ballet is roughly based on an old English folk song, Lord Thomas and Fair Eleanor. Like many ballads whose origins are lost in antiquity, it is both modal and mournful. see/hear You can find three versions of the melody and 20 verses, all recounting a tale of woe in which everybody dies. In other words, the perfect vehicle for two highly sophisticated artists bent on adapting it for a 21st-century take on the eternal triangle. Of course they don’t stick closely to the story—it’s more an abstract mood piece—but here’s where it gets interesting. With their intuitive understanding of pacing and their sure grasp of aesthetics, drama and movement, their Two Hearts keeps you looking and listening all the way through.

The costumes (by Rodarte) extend Millepied’s ideas; they are black-and-white, yet each, like the steps the dancers perform, is subtley different, seeming to move with the bodies and the changing light (Roderick Murray). And then there’s the ballet’s master stroke, the surprise that cuts through your expectations at exactly the right moment: for roughly two-thirds of the work you see many dancers moving on and off the stage, combining and recombining in intricate patterns, always to instrumental music. It is artful, hypnotic.

Suddenly, you hear a woman’s off-stage voice, pure and vibrato-less, keening the story. The corps of dancers becomes two true lovers who twine around each other to the song in infinitely expressive ways. The shift in numbers and affect is immense, the shock of this less-is-more, cataclysmic. Their two hearts have become your one, and it may just stop for awhile. Like Muhly’s Dark Sisters, Two Hearts bears repetition.

During the curtain calls, when mezzo Dawn Landes joined the cast for their bows, she was in downtown black, from head to toe. Except for her shoes: covered in silver spangles, they begged to dance off to a new 21st-century yellow brick road.

Cogito: John Branch

May 21, 2012

Music to Move By

Most music moves us to move. I discovered this as a child, before I had ever seen dancing: my father played classical records at home, and when the music was on I often found myself in motion across the living-room floor, giving form to how it felt. (Why did my parents send only my sister to ballet school, signing me up to play football at the Y instead? Because this was the late 50s and early 60s, and it was Texas to boot.) So I learned early how music could inspire dance. When I watched dance later on, I also learned that it could lead me back to music.

Seeing V performed by the Mark Morris Dance Group was a good example: It’s a barefoot dance for 14, with costumes by Martin Pakledinaz that look, in pictures, like activewear crossed with sleepwear. You might think from those pictures that the dance delivers only lightness, uplift, and (considering the title) some kind of triumphal joy. It seems that way in performance, too, until the second movement comes along. That’s when the dancers enter from the wings on all fours and cross to the opposite side, following the score’s slow, irregular rhythm.

After seeing V a second time, I simply had to buy a recording of the music—Schumann’s Piano Quintet in E-flat—partly to enjoy it, partly in the hope of recapturing the dance. Sadly, as time passed, details of the other movements slipped away, but I still see the stop-and-start crawling when that second movement arrives. In a way, I can’t hear what Schumann meant by marking it “In modo d’una marcia”; if it’s a march, it suggests a military funeral, but I hear it only as music for spirits laid low, brought to their knees. The dance has determined how I will hear the music. What’s good is that I had never heard the music until I saw V, so I gained two new treasures at once.

Some of the other delights that dance has led me to:

Adès, Concentric Paths (his first violin concerto): Although Adès’s earlier works, sent to me by a friend, intrigued me, I still don’t know how best to appreciate them. His violin concerto is another matter. It’s fascinatingly complex and often fiendishly difficult for the performer but formally much more accessible. Its first New York performance came not in a concert hall but in a May 2010 commissioned dance for New York City Ballet called Outlier, created by Wayne McGregor. The choreography didn’t register strongly on me, but the music, especially Kurt Nikkanen’s masterful playing of the solo violin part, did.

Britten, Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings: The opening horn part sets the tone for much that’s beautiful and/or unsettling in this work, which apart from the framing sections is a setting of English poems. The dirge,using a medieval Yorkshire-dialect text, still alarms me when I hear it. But the dance, and its maker (first encountered at Southern Methodist University in 1980), cannot be recalled.

Joanna Newsom, “Sawdust & Diamonds” (from the album Ys): I had heard of the indie musician who accompanies herself on a harp because her albums made splashes among what you could call the pop cognescenti. But I hadn’t actually heard her until a November 2010 performance by Columbia Ballet Collaborative, for which Amanda Lowe choreographed a piece set to this song. Newsom’s compositions and singing are, like Björk’s, oddly childlike; as Sasha Frere-Jones wrote, she seems “immersed in a private world.”

Poulenc, Concert Champêtre: The dance that I saw using this is Paul Taylor’s Dust, one of his fearsome works—it suggests the depredations of a plague. Taylor consistently and successfully works against the music, a spirited piece that pits a harpsichord against an entire orchestra. For that reason, and the passage of time, the dance no longer comes back to me in the music, and I’m free to appreciate the sonorities—I’m a harpsichord fan from way back—for themselves.

Saint-Saëns, Carnival of the Animals: In 2003, when NYCB premiered a Christopher Wheeldon dance set to this music (with narration written and recited by John Lithgow), the orchestra included the glass harmonica called for in the score. I was there; so far, it was the only time that I’ve heard one of those eerie and ethereal instruments played live.

Stravinsky, Le Sacre du Printemps (two-piano reduction): Stravinsky prepared this for rehearsals of Nijinsky’s dance; that background made it a perfect choice for Paul Taylor’s version of Le Sacre, which he subtitled The Rehearsal, for reasons that are apparent when one sees it. More than a novelty, the reduction can stand on its own and has been recorded (at least three versions are on YouTube); it presents the music as if through a filter that reduces complex shapes to rhythmic outlines.

Surely the point is clear: even the blind could’ve gleaned something from these dances and their music.

It surprises me that none of New York’s enterprising music bloggers bother—that I know of—to announce upcoming dance programs that will use live or even recorded versions of new or notable scores. For instance, it wasn’t through them that I learned that Anna Teresa de Keersmaeker would be presenting Ligeti’s 100 Metronomes in her October 2008 visit to BAM. Music writers, where were you?

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Fearless Predictions

May 17, 2012

Medieval Play (Signature Theatre, May 15–June 24): After debuting in 1996 with the potent three-character comedy-drama This Is Our Youth, Kenneth Lonergan hasn’t launched a new play in more than 10 years. His adventures in Hollywood during the interim have made for stories of their own, for instance regarding the fate of Margaret, a film finally released last year. Now Lonergan has returned to the stage with a play at Signature’s new facility, which he is also directing. Play info:


Frankenstein (National Theatre Live, June 6–7): Opinion is divided among our contributors over the merits of NT Live presentations in television terms. It’s easier to report that Nick Dear’s script for this production (a reprise from last year) goes back to Mary Shelley’s novel for most of its themes and concerns, giving the creature much prominence. The director is Danny Boyle; Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller, who shared the 2012 Olivier Award for best actor, alternate as creator and created. Of the experience in the theater, Michael Billington wrote in The Guardian, “on the whole, this is a stunning evening.”                          —JEB

February House (Public Theater, May 17June 10): A new music theatre piece (based on Sheryl Tippin’s book) about a singular group of geniuses who briefly lived, loved, and worked together in a Brooklyn brownstone in the late 1930s. The rent roll included W.H. Auden, Carson McCullers, Benjamin Britten and Peter Pears, Paul and Jane Bowles, and the multitalented Gypsy Rose LeeHousemaster George Davis kept their collective noses to the grindstone, and swore to teach Ms. Lee to write (he did).

Illuminated by the political and sexual turmoil of the era, February House earned brilliant reviews during its workout at the Long Wharf Theatre in New Haven earlier this spring.                                                                                                          —AG

Polisse. (IFC Center, May 18): Maïwenn‘s riveting policier with a difference; an intense, propulsive look at Paris’s Child Protection Unit that races along its multiple story lines, pausing only to snatch your heart with wrenching interludes based on real-life cases. The ensemble cast is superb—especially the filmmaker herself and Joeystarr (usually a pop-rocker/rapper). A Sundance Select film, Polisse has already taken the Cannes Jury Prize, and is a sure magnet for more.                                                                                                                    —AG

Cogito: John Branch

May 5, 2012

Bedlam’s St. Joan

Joan of Arc—you’ve heard of her, no? But if you don’t know George Bernard Shaw’s treatment of her tale, you may have some surprises in store. Regardless, you may find your breath taken away, one way or another, by Bedlam’s production of the play, which is running “on Broadway”—it’s at the 78-seat Access Theater, on lower Broadway (380 Broadway at White Street)—through May 13.

In The Passion of Joan of Arc, Carl Theodor Dreyer’s great silent film of 1928, the action is compressed to a single day of trial, confession, recantation, and burning. Joan’s examiners are mostly old, warty men with nasty smiles, whose physical flaws suggest something corrupt in their souls; Joan is visibly a pure and suffering innocent. Shaw’s version of the story is vastly different, relatively expansive in time, place, and character: half a dozen locations, the final two years of Joan’s life plus a jump cut to 25 years after her death in 1431(one of those surprises), and some two dozen roles. He gives rational positions to everyone Joan encounters. If there’s a fanatic in the play, it’s Joan, who speaks with absolute conviction of matters inaccessible to anyone else—her voices. By contrast, it’s easy enough to see why the others (all of whom are men) doubt her, while finding it expedient, to make use of her for their own advantage, or to do away with her. It’s Joan’s personal qualities, such as charm, common sense, nimbleness of mind, and fervent dedication that incline us to favor her in this play. True, we also believe her to have been on the right side of things, and Shaw supports us in that, introducing to his text two transformative issues under their modern names, Protestantism and nationalism, and proposing that Joan served to advance them. Simply put, everyone is right in this play, but Joan is more right. She serves the future as well as herself; she plays a historical role as well as a personal one. Shaw usually favored those who “think different.” But not everyone does, a lesson confirmed by his epilogue.

Watching Bedlam’s production, it’s possible to think about Joan and her roles, not because it adopts a leisurely pace (it’s moreoften hectic), but because of the style of the presentation. Many of the acting choices are obvious, giving us a broad grasp of a character’s emotional response while leaving us free to think about the text—the words get to speak for themselves. This has been labeled Brechtian by more than one reviewer. You could just as well call it indicative rather than psychologically specific. Likewise, the costumes are broadly suggestive but make no attempt at exact rightness for character or period.

The first scene is launched at a rapid-fire clip; immediately we have to work to keep up. It may help if you’ve recently read the play, but no matter if you haven’t: absolutely every word is spoken clearly. The tempo and the rhythms vary later, but not much is lingered over. The seating varies too, taking us to the lobby for the pivotal Scene Three and then placing us in different positions in the auditorium (including places on the stage floor for about two-thirds of the audience) in Scene Four.

What’s most remarkable, though, is that three men take on all the male roles. To help us keep them straight, Eric Tucker, the director as well as one of those three players, has marked all the men with stance, gesture, costume, and often accent; Bluebeard keeps fingering his beard, the archbishop tends to hold one hand to his chest. Ted Lewis is given, as the chaplain, what becomes me the most piercing moment in the show, breaking down after he witnesses the burning; true, getting to reach an emotional extreme gives him an advantage, but he is fully worthy of it. Tom O’Keefe imparts rhetorical force to the speeches of many of the religious figures.Tucker seems a little Will Ferrell–like as Baudricourt in the opening scene (not a bad thing for a self-important man) and later gives the requisite knowingness to Dunois, the battle-tested commander. And as Joan, Andrus Nichols strikes us first as surprisingly sturdy-looking while sounding notes of girlish enthusiasm. She grows in stature as the play progresses and riveted my attention in the trial scene. There may be something fearless in this performer, who has already followed in the footsteps of Sarah Bernhardt in having played the title role of Hamlet.

Bedlam’s production presents Shaw’s play without a single word cut yet runs only a little over three hours. For comparison, London’s National Theatre brought in its conventionally staged 2007 production at almost exactly the same time, including battle sequences. But there, the epilogue was truncated, and perhaps more as well.

Shaw, as befalls Shakespeare even more often, is sometimes “honored” with less-than-complete productions of his greatest plays, for mere reasons of time. Odd, since we don’t balk at long evenings in the opera house; perhaps the higher the price, the more the audience expects to be asked to endure. Yet for me—not the youngest of sprites anymore—there is no question of endurance in this production. Bedlam’s Saint Joan is vital, intimate, intense, and invigorating. I’d rather see it again than attend for the first time any number of bigger and better-funded productions uptown.

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Fearless Predictions

May 1, 2012

La Fille Mal Gardée (May 16, 2:30 pm, BAM Rose Cinemas): From the Ballet in Cinema series, a live transmission from London’s Royal Opera House of the Royal Ballet in a performance of Frederick Ashton’s final full-length ballet, based on an original that’s practically ancient. In terms of its origins, this may be the oldest ballet you’ll ever see. Its first performance took place only two weeks before the French Revolution. The Guardian called Ashton’s version “a comedy in the Shakespearean manner.” BAMtickets  
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The Beaux’ Stratagem (May 14, 7:30 pm, Red Bull): An adaptation by Thornton Wilder and Ken Ludwig of George Farquhar’s Restoration comedy. This is another reading, this time co-produced by The Acting Company, from Red Bull Theater, which has been presenting well-prepared readings of seldom-seen Jacobean and Restoration works for some years now with excellent casts. Red Bull tickets  —JEB

Ragtime (Manhattan School of Music, May 8, 9, 10 at 7:30) Based on E.L. Doctorow’s novel, Ragtime has a compelling story and score (see post of Dec. 22, 2009), and is likely to be the same high-energy emotional roller-coaster as the school’s recent Godspell (see post of May 19, 2010, and scroll down). If you haven’t seen the show, this is your chance! ragtime tickets                                                            —AG

Ensemble ACJW at Trinity Church (May 10 at 1 pm): This evolving group (a collaborative of top-notch students from four top-notch programs) will perform  George Perle’s bracing Critical Moments II, then encourage listeners to sink deep into the romantic soul of Brahm‘s luscious Clarinet Quintet in B minor. It’s not likely to get any better than this…especially at lunchtime. trinity church      —AG

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