Category Archives: dance

Motion without Emotion at Boston Ballet’s All Kylián

bsn-bllt-kylian

I’m backed up on all fronts, so this will be relatively short, but I was compelled to write some comments on Boston Ballet’s All Kylián which I caught last Sunday. By now Kylián’s genius is so apparent that it hardly needs to be even mentioned, and so the attention shifts to Boston Ballet’s execution. I’ve purposely avoided seeing some of their recent Kylián performances due to my palpable disappointment in their lack of understanding when I saw them perform his work a few seasons ago, but I thought I would give them another try since by now they’ve had a few more Kylián programmes under their belt.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t appear that Boston Ballet’s mastery of Kylián has grown at all. The most egregious illustration of this was in the first work on the programme, Wings of Wax (1997). The work is perhaps more virtuosic than usual, and is full of grand jetés, arabesques, and rapid synchronized turns with the arms in the fourth position. It’s also quintessentially Kylián, and the quote from the reviewer at the Netherlands newspaper NRC Handelsblad that is included in the documentary on the choreographer is particularly apt: “Kylian creates magic through movement – it is never predictable, never forced and yet it is almost impossible keep track of what is going on”. Kylián’s ability to pack a single work full of surprises yet still be completely cohesive continues to astonish (this is a work that I would be happy to watch on repeat for months on end), and his well of creativity seems limitless. Perhaps this density causes difficulty for the dancers, because although I don’t doubt that the choreography was executed accurately, there was a distinct lack of emotion throughout. The performance was hampered by a hyper-emphasis on athleticism, and although movements were executed with aplomb, they lacked the attention to detail Kylián’s works demand: each movement must have a trajectory, with a distinct beginning (origin), continuation (progression), and ending (conclusion). I would argue that the main emotions behind virtually all of Kylián’s works are those of melancholy and longing, none of which were apparent in this performance. I rarely felt any intention behind any of the dancers’ movements: is that rapid leg movement meant to be a flutter, a shimmer, a quiver, a spasm? This constant lack of communication gave an overall effect like that of So You Think You Can Dance? and other TV dance competitions, as incongruous as a Broadway singer belting out a Schubert lied, and equally unsatisfying. Of the dancers Whitney Jensen’s cool and controlled performance was the most in-line with Kylián’s aesthetic, although Lia Cirio’s intensity was an almost-acceptable substitute.

The second work Tar and Feathers (2006) is also quintessentially Kylián, although more recent, more contemplative, and more experimental. The work features samples of a dog snarling (at times synchronized with a dancer miming the sound), improvised piano, and bubble wrap. The work is much more foolproof than Wings of Wax in that much of it consists of slow transitions from one pose to another, so worked better for the Ballet overall. Despite inventive movement and some interesting trio choreography (such as a male lifting up a female who simultaneously lifts up another female), the work feels less cohesive than Kylián’s other works: the bubble wrap isn’t explored enough to become fully integrated into the work, (cf. the green apples in Sweet Dreams from 1990), and the staging of the Beckett poem, which has five dancers with bright red lips and tutus made of bubble wrap miming in a pseudo-sign language, was rather too obvious (much like the Lightfoot/León’s “Shutters Shut”, set to the Gertrude Stein poem “If I told him” from the NDT2 performance from a few years ago), as was the ending, in which a dancer tiptoes off stage to the amplified sounds of bubble wrap popping underneath her feet.

The final work, Symphony of Psalms, dates from 1978 and is one of Kylián’s earlier works, and one of the first he created after becoming Artistic Director of Nederlands Dans Theater. From his note on the work from his official site (which incidentally was unveiled at the very end of last year and which is a treasure trove for any Kylián fan) it seems he has a personal affection for the piece, but as a work it does feel more like a preview of the greatness that is to come as opposed to being fully satisfying in its own right. No doubt the work was included because it plays to the company’s core strengths (i.e. classical ballet) more than the other, more-modern works, but the work has a formalism that toes the line between “classical elegance” and stiffness, most apparent in the handling of the eight couples as they move across the stage. Symphony of Psalms is interesting as an early work and in the hands of a truly capable group could prove to be more worthwhile, but the Ballet’s combination of soloists, principals, and corps de ballet members felt incohesive and even core movements, such as when the women move forward with knees bent, heads down, and palms stretched forward, felt mechanical and disengaged.

While I applaud any efforts to bring Kylián to a larger audience, when the end result is as mixed as Boston Ballet’s it becomes impossible to support them without deep reservations. I’m happy at the thought of audiences becoming introduced to Kylián for the first time. However, for myself, although I’ve been content to rely on videos of Kylián’s works as opposed to seeing performances live locally, I think I’m going to have to make more of an effort to plan my vacations around seeing his works done further afield by groups with a deeper understanding than Boston Ballet’s.

Crisply Curated Dance in This That Show No. 4

My local dance experience has been fairly peripheral, so I was looking forward to seeing Daniel McCusker’s This That Show No. 4 at the relatively new Central Square Theater. The show, which highlights the works of local choreographers, should be regarded as a template for an ideal evening dance programme: intermissionless with a running time under an hour and a half and a nice amount of variety but with some interesting connections among the pieces.

The majority of the evening focused on exploring the relationships between women, and included two pieces (one by Brian Crabtree and the other a work-in-progress collaboration between Lara Binder and Sheriden Thomas) pairing an older and younger woman and both featuring repeated alternating acts of the older pushing the younger away and then pulling her close. These themes climaxed in the larger ensemble piece “Roots” by Audra Carabetta, which examined the evolution of friendships between women over time that lacked any leavening sharpness or conflict, although the inclusion of two young dancers brought a freshness to the proceedings that was compelling. “Rewind”, presented earlier in the evening and also by Carabetta with memorable music by Nick Zamutto of The Books, was more interesting due to its more abstract nature and the interlocking movements of the three dancers, and the odd veneer of detachment, perhaps unintentional, from the constantly smiling trio.

The evening was rounded out by two overly repetitive works by Adriane Brayton — “Here”, a light, comic duet between two young lovers, and the confusingly titled “in-progress” (is it a premiere or not?), a kinetic male solo — and Nell Breyer’s “From the Floor: 5 Studies”, a theme and variations with each movement presented singly and that formed a framework for the show as a whole. The latter proved to be the most ambitious, if not wholly satisfying, of the evening’s works, and not just due to its multiple parts and use of video. The first “study” was the video “Perspectives on a Dance in Sol LeWitt’s ‘Bars of Color Within Squares (MIT)'”, a brilliant Escher-like play with perspective in which three dancers seem to climb, crawl, and hang down from three squares of the completely two-dimensional Sol LeWitt work “Bars of Color within Squares” installed at MIT in 2007. The remaining four studies provided increasingly diminishing returns as the variations of the central conceit became less and less novel (none of which matched the surprise of the first study), despite an assured solo by Sarah Baumert in mustard (“Study #2”), a gradual increase in the number of dancers, and some fancy but hollow technological special effects in which ghostly shadows of the dancers appear on the stage’s backdrop in real time (“Study #3”). The works have a general aesthetic that would not be out of place in an Ok Go video, with its assortment of dancers garbed in a crayon box range of colors, Capoeira-like movement, and bodies sliding and undulating flat against the floor. Although that work doesn’t succeed as a whole, it ended an evening that did leave me feeling that I should be making more of an effort to catch local dance.

Subdued La Bayadère at the Boston Ballet

Just some quick notes on Boston Ballet’s La Bayadère which I saw last night. I was excited to see James Whiteside in the lead male role of Solor, having enjoyed him immensely the two other times I had seen him (in “Le Spectre de la Rose” and the Bluebird Pas de Deux), but I found that the fizzing energy and intensity he had brought to those shorter appearances was curiously missing from this longer work. Even his leaps which were usually so confident seemed restrained. Ah well. His all-American looks were also working against him a bit, although the design team’s choice of costume and lack of makeup didn’t help there either.

His Nikiya was Misa Kuranaga, another soloist at the Boston Ballet who I have enjoyed watching over the years, and she was one of the strongest performers of the evening. Her solo and death at the end of Act II were particularly affecting, and perhaps one of the only truly emotional moments of the night (although the staging for the adder bite moment could have had more of an impact). However, her duets with Whiteside, although technically precise, lacked fluidity and through line.

In this case their performance was hindered by a series of atrociously bad violin solos in Act III. I’ve complained about Boston Ballet’s violin section previously and lately they were doing much better, but this is the absolute worst I’ve heard them. The violins flubbed notes throughout the evening, made all the more obvious by the impeccable playing by the rest of the orchestra, but I’m astounded at the lack of quality control for the violin solos, such an obviously exposed part of the score. This was literally the worst violin playing I’ve heard in a professional setting in all my years in Boston, or most anywhere else for that matter. I really hope the Ballet recognizes this problem this time, because it seriously detracts from what is happening on stage.

One of the iconic sequences of the work is the Entrance of the Shades at the beginning of Act III, and the corps de ballet didn’t disappoint. Technically the dancers are proficient, but too often, particularly as the temple dancers in Act I, the corps feel like they’re performing drills in a ballet class. But although Thea Singer, in her review for the Globe, felt their performance in the Shades sequence failed to completely transport, I found it to be quite successful in its still, almost Zen-like (or should I say yoga-like?) concentration and focus.

The second act is the real crowd-pleaser, though, with its sequence of divertissements. The highlight here was easily newcomer Adiarys Almeida in the role of Manu, who dances with a water jug on her head while two young girls (the sweetly playful Saho Kumagai and Fiona Wado-Gill) tease her by pulling at her skirt. Almeida’s relieved pose and pleased smile as Manu whenever she manages to successfully balance the jug was utterly winning, and I’m looking forward to seeing more from her. And Jeffrey Cirio (literally) glowed in the virtuosic role of the Golden Idol. Special mention should also be made of the quartet of ballerinas in Act II and the Three Shades in Act III, particularly Kathleen Breen Combes (who I unfortunately always seem to manage to miss in meatier roles).

All in all an enjoyable evening, if not one for the ages. I don’t have much interest in the upcoming Elo evening, but will probably catch the Kylian work (despite being paired with a work by William Forsythe who I loathe) and the Balanchine/Robbins evening. So far along with the Globe’s review the only review of La Bayadère I’ve seen is wickedlocal.com. For background info on the ballet Wikipedia proves to be as indispensable as ever.

Dance Showcase 2010 at BU

Ech. Been neglecting the blog again, but had a pretty good excuse, namely some big life changes (good ones). Didn’t see much over the summer anyway, but have quite a few things lined up in the next few weeks, so expect more-regular blog postings, for the short term anyway. 😉

Just wanted to put up a quick post on BU’s Dance Showcase 2010 that I attended last night. This was one of those events that I was compelled to go to for personal reasons and wasn’t particularly looking forward to, but fortunately turned out to be wholly enjoyable. I knew nothing about BU’s dance program and too little about the local modern dance scene, but the performances left me much more interested in both.

The production’s unifying theme was a bit muddled: some of the performances were choreographed and performed by BU faculty or students, but others seemed to have little connection. The evening opened with BU instructors’ Ann Brown Allen and Micki Taylor-Pinney and colleague Lynn Modell‘s light-hearted “Why are you (still) dancing?”, a work that revelled in the pure pleasures of dance and performance, free from emotional angst, the obsessions of technical perfection, and self-consciousness. The spoken A Chorus Line moments proved to be rather extraneous, as the work itself, which included an entertaining section involving the three women cavorting over, on, and around a red sofa, was eloquent enough on its own.

DeAnna Pellecchia and Ingrid Schatz‘s explored the relationships between women in two works in progress intended to be part of a larger work, to moody music by “Janis Brenner and friends” and Sigur Ros. The two form a compelling team, and although the physical centerpieces of both (a pair of spotlights that were carried around in the first work and a blank upstage wall in the second) were hardly new, the images were often striking: the silhouette of one dancer towering high over the other, or the two flattened against the wall and madly squirming away from it, at once like babies being birthed or zombies rising from the grave. The second piece, “Glass Jaw”, was less successful when it came to the actual dancing, as it relied heavily on too-typical Martha Graham-esque use of the floor, but their no-holds-barred physicality was violently compelling. Definitely looking forward to seeing the completed versions.

Boston-based choreographer Margot Parsons premiered two works, the first, “Stirrings”, a memorable duet which Christine McDowell (I think that’s who it was; the Asian one) in particular gave a compelling intensity, alternately standing with back straight and eyes tilted upwards, and exaggeratedly marching with arms swinging, back bent, and eyes down, providing the work with the ecstasy and mystery of a religious rite. The second work “Journee” was a much less showy solo that, as solos often seem to do, meandered and bordered on being far too solipsistic. Another choreographer I’m looking forward to seeing more of.

It wasn’t immediately clear why Boston Ballet II were “guest artists”, but they contributed two crowd-pleasing moments. “From Zero 2 Five in 43”, choreographed by Boston Ballet member Jeffrey Cirio, was a rather exhausting but magnetic non-stop whirl of virtuosic leaps and turns. Lawrence Rines was the standout here, with his beautifully long lines. The excerpt from Peter Martins’ “The Waltz Project” was a fun piece of fluff, and Rebekah Hostetter made an engagingly ditzy dancer in white sneakers and purple leotard.

BU alum Stephanie Creary provided the trio “Timed Release”. The gesture-based choreography nicely combined straight lines, such as with the dancer standing and extending one leg to the front parallel to the floor or with body tilted and arm extending above the head, with softer movements, such as a patting, wave-like motion of the hands and arms. The work’s simple repetitions fit the abstract improvisatory score, by Ai Isshiki and Sakiko Mori, well.

A duo (by circumstance; the third was apparently unavoidably delayed) from the summer teen outreach program, Reach, ended the evening with a confection, a lively Krump work that fully demonstrated the liveliness and humor one associates with the genre.

Boston Ballet’s Ultimate Balanchine

[Yes, it’s been awhile, mea culpa, mea culpa. Work has kept me burnt out for the most part, but warmer weather has brought renewed energy, and now a backlog of posts.]

Just got back from the Boston Ballet’s Ultimate Balanchine. I had recently realized I hadn’t seen them all season, and after reading Alastair Macauley’s warm review in the New York Times my interest was piqued.

The evening started off a bit slowly. The young women who introduced the first piece, “The Four Temperaments”, set to music by Hindemith, executed the steps with precision but little understanding: high kicks lacked style or personality, pelvic-leading steps forward were pointless, and the beautifully geometric shapes Balanchine’s choreography sculpts out of the dancers’ legs, arms, and body were lifeless. The notable exception was Tiffany Hedman, who, for lack of a more-appropriate word, is a simply lovely dancer whose limitless grace combined wonderfully with the intentionally awkward positions. The piece is full of memorable choreography, and although Yury Yanowsky seemed unfocused, particularly at the beginning of “Sanguinic”, Isaac Akiba was simply fantastic both technically and emotionally in “Melancholic”, and Jaime Diaz also provided a strong performance in “Phlegmatic”.

“Apollo” doesn’t seem to be high among anyone’s favorites, and the piece does depend a fair amount on the the eponymous male role. Carlos Molina’s performance lacked character, too often slipping into generic classic ballet “hero” mode, but his muses (which included Rie Ishikawa and Whitney Jensen) were all memorable and their looks formed a nicely contrasting trio. It seems Kathleen Breen Combes was replaced at the last minute, I think by Lia Cirio, although I didn’t catch the announcement at the beginning and I forgot to check for postings in the lobby. But whoever it was who danced Terpsichore brought an athleticism to the role that was refreshing, so much so that it would just be curmudgeonly to complain of the slight lack of subtlety.

In “Apollo” the orchestra’s string section had similar problems as I’ve heard in the past, namely a stringy quality and lack of ensemble, partly due no doubt to the difficulties of amplification. This, unfortunately, was carried into the final piece, although to a lesser degree, “Theme and Variations” to music by Tchaikovsky. The piece is a quick ‘n easy crowd-pleaser, full of eye-catching classical ballet moments. As the male soloist Nelson Madrigal was a bit glossy, but his performance was assured and wholly enjoyable, as was that of his partner, Erica Cornejo, as the female soloist. The corps de ballet, both male and female, provided a steady wave of energy that culminated in a rousing finale and much applause.

The Boston Ballet has put together an evening that’s notably well paced, and the programme was so consistently engaging that I’m sorely tempted to catch one more performance, particularly since some dancers that I was interested in seeing weren’t on tonight. Stay tuned …

In addition to the previously mentioned review, here are links to reviews from The Phoenix, The Boston Globe, and The Boston Herald.

Boston Ballet’s Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes Centennial Celebration

I thoroughly enjoyed Boston Ballet’s Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes Centennial Celebration last week. I saw the final performance, and here’s a quick run-down.

In Balanchine’s “Prodigal Son” Jared Redick gave an assured and athletic performance as the Son, although I didn’t find Melissa Hough’s performance as the Siren to be nearly as characterful as the role requires, perhaps due to a sort of restraint overall. Also, the middle section involving the troupe of layabouts called “The Goons” started off appropriately comical, but then lacked any hint of sinister or violent intention, making the Son’s defeat and crawl back home curiously uninvolving.

James Whiteside was simply superb in Fokine’s “Le Spectre de la Rose”, despite what Macaulay, in his review in The New York Times, aptly describes as “a dismal headdress”, haha. I’d thoroughly enjoyed his performance as the Bluebird in BB’s The Sleeping Beauty, and his performance in “La Rose” was technically top notch and a superb depiction of the light and graceful yet still masculine incarnation of a young girl’s dream of love.

Roman Rykine imbued his Faun in Nijinsky’s “Afternoon of a Faun” with an adroit blend of disdain, irreverence, and ego, and Lorna Feijóo was a suitably serene Nymph.

Choreographing anything to Stravinsky’s “The Rite of Spring” just seems like you’re setting yourself up for failure since several ballets to that score already exist, and resident choreographer Jorma Elo did just about as well as one could expect. None of the reviews I’ve read seemed at all taken with it, although there’s plenty of technical virtuosity on display. Macaualy says, “The harder I tried to concentrate on any notion of story, relationship, theme or even style, the more diffuse and self-contradictory this work looked.” But for the story, or lack thereof, I’m going to have to side with The Phoneix’s Gantz on that one:

    But Elo’s storyline is clear enough. Yanowsky (in a dark-red metallic top — the other men are all bare-chested) is Elo’s Chief Elder, Lorna Feijóo (who sometimes dances with the men) is his Old Woman of 300 Years, and the two of them keep cornering and manipulating Ponomarenko as if she were Stravinsky’s Petrouchka. Hough is Ponomarenko’s BFF, Varga her would-be lover. At the end of part one, the villagers swing Ponomarenko aloft and she bicycles in a vain attempt to escape. Hough rescues her and shoos everyone else away, but in part two she too is manipulated by Yanowsky and helpless to intervene. Ponomarenko has the last word, however: she bourrées off and Yanowsky becomes the Chosen One, the villagers chopping him down to size.

Which isn’t to say that the story makes the work much more interesting. I found the motifs to be drearily repetitive instead of thematic, and I also grew weary of the dancers standing in single file and repeating the same movements in sequence down the line. The latter combined with the sparkly red outfits helped leave a strong impression of high school/college dance teams, which was unfortunate to say the least. On the plus side, the orchestra, led as usual by Jonathan McPhee, sounded better the whole evening than I’ve ever heard them.

Along with The Times and The Phoenix’s reviews, here are The Globe’s review and The Patriot Ledger’s. Also, BB has some photos on their website. Overall a nice finale to the season. There isn’t anything in particular that’s grabbing me for Boston Ballet’s next season, though, but I’m sure I’ll end up checking out something or other.

Upcoming for May

I’ve been trying to manage my outings a bit better. Not sure if I’m succeeding or not, but here’s what I’ve got on my calendar for May:

  • Friday, May 8 at 7:30 p.m. at Jordan Hall: Cantata Singers’ final concert concluding their Benjamin Britten season. Featuring songs written by 4th grade classes at a local elementary school and the same songs worked into Andy Vores’ “Natural Selection”. The full program is as follows:

      Britten: The Company of Heaven
      4th Grade Classes, Neighborhood House Charter School: 2 songs
      Andy Vores: Natural Selection (premiere)
      Benjamin Britten: Psalm 150
      J.S. Bach: Cantata BWV 50, “Nun ist das Heil und die Kraft”
  • Was going to catch Junior Boys and Max Tundra at The Middle East Downstairs, but it’s this Friday and so it conflicts with the Cantata Singers concert. Drat. And now it looks like Certainly, Sir is opening for them. Ah well.
  • May 11-17: Boston Ballet’s Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes. Their description says: “This year marks the 100th anniversary of the Ballets Russes, established in 1909 by the Russian impresario Serge Diaghilev. Boston Ballet celebrates with classic works by Balanchine, Nijinsky and Fokine. Resident Choreographer Jorma Elo will premiere a new work, his sixth for Boston Ballet, to Igor Stravinsky’s ‘Le Sacre du Printemps'”. I’ll probably try to get 1/2-off tix through Goldstar.
  • May 27-June 1: Guerilla Opera premieres Boston composer Marti Epstein’s Rumpelstiltskin.
  • Boston Ballet’s The Sleeping Beauty and a look at The New York Times’ chief dance critic, Alastair Macaulay

    I like to try to catch Boston Ballet at least a couple of times a season, and after reading a great review in the New York Times I decided to check out their production of The Sleeping Beauty last night. Alastair Macaulay’s reviews have proven to be extremely reliable, which has led me to do a bit of reading about him. He was appointed The New York Times’ chief dance critic a bit over two years ago, and at the time there was some controversy over the fact he was British and not American, let alone from New York. This blog post from that time gives an overview of the reactions and this interview with Macaulay from the same time period takes the form of a mild rebuttal as well as a more-than-convincing laundry list of his credentials. It is rare that I encounter a critic who shows such good taste, breeding, and intelligence as to so completely align his opinions with mine, so I’m looking forward to reading more of his reviews in the future. 😉

    Macaulay does a great job of setting the production in an historical context. Like Macaulay I was struck by the precision but also the character of the corps de ballet’s dancing. I also agreed that the Aurora I saw, Larissa Ponomarenko, danced extremely well, but she seemed to lack any real tenderness. He also praises James Whiteside as the Bluebird (why do I keep wanting to write “Bluebeard”?? Ha ha.) and Kathleen Breen Combes as his partner Princess Florine, whose dancing I also found to be highlights of the production, along with all three members of the Pas De Trois (Jared Redick, Megan Gray, and Heather Myers). Mindaugus Bauzys was a suitably dashing Prince Florimund, although I’m not sure if he’s still a principal dancer of the company or if he was brought in to help cover for the injured Prince from last week. Misa Kuranaga was the Aurora who he favored, and I was sorry not to see her in that role after seeing her sparkling and flitting (and all too fleet) performance as the Songbird Fairy.

    The sets, by the late David Walker, also deserve special mention for perfectly setting the stage. I also agree that the sound system at the Wang is far from ideal: it tends to mute the brass and bring out a raspy quality in the strings. And I too found Jonathan McPhee’s conducting, while precise and focused, to be much more functional than characterful. I’ve noticed it before in general and at the Boston Ballet in particular, but I’ve come to expect orchestral dance conducting to be rather wooden more often than not, given the constraints of having to keep to a completely regular tempo.

    Karen Campbell’s review for The Globe praises McPhee’s conducting, and does mention that the score provides opportunities for the soloists of the orchestra to shine, all of whom excelled. She found Larissa Ponomarenko’s Aurora to be “a marvel”, and also praised Whiteside and Combes’ performance of the Bluebird pas de deux. In the role of the Lilac Fairy she thought “[Erica Cornejo’s] presence seemed a little lightweight for a character of her power and import”, although I disagreed with her there and found Cornejo to be a compelling performer.

    The production ends tomorrow, so see it while you can. Additional reviews can be found on BB’s press page here.

    Even though I was feeling a little balleted out yesterday, I think I still want to see their last production of the season, Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes Centennial Celebration which looks like it’ll be a great collection of classics plus a new work by Resident Choreographer Jorma Elo. Goldstar has half-price tix for the final performance. W00t.

    Nederlands Dans Theater II, or “How I officially became a Kylián fanboy”

    I was psyched to see the Nederlands Dans Theater II on the schedule for this year’s season of the Celebrity Series after having been dumbstruck by the two excerpts the Boston Ballet did of long-time NDT artistic director Jiří Kylián’s Black & White Ballets a few years ago. I should also mention that on the strength of those performances the Boston Ballet was given permission to stage the full Black & White Ballets this season. The Globe’s preview of those performances is an interesting read, although The Globe’s actual review, by Thea Singer is more factual than insightful. Jeffrey Gantz’s review for The Phoenix is much more illuminating.

    This has all been a very long-winded way of saying that I specifically avoided seeing the Boston Ballet’s production because, much as I enjoyed the excerpts I’d seen them do previously, I was eager to see instead a group Kylián has worked with (and no doubt still continues to work with) closely. It’s always been true that the difference between a company that is intimately familiar and comfortable with the style of a choreographer, especially one with a vocabulary as unique as Kylián’s, and a company that is not can be striking. In fact in The New York Times’ review of Boston Ballet’s Balanchine program Macaulay focuses on that issue and acknowledges that “Boston Ballet’s repertory is one of the most eclectic in the country”. But he then goes on to say:

      To serve so many masters, you need rare and complex schooling. In “Jewels” many aspects of Balanchine style were missing.

    He adds further detail to illustrate his point and concludes:

      Boston Ballet faces the choice that many ambitious companies do. It’s possible to dance repertory old and new, in styles orthodox and anti-orthodox, but unless there is a consistent standard of high academic discipline, many performers will start to dance classical ballets blurrily.

    Phew! So with all that out of the way, on to the actual review. It seems that neither of the NDT troupes makes it to the States that often, so although the performance was by NDTII, the younger group of dancers aged 17 and 22, I was quite looking forward to the occasion. As is the Celebrity Series’ custom, they don’t list the actual works that are going to appear on a programme in advance, which seems completely bizarre to me because clearly the majority of performers excel in particular areas within their discipline and not in others. But anyway, for not entirely farfetched reasons I assumed the programme would be heavy on the Kylián.

    But, alas, only one Kylián work was featured, “Sleepless” (2004) for three couples, but it was a good ‘un and “well worth the price of admission alone” as they say. It has all of Kylián’s trademarks, including humor that is simultaneously grotesque, surreal, whimsical, and absurd, as well as moments that are surprisingly touching. Names such as Goya, Dalí, and Magritte instantly come to mind with his work, and this piece was no exception. Kylián likes to use props, and the piece features six large rectangular vinyl panels that at various times expose disembodied body parts or amputate them or combine them in playful ways. Kylián also plays with the space between the panels, which at times open up like expansive views into an infinite void or hungry maws or an ocean to sink into or places to retreat to. Singer’s review in The Globe is much less complimentary, and she found the piece to have “a tinge of misogyny”, which I find puzzling since the pairwork seemed quite in tune with his usual interest in subverting classical positions: a woman is hoisted up from behind by her waist, her frog-like legs opening and closing like a machine; a man presses his hand against the forehead of his female partner; a man lifts his partner up with his head between her legs. The second and third duets lost a little steam, but overall the piece was wholly enjoyable and, as with pretty much every other work I’ve seen of his, made me immediately want to see it again. I’d say this was the piece that sent me over the edge and into “official Kylián fanboy” territory. 😉

    The rest of the programme featured works of husband-and-wife team (in my limited experience, never a good thing when it comes to choreographers) Paul Lightfoot and Sol León. The only piece that Singer liked was a short bit of fluff of theirs called “Shutters Shut”. Set to a poem by Gertrude Stein the piece is a very literal visualization of the words of the poem, which although entertaining and presented in an appropriate, rather vaudevillian style, was lightweight and not particularly noteworthy.

    Their other two pieces were certainly more ambitious works, although also more irritating. The first piece of the programme was “Said and Done” to music by Bach. The piece was extremely heavy on what I presume is some sort of reworking of hip hop/popping movement in which a gesture begins at a source and then ripples through the body. Popular dance elements rarely (if ever) translate well into classical dance, and this was no exception, and the work quickly grew tiresome. The black feathers raining down was just about the last straw.

    The final piece, “Sad Case”, set to Hispanic songs, was little better. The piece, with the dancers in white body paint and spotlights that moved in between movements to watch, a la Pixar’s anthropomorphized desk lamp, was meant to be grotesque and vulgar and comic. But although the dancers were fully committed to the work, with its mimed belly laughs and commedia dell’arte-esque slapstick, everything just felt strained and decidedly unfunny and unmoving.

    All in all although on the surface the works of Lightfoot León (as the duo is known) seem to share many of the motivations and characteristics of Kylián’s work, they somehow just come across as pale imitations at best. In general the company performs well and have an athleticism that leaves you completely worn out just watching, although it’s clear that they’re young dancers and, as one would expect after only a year or two in the company, many of them haven’t completely internalized the demands of Kylián’s (or even Lightfoot León’s) vocabulary. Still, it was certainly an enjoyable evening and of a quality of choreography and performance we certainly don’t get to see in Boston often enough.

    Well, I didn’t mean for this to be a huge treatise, but as a Kylián fanboy I must proselytize to the masses. The main NDT troupe is actually going to be in Chicago this June 16 and 17 and will be performing works by Lightfoot León, Kylián, and Canadian choreographer Crystal Pite. NDT’s website is a bit hard to navigate: even though you can set the language to “English” in the top-right corner of the page it seems that not all the pages have translations and you can’t directly link to anything. But there are a fair number of video clips and if you dig a bit you can find some of Kylián’s works.

    Fortunately Kylián also seems to be decently well represented on DVD. The DVD of Black & White Ballets is unfortunately out of print (although Netflix has it), but Amazon has several other DVDs including one of performances from 1984 that’s actually going to be released this coming week. If you’re really looking for a copy of the Black & White Ballets and have a region-free DVD player, this Austrian website has that DVD as well as a 4-DVD boxed set. You can also find a load o’ clips on YouTube, including this excerpt from the fantastic “Fallen Angels”.

    Viva Kylián!

    David Byrne at the Wang


    W wanted to catch David Byrne’s “Songs of David Byrne and Brian Eno Tour”, but as he wasn’t playing in NYC proper she decided to see him in Boston instead of NJ. It’s a bit odd, and no doubt a sign of the shifting times, that Byrne is touring his newest album before it even hits stores. The album, called Everything That Happens Will Happen Today, is a collaboration with Brian Eno who apparently wrote all the music while Byrne supplied the vocal lines, lyrics, and vocals, and it’s been up as a stream on Byrne’s website for a while now. I’m not a huge Talking Heads fan and even less so of Byrne’s solo stuff, but the album is enjoyable (W loves it).

    As for the concert, the audience was a weird mix of middle-aged folk who were unashamed of their convulsive dance moves, fratty kids, and hipsters. The Wikipedia entry on the tour has loads of info including the setlist. This non-review at RollingStone.com includes a bit more info as well.

    As with most live music, I definitely enjoyed the show. The audience was definitely most responsive to old classics, like “Heaven” and “Once in a Lifetime”, and I was reminded of how great those songs are (particularly “Life in Wartime” which is just brilliant, not to mention chilling). But with the various permutations of three dancers (choreographed by three different groups), three backup singers (who also joined in on the dancing occasionally), two drummers, a keyboardist, a bassist, and Byrne on guitar and vocals, not to mention the well-designed lighting, there was enough variety to keep even those with short attention spans engaged throughout.

    Of the people I’ve talked to I’m the only one who liked the choreography at all. At first I thought I was going to hate it, though, due to its obvious cheesiness and the dancers’ looseness. But as it became apparent the dancers were well trained and not just picked off of the street, and as it became clearer that the cheesiness and goofiness were intentional and tongue in cheek, I enjoyed the quirkiness much more and found the choreography and its delivery to be appropriate to Byrne’s general demeanor. It was also rarely distracting and much better integrated into the overall onstage ensemble than some other shows I’ve seen (e.g. the Pet Shop Boys’ last tour). There were some nice moments near the end when Byrne joined in the dancing, and the closer, “Burning Down the House”, had the audience in various states of ecstacy.

    One complaint I had was that the vocals were mixed to accentuate Byrne’s already shouty delivery, which became more and more grating over time. But all in all it was a good show and made me want to watch the Stop Making Sense DVD again. Only a few dates left for this tour, though, and one thing you’ll be missing out on if you see them is the the Halloween atmosphere we enjoyed in Boston, which seemed nicely apropos for Byrne’s music as well.