Never stand still. Jacob’s Pillow

'Never stand still'. DVD cover

I finally got round to getting myself a copy of the DVD Never stand still: dancing at Jacob’s Pillow. And I’m so glad I did. What is particularly satisfying about this DVD documentary is that there is no promotion of a particular company or a person and no media hype. It’s simply about dance in its many and varied forms. ‘Dancing is direct and honest,’ says Mark Morris, one of the several illustrious interviewees appearing on Never stand still. And that’s what we get: direct, honest and simply beautiful dance.

A few sections particularly stood out for me, although others will have their own favourites I am sure. I especially enjoyed segments featuring Mark Morris and his dancers, perhaps because those works of his I have seen recently have not impressed me to any great extent—Beaux danced by San Francisco Ballet and Pacific from Houston Ballet, both of which I saw earlier this year, left me feeling underwhelmed. Never stand still has some lovely footage from Morris’ Italian Concerto and Love Song Waltzes and a brief look at a work called Falling Down Stairs, which Morris made in conjunction with cellist Yo-Yo Ma, whom we also see on the DVD. The excerpts from these works show quite clearly what Morris is best known for, his astonishing musicality. And Morris is a forthright and articulate speaker in his interview segments.

I was also especially taken with Shantala Shivalingappa, a solo Kuchipudi dancer born in Madras and raised in Paris. What an amazingly expressive body she has and how she uses it to her advantage. Every movement fills the space and she seems to linger a little at the high point of each movement before seamlessly continuing to the next.

Segements featuring Suzanne Farrell speaking about her transition from Balanchine ballerina to company director make interesting viewing as do excerpts from Balanchine ballets she has set on her own company. Natalia Magnicaballi, a principal with Suzanne Farrell Ballet, is startlingly good in the lead in Tzigane.

Gideon Obarzanek makes an appearance and there are excerpts from his work I want to dance better at parties performed by Chunky Move. I also loved the all too brief footage from Bournonville’s Napoli courtesy of the Royal Danish Ballet, along with a brief discussion of the Danes making their first appearance in the United States at the Pillow at the invitation of Ted Shawn. Then there’s Paul Taylor, Merce Cunningham, Judith Jamison, tap, vaudeville…so much more.

Interspersed throughout the contemporary footage is rare archival material showing some of the early performances at Jacob’s Pillow along with an underlying narrative about Shawn and the founding of the this renowned festival, an annual event held at Becket, Massachusetts, in the beautiful surroundings of the Berkshire Hills. If you’ve been there it will bring back wonderful memories not just of the variety of dancing on offer, but of that glorious outdoor stage, those barns and the spectacular surrounding countryside. If you have not had the good fortune to be there Never stand still will make you want to pack your bags for 2014.

Never stand still is so worth watching and is available online at the usual places for quite a small amount of money, even with our dollar falling against the greenback. Watch the trailer below.

Michelle Potter, 26 August 2013

The Rite of Spring. Houston Ballet

15 March, Brown Theater, Wortham Center, Houston, TX

Houston Ballet’s most recent program had the slightly confusing title of The Rite of Spring when in fact it was a triple bill in which Stanton Welch’s reimagining of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring was simply the final offering on the program. Nevertheless, it was probably the most anticipated of the three works on show although I’m not sure the extensive media build-up was entirely justified.

Welch dispensed with the narrative of human sacrifice that marked the original, infamous 1913 production of Rite of Spring. His production began in something of a primeval manner with a horde of Neanderthal-looking men whose fearsome arrival onstage caused a band of women to flee the stage, thus establishing a primitive, tribal background to the work. But from there the piece seemed to disintegrate into a mixture of cultural references culminating midway through in some kind of wedding or association between a man and a woman, who for the occasion was bound in white garments by her female friends. Just what happened to the couple later on was not clear to me other than that they danced with the rest of the tribe in a passionate frenzy of movement. The work seemed to peter out at the end.

Nor was it clear just exactly who theses tribes were. Costumes and make-up, which included heavy body markings, recalled Aztec ornamentation, a least to me, although there were times when the grass skirts of Polynesia and Melanesia seemed to surface. Heavy, black eye make-up sometimes made the dancers look like they were wearing sunglasses and at other times made their eyes look quite red as though they had been caught in a camera flash. I thought overall the costume/make-up design was considerably overwrought.

This stood in sharp contrast to two magnificent backcloths created from two paintings by Australian indigenous artist Rosella Namok. Namok’s works, ‘Stinging Rain’ and ‘Marks on the Sand, After King Tide’, were beautifully enlarged by Houston Ballet’s backstage team. They had a strong but simple message and it is curious that Welch, according to all press material and published interviews, chose her work because he thought it had a universal quality to it. Well that’s just what Welch’s production didn’t have. It lacked a simple, strong message and a clear sense of focus and, with its myriad of references to other cultures, couldn’t be called universal.

Choreographically Welch worked very closely with the music and there was scarcely a note that didn’t have a corresponding step. Everything looked very busy and as a result the Stravinsky score sounded quite different. To me it seemed to have lost its integrity.

Creating a new Rite of Spring will always bring out a very personal side of any choreographer it seems. The Welch production was not to my liking I’m afraid and I’m beginning to suspect that the versions that work best for me maintain the links to the original narrative or else diverge entirely from it. Welch was unable to establish a new, satisfying pathway or a link to the old one.

The evening opened with Mark Morris’ Pacific danced to Lou Harrison’s Trio for Violin, Cello and Piano. It seemed a little like a religious celebration possibly because of the constant use of uplifted  arms and the placing of the hands in front of the body, palms facing each other, as if holding an devotional item between the hands, or as if in a kind of open praying gesture. Morris’ choreography followed the impetus of the music but the constant bending to the floor as if in homage to something (the music?) also emphasised a kind of religiosity.

Edwaard Liang’s Murmuration, especially created on Houston Ballet and receiving its world premiere in this program, began with a single female dancer moving slowly down a diagonal, But just as one began to ponder the serenity with which she accomplished this walk, the stage was filled with dancers. They formed groups broke apart, met and left the stage in a flurry of movement that lasted for the entire first movement of Ezio Bosso’s Violin Concerto No. 1, Esoconcerto. As explained in a program note the title of the work refers to the intricate patterns formed by starlings during flight and the constantly changing choreographic groupings alluded to these patterns.

The second movement consisted of a series of duets which showed Liang’s emphasis on how bodies can work together as they intertwine and contort, and in so doing how they often appear as one. The men hold our attention in the third movement and for a while the women group themselves at the back and watch the men display their athleticism.

Murmuration is beautifully designed. The simple, grey costumes, designed by Liang and Houston Ballet’s wardrobe manager Laura Lynch, move beautifully with the dancers. The pale grey leotards with attached chiffon panels for the women, and the wide legged trousers softy gathered at the waist for the men enhance and never detract from the choreography. The background, which relies on Lisa J. Pinkham’s lighting for its strongest effect, changes from a simple grey-lit cloth in the first movement to what looks like a cascade of fireflies in the second. And as the third movement progresses the fireflies turn to small white shapes (of paper I guess) falling softly to the ground.

Murmuration deserved the ecstatic reaction it received from the audience at the performance I attended although there were times when I thought there was a little too much repetition in the choreography.

Michelle Potter, 18 March 2013

Guide to Strange Places, Beaux, The Rite of Spring. San Francisco Ballet

10 March 2013, War Memorial Opera House, San Francisco

In a year that has already seen various dance productions set to Stravinsky’s 100 year old Rite of Spring, and will see more as the year progresses, Yuri Possokhov’s new version for San Francisco Ballet will surely have to count as one of the most dramatic. Full of suspense and tension, the work looks to the subject matter of the original staging, that is the pagan ritual of human sacrifice, for its narrative line.

There was a distinctly Russian feel to the work. Costumes by Benjamin Pierce, with their largely red-toned on white designs (with a touch of spring green), recalled the Roerich originals, and the set, also by Pierce, consisted of a sloping platform upstage, OP side, with a mini-forest of poles representing silver birch trees. Again recalling the original, Possokhov’s choreography, which had the women on pointe, emphasised the down beat in the music and often used parallel or turned-in movements. There the similarities ended, however, as Possokhov made the story his own by emphasising the evil he saw as underlying the story of human sacrifice. His two elders, conjoined as a double personification of evil via a costume of stretch fabric and skeletal additions, drove the piece relentlessly to its inevitable and terrifying conclusion in which the birch trees played a major role as they were dragged down onto the body of the Chosen One.

What made this work especially mesmerising was the dancing of Possokhov’s tribe of people. They seemed sometimes sexually driven, sometimes just plain obsessed, sometimes filled with fanaticism. They slithered down the ramp. They seemed to side with the elders once the Chosen One had been selected, waving a hand in the air as if agreeing. They danced with the drive that characterises the music and occasionally played along with it by drumming sticks on the ground. It was absolutely absorbing from beginning to end and brilliantly performed.

The middle work was Beaux by Mark Morris, a subtitle for which might be ‘Boys Playing’ or even ‘Beautiful Boys Playing’. Choreographically there were moments that briefly reminded me of Cunningham, especially when the dancers’ upper body was held still and erect with arms stretched straight right through to the palms while the legs executed various movements. But mostly the movement was softly balletic with men partnering men in ways that are usually reserved for men partnering women. Some charming images remain—a line of men resembling cut-out dolls, a wave from one man to the rest of the cast and three men carrying another aloft and running with him across the stage.

Beaux. San Francisco Ballet
Artists of San Francisco Ballet in Mark Morris’ Beaux. Photo: © Erik Tomasson, 2013. Courtesy San Francisco Ballet

Set and costumes were by New York-based fashion designer Isaac Mizrahi. An oversized painting was hung upstage against a plain cloth. Its myriad of organic shapes in orange, lemon and shades of pink overlapped each other and the cloth was lit variously with similar colours. The nine gentlemen in the cast wore high-necked, sleeveless all-overs in similar colours to those of the painting and with similar shapes printed on them. It was a pleasant work but that’s all.

The program opened with Ashley Page’s Guide to Strange Places, which was premiered by San Francisco Ballet in 2012 and which is danced to music of the same name by John Adams. It seemed to be mostly about legs—especially women’s legs—and how and where they can extend, and how they can be manipulated by a partner. San Francisco Ballet’s dancers are beautifully athletic and so they accommodated the hyper-extensions very nicely. But to me it was uninspiring choreography. The fact that it was meant to refer to an old French book called (in English translation) A Black Guide to Mysterious Provence explained its strangeness to a certain extent. But even thinking along these lines couldn’t save it. It had so little to touch the soul.

My soul was touched by Possokhov’s Rite of Spring and I regret that I only had the opportunity to see one performance.

Michelle Potter, 14 March 2013

Featured image: Artists of San Francisco Ballet in Yuri Possokhov’s The Rite of Spring. Photo: © Erik Tomasson, 2013. Courtesy San Francisco Ballet