Wednesday, October 18, 2017

NEW@Graham: Celebrating a decade of "Lamentation Variations"

Lament not. Janet Eilber plans to keep dreaming up ways to revivify America's longest-running dance troupe, the Martha Graham Dance Company, and Graham's famed solo, Lamentations, continues to show the way.

Last evening, the company celebrated the 10th year of Lamentation Variations, its unusual commissioning project launched in 2007 as artistic director Eilber noticed that the season's opening night would fall on the anniversary of 9/11. Since then, Eilber has invited dancemakers, representing a diversity of aesthetic approaches, to respond to or re-imagine the Graham solo. So, Yes to Judson genius Yvonne Rainer rethinking Lamentation or tap genius Michelle Dorrance remixing it!

The commissioned artists pledge fidelity, more or less, to a set of spartan rules limiting length (no longer than Graham's four minutes), rehearsal time (10 hours tops) and sets (absolutely none allowed). Even given these restrictions, each has managed to re-envision the original in signature ways--for instance, turning the spare, tense, wrenching angularity of Graham's grieving into something eerily luxurious for soloist Katherine Crockett (Richard Move, 2007), bringing the entire company onstage (Larry Keigwin, 2007), turning the solo into an interracial male duet (Kyle Abraham, 2015) or teaching Memphis Jookin to a cluster of nine young Grahamites (Lil Buck, 2017).

"The question became 'How to put new choreography on the stage next to Graham classics," said Eilber as she opened the evening in the company's studio at Westbeth, former home of Merce Cunningham's troupe. "Would I get run out of town?" Ultimately, though, she found that introducing new work helped audiences "appreciate Martha Graham more and remember what a radical she was."

A radical, indeed. Throughout these opening remarks, an early 1940s video of Graham dancing Lamentation played behind and loomed over Eilber, proving her correct. Graham worked that solo. Her concept and vision for it, along with her fierce performance, remain unmatched. Last evening's program featured Variations by Abraham, Keigwin, Gwen Welliver (preparing for a 2018 Tallahassee premiere), Bulareyaung Pagarlava as well as Lil Buck's New York premiere. Each offered elements of interest...and yet...and yet...Graham remains queen.

Lamentation Variations concludes this evening with another informal toast and studio showing at 7pm, featuring Variations by Aszure Barton, Doug Varone, Richard Move, Larry Keigwin and Lil Buck. Click here for information and ticketing.

Martha Graham Studio Theater
Westbeth, 55 Bethune Street (11th Floor), Manhattan

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Saturday, October 14, 2017

Tap artist Kazu Kumagai and friends rock 92Y

92Y's Dig Dance series hit big last night with Kazu Kumagai: HEAR/HEAR, an intimate yet full-on performance by the 2016 Bessie-winning Kumagai and friends in the Y's Buttenweiser Hall. The show featured Kumagai's talents in tap, music and poetry, and he was accompanied by bass player Alex Blake, guitarist Masa Shimizu and singer, Sabrina Clery, whose heartbreaking voice always leaves me wanting to hear more of it. Special guest Ted Louis Levy--multiple award winner and nominee for work on Broadway and television--turned up the heat with his amusing stories, unique jazz vocals and smooth dancing.

Kumagai is anything but smooth in intent or execution, but even his tuning up on the wood platforms sounded good. Brushing the wood, pecking at it with one knee locked, going quieter, he's a man always in search of the right sounds to channel his concerns. He'll find it with the inside edge of a foot, or drop his heels with thwacks you feel like repeated jolts to the chest, or fire off a steady fusillade of beats while Shimizu weaves around him. While he might pivot to one or another direction once in a long while, maybe facing the musician with whom he's dialoguing, he tends to root himself somewhere on the wood and drill it...earnestly. The relative stationary nature of his dancing underscores his role as musician playing the instrument of tap against surface. We can appreciate, even more, what he's doing to create sound. A lot of power in his game, but his technical control can also takes us to quiet, thoughtful places.

So much of his poetry is about searching--for the authentic self, for someone who can be there for one's search for the self, for authentic expression that sometimes takes an artist to the edge. ("I want to know if you'll stand in the center of the fire with me and not shrink back.") He's a man on a mission and one with much on his mind.

Levy's sunnier, funnier, Mr. Show Biz approach stands in contrast, but the two guys together? They can take it from delicate trading of tiny gestures on the wood all the way to thunder, Levy bringing out the spark and charm and, yes, the aggression in Kumagai.

"I'm not an improvisationalist," the not-even-nearly-winded Levy said afterwards, "But you made me look good!" Yes. He did.

It was nice to hear Levy invoke tap icons like Chuck Green, Buster Brown and Dianne Walker in his solo as he danced away as if it were the most natural thing in the world to teach an audience while beguiling them. I loved his unconventional vocalizing of "Nature Boy," the classic song first recorded and most associated with Nat King Cole, and Marvin Gaye's "Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler)" which offered the two men--one Black, the other forever revering the Black mentors in his life--the perfect opportunity to take a knee.

If you were not in the house last night, I hope you already have your ticket for tonight. For this evening's show, Kumagai will be joined by acclaimed tap artist, educator and mentor Brenda Bufalino.

Kazu Kumagai: HEAR/HEAR concludes with an 8pm show tonight.  For information and tickets, click here.

92Y (Buttenweiser Hall)
Lexington Avenue at 92nd Street
, Manhattan

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New video series on Black Philadelphians in ballet

Portraits of Black ballerinas
From top:
Judith Jamison, Delores Browne and Joan Myers Brown
(photos: Eva Mueller)

We are still like unicorns, and I wanted to make the invisible visible.
Theresa Ruth Howard, keynote address, Dutch National Ballet's Positioning Ballet Conference 2017

Theresa Ruth Howard--founder of MoBBallet, dedicated to the reinstatement and preservation of the history of Black artists in ballet--announces the launching of a video documentary series on its website. Funded by a $50,000 grant from the Knight Foundation, And Still They Rose: The Legacy of Black Philadelphians in Ballet will feature legendary Judith Jamison, Joan Myers Brown (Philadanco) and Delores Browne (Ballet Americana/New York Negro Ballet) discussing their early training and barrier-breaking experiences in the field. To view the series, starting October 22, click here.

Watch an excerpt:

On Saturday, October 28, join Howard for a panel with Joan Myers Brown, Delores Browne and current Black ballet performers at Philadelphia's The Painted Bride Center (3-5pm). There will also be an exhibition of Eva Mueller's portraits of Black ballet dancers. This event is free or by donation with an RSVP here. To visit the Facebook event page, click here. For directions to The Painted Bride Center, click here.

Watch Theresa Ruth Howard's excellent keynote address on diversity issues in ballet at the Dutch National Ballet's Positioning Ballet Conference (Amsterdam, February 2017).  Click here.

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Friday, October 13, 2017

Shared Evening: Jasmine Hearn and Mariana Valencia

This weekend, Danspace Project presents shared evenings of work
by dance artists Jasmine Hearn (above) and Mariana Valencia (below).
(photos: Ian Douglas)

Maybe this Earth is a bed where each of us rests on the threshold of a dream or all of us can dream collectively. Sitting down to take in this spell by Jasmine Hearn (shook at Danspace Project) means drawing near a fire to hear old, passed-down stories, but the fire is invisible, the stories and songs muffled, the images shadowy, blurry. It might not matter if you can't pick up distinct words, follow sentences; if a song is made up of one word that trails off in the air or is simple sounds intoned in a flutey voice. It calls you to take part in the making.

The costumes are equally indistinct, cobbled together as if by a child who had leafed through pages of history, falling asleep atop them, dreaming and dreaming. The fabric--how unruly, voluminous, billowing, ennobling...or thrown together with function if not sense. The movements--how softly fluid, swirly, simple, repetitive, shifting, un-insistent, graceful, agile (Hearn, Angie Pittman, Dominica Greene...these three and also the traces of all who made this, continue to make this, one spectre floating into the other....) You see what you will see. You dream what you will dream, unfolding a chiffon dream engulfing altar steps like sea foam slipping over a shoreline.
"This is the answer to my 7 year old self who casted spells in her bathtub...spells that dripped honey, affirmation, and the belief that magic lives in the marrow of our bones."

"I am looking to evoke a realm, a place, a time, a memory when/where black women are not doubted."
-- Jasmine Hearn
Concept and direction: Jasmine Hearn
Choreography and performance: Maria Bauman, Kayla Farrish, Dominica Greene, Jasmine Hearn, Catherine Kirk and Angie Pittman
Costumes made in collaboration with Athena Kokoronis of Domestic Performance Agency
Sound: Jasmine Hearn (includes a rework of Sylvan Esso's Die Young)
Video: Alisha B. Wormsley
Lighting: Kathy Kaufmann

Scene from shook
Angie Pittman (at left) and Dominica Greene (center)
with Hearn
(photo: Ian Douglas)
Mariana Valencia performs Yugoslavia
(photo: Ian Douglas)

"What are we if we are together but not related?"

In her solo, YugoslaviaMariana Valencia asks this question, specifically referring to her relationship to her Polish stepfather (and, I guess, in a way, her Polish stepfather's relationship to her Guatemalan mom).

One word that recurs in the work is blend. Spoken with Valencia's characteristic clarity and evenness, the word blend has its own physical pose. She hits it, and you watch it...for a few seconds. You might not understand it, but you can see it and recognize it when it comes around again. You learn a piece of movement language by immersive process.

Yugoslavia finds Valencia blending a lengthy monologue into movement in a way that seals any divide between verbal language and dance. That seems to work, although at least one person I spoke with afterwards found the piece to be not very dance-y. To me, it was a poetic marathon, a work of impressive endurance and grace under the pressure to tell a story with a lot of unexpected and seemingly unrelated moving parts and somehow make them hold together. Or not. I think, mostly, not.

At least, not for me. For me, they stayed demarcated, and that seemed okay. Or more than okay. That seemed the right thing.
In Yugoslavia, I intersect the First World, the Second World, the countryside, the imaginary plane and vampires. Factual, humorous, and grave observations depict my herstorical frame,” writes Valencia. With Yugoslavia, “I’m in search of the spiritual, in observation of the physical, and in awe of the artificial.” 
See, those commas and "ands" work well, and the way Valencia speaks shows you one thing after another. And that seems the right thing. More juxtaposition than blend. Blend might be an aspiration. Or not.

Writing about her inspiration for the piece, Valencia says, "visiting the Balkans (Serbia and Macedonia) has awakened my lineage through Slavic languages. I'll be tuning into identities that are landless, homeless, nameless, wandering, and exiled." In other words, not so blended.

Mention of the Balkans also brings me to that word derived from their situation--Balkanization, fragmentation often with tense and hostile juxtaposition of the separate entities. And then there's the discomfort of a young girl, Valencia, trying to sing Leonard Cohen lyrics with her dad without revealing her pleasure in the racy verses. Blending by omission? There's a single painting--just one--by her dad on a tripod in all of St. Mark's roomy space. And something about vampires because, we're told, the word vampire originates in the Serbian language. A lot of thingy things.

I watched Valencia take sheets of raspberry red construction paper and cut them into letters that she then arranged on the floor. I'm not particularly good with cutting paper with any degree of accuracy. But, apparently, she is. She went right to it, and the letters turned out well-shaped. They looked like themselves and like nothing else.

Choreography, script, costume, set and performance: Mariana Valencia
Original score: Mariana Valencia
Lighting design: Kathy Kaufmann

Shared Evening: Jasmine Hearn & Mariana Valencia continues tonight and tomorrow with performances at 8pm. No late seating. For information and tickets, click here.

Danspace Project
St. Mark's Church-in-the-Bowery
131 East 10th Street (at Second Avenue), Manhattan

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