StillLife

“Still Life,” photo courtesy Raiford Rogers

Raiford Rogers Modern Ballet’s last local concert was two years ago, when the company presented the debut of “Still Life,” a stirring, three-movement work Rogers choreographed to an orchestral score by Zbynek Mateju. The Czech composer had proposed a collaboration with Rogers via email, and the two worked for more than a year without having a verbal conversation. Mateju sent Rogers excerpts and piano reductions of his symphony as he composed it, and Rogers began conceiving his choreographic ideas based on the music, sketching them out on paper, as he always does. The two finally met when Mateju came to California for the premiere at the Luckman Theater at Cal State LA, and in the fall of 2015, the ballet, which features a backdrop of Ed Evans’ photographs, was performed again in Czechoslovakia. (Here is the Los Angeles Times story I wrote about their collaboration.)

Now the two have made a second piece, “Joshua Tree,” which will have its world premiere on Aug. 12 at the Luckman. The Jacaranda Chamber Orchestra will accompany the dancers for “Joshua Tree” and a reprisal of “Still Life,” and the musicians, on their own, will  perform Stravinsky’s Concerto in D.

Keeping with the theme of conversing via email, I sent Rogers some questions to bring us up to date since the company’s last show in July 2015. Here are his replies.

Laura: So after the “Still Life” premiere, the ballet was performed in Europe. Can you tell me a little about that and any subsequent performances.

Raiford: In September 2015 “Still Life” opened the Golden Prague Festival at the National Theatre. The Gala concert marked the 70th Anniversary of the Prague Dance Conservatory. The ballet was performed by the Bohemia Ballet, which is a company consisting mostly of graduates of the conservatory.  I was asked to set “Still Life” by director Jaroslav Slavicky.  He was familiar with the music of Zbynek Mateju and was intrigued by our collaboration.  After watching a video of the L.A. performance, he invited me to Prague.

Laura: How did the collaboration for “Joshua Tree” come about, and what was your working method this time?

Raiford: Zbynek and I have stayed in contact ever since “Still Life.”  I am inspired, and challenged, by his music. We both share similar ideas in our approach to collaborative pieces. Last year, Zbynek proposed another, longer, collaborative piece.  After visiting Joshua Tree in his first visit to California, he suggested Joshua Tree Symphony.  Last year  Zbynek first started sending me small piano drafts of the piece. He finally sent the finished recording of the symphony around three months ago. 

Laura: Tell me a little about the new ballet. What’s the scenic design for this piece?

Raiford: Mateju’s new symphony (33 minutes) is complex and abstract. My goal as a choreographer in “Joshua Tree” is to uncover the inner narrative of the piece.

The dynamics, tempo, and mood of the music constantly shift. We are using 12 dancers. The set design is a projection of paintings by artist Michael Nava. (We’re using) a projected animation consisting of over 20 different consecutive stages of a painting created by Michael. The artwork slowly evolves over the course of the symphony. The costumes are simple blood red leotards by Yumiko.

There is no story or theme. The mood is reflective and mysterious. The purpose of the ballet is to explore the idea that dance itself can embody sound without the dogma of subjective interpretation. The intent of Joshua Tree is to visualize the imaginative idea of the score without superimposing an artificial narrative.

Click here for more information about the concert and to purchase tickets.

Symphony9

American Ballet Theatre has a lot to offer these days, and its one big, thrilling, ace in the hole is Alexei Ratmansky, its artist in residence. The choreographer—Russian-born and schooled, his skills expanded and fine-tuned in Denmark and Canada—treats the classical art form in an expansive way. He has a complete grounding in technique, of course, an appreciation of the theatrical toolbox, and the kind of curiosity an artist needs to break new ground. He does not reduce the classical palate in the name of self-serving innovation—he uses it all, thereby expanding it. Ratmansky does narrative, does abstraction, and philosophically and musically thematic works. He might be too classical for some. For me, he makes ballet vital and absolutely proves that it is a living art form, even for the 21st century.

The other thing he has done, and one of the reasons he has been such a boon for ABT, is he breathes life into a company that has always had dancer-talent to spare, but hasn’t effectively used them all. Because ABT is his home, Ratmansky knows these dancers and what they’re capable of. He casts them against type, so we see them  anew, too. Perhaps he even changes their own sense of self. In any event, the dancers onstage are always engaged, in the moment, and the ballets crackle with immediacy and the surprise of everyone pushing into the risky territory of truly live—rather than the safety net of the rote—performance.

This was the case Friday evening when the company danced an all-Ratmansky program at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion ( the closing show of the ’15-’16 season for Glorya Kaufman Presents Dance at the Music Center).  In “Symphony #9,” to Dmitri Shostakovich, it’s Stella Abrera who shows us something else, something other than her adagio side, with saucy allegro phrases, little beats and jumps on point (there’s an ingenious pairing with Herman Cornejo, who is executing a remarkable string of etrechat six). Abrera and Craig Salstein are the lead couple of the first movement, a jaunty section of clever spatial devices, the dancers split by gender into interacting but separates “troupes.” “Symphony #9” (music from 1945) is one third of a Shostakovich trilogy, in which Ratmansky explores his own relationship, and the composer’s, to their shared homeland.

The slow second movement is led by Russian ballerina Veronika Part and soloist Alexandre Hammoudi. Here, there is sadness and love, each dancer representing and giving physicality to the “voices” of the opening clarinet and other woodwind instruments. Humans always need one another in Ratmansky’s ballets. At the section’s end, the couple lies down in jerky spurts, achieving a prone position that suggests perhaps they’ve died, making me think of the circumstances of the symphony, completed after the end of  World War II’s devastation.

Those connections are suggested in the final section (three musical movements played without pause) as the ballet now has a beige backdrop by George Tsypin with archaic drawings, including uniformed men with banners and dirigibles. The dancing is once again bright, upward, and Cornejo takes the lead here, Ratmansky using his lead’s unique buoyancy. Conductor David LaMarche led the musicians in their own stellar performance. Keso Dekker’s darkly hued halter dresses for the women and sleeveless tops and slacks for the guys were simple yet elegant. (Photo above by Rosalie O’Connor, with a different cast.)

symposium1

“Serenade After Plato’s Symposium” is named after Leonard Bernstein’s five-part concerto (1954) used here as a score. This is a balletic discussion about among seven men (photo by Rosalie O’Connor) that will find additional resonance, I suppose, if you are well-versed in the source material—Plato’s “Symposium”—but which isn’t necessary to know for appreciation. Dancers Jeffrey Cirio, Marcelo Gomes, Blaine Hoven, Calvin Royal III, Gabe Stone Shayer, Daniil Simkin, and James Whiteside “banter” through gestures and steps, solos and groupings that telescope a broad range of feelings, from intimacy and companionship to painful solitude. Devon Teuscher materializes through a dramatically revealed opening in the backdrop and represents Diotima, a priestess who taught Socrates about the philosophy of love. Teuscher and Gomes embark on a duet of intense longing, and then she leaves. But the ballet ends with the men in a group, pointing urgently at Tuescher, who returns to the stage. She is Platonic ideal, or that which one aspires to.

Symposium2

Slower and more cerebral than “Symphony #9,” “Serenade” makes stunning soloists out of dancers more often relegated to the uniformity of group numbers. Tall and gracious, Royal (pictured above, photo by Rosalie O’Connor) has a luxurious smoothness and pliant body. Jeffrey Cirio showed off fleet timing and soaring leaps. Shayer entertains with an infectious wit (and smile) and  bubbly personality. There aren’t enough solo parts for all of ABT’s high-caliber dancers Ratmansky puts them on the playing field, even if he can’t single-handedly level it. Brad Fields has created an understated but brilliant lighting design, helped by Jerome Kaplan’s white square scrim, positioned overhead. Kaplan’s costumes are problematic, though, with loose fabric scraps that interfere with the dancers’ steps, dangerously so.

Boylson2Rosalie O'Connor

The evening closed with Ratmansky’s “Firebird,” a magical, sometimes frustrating, but ultimately triumphant version of the Stravinsky ballet from 1910. Because I’m running long here, I’ll link here to my Los Angeles Times review of its premiere in Orange County in 2012. We saw a different cast on Friday. Among the leads, Cassandra Trenary was new to me, a standout soloist with big acting chops. She played up all the hilarious notes Ratmansky has given to the ragtag enchanted Maidens. Roman Zhurbin reprised the part of Kaschei and he continues to amaze with his reptilian version of evil. Isabella Boylston (above, O’Connor photo) was the night’s Firebird, and she brought strength and mystery to a part that feels stunted, never gathering enough steam; there are too many stops and starts, and ungainly positions. Perhaps someone will master it, but Ratmansky will tinker further.

In the meantime, bask in the unearthly imagery created by Wendall Harrington’s projections, Simon Pastukh’s unearthly trees and other scenery, and Galina Solovyeva’s fairy-tale costumes (glad the women’s wigs are back). It is an eye-popping sight.

The program repeats tonight (July 9) at 7:30 p.m. and tomorrow (July 10) at 2 p.m. Click here for more information.

Liam Scarlett was in the corps de ballet at England’s Royal Ballet when he made his first major work, “Asphodel Meadows,” for his home company. The ballet was a big hit; the year was 2010. A string of important commissions followed from Miami City Ballet, New York City Ballet and American Ballet Theatre, among others. For a fellow in his 20s, his was an astoundingly precipitous rise.

Fast forward to Jan. 27, 2016. His second work for San Francisco Ballet premieres, and I saw it this past weekend at the War Memorial Opera House. Called “Fearful Symmetries,” it is set to John Adams’ orchestral work of the same name, which, with its pulsing beat and urgency, is a logical draw for choreographers; NYCB’s Peter Martins has his own “Fearful Symmetries.”

Scarlett approaches the music with a feral, throbbing lustfulness. The 16 dancers, clothed in skimpy black by costume designer Jon Morrell, stand face front and shimmy their shoulders with a dare-me-to confidence; or their backs are to us and they wiggle their butts. Or they face one another and rub against each other in the manner that would get you taken to the high school principal’s office.

I don’t want to mislead: Such provocations are a kind of a tease. The dancing is thrilling, full of bravura partnering and blatant classical athleticism. But it’s also simplistic. The dancers enter and exit mostly from the back. They appear and vanish into a cloak of black lighting (designs by David Finn), which intensifies the piece’s fever and mystery. Whole sections unroll in ordered group unison. At the end, as Adams’ music gets softer and slightly more gentle, a couple in balletic white (or pale blue) enters, and embarks on a brief, more traditional partnering adventure. What was this? The antithesis of the stalking gangs we’d just been watching? A duo who merely dreamed up the previous 25 minutes and we were witness to their thoughts?

“Fearful Symmetries” was the final ballet on a program that also included George Balanchine’s 1967 “Rubies,” one section from the full-length “Jewels,” and 1988’s “Drink to Me Only with Thine Eyes,” Mark Morris’ brilliant take on quirky, folk-like piano works by Virgil Thomson. The three ballets made for an amazing evening, even if you didn’t happen to like everything. Here were strong choreographic statements from different generations of dance-makers, to music by innovative composers, and performed with focus and power by first-rate dancers.

“Drink” is a clever, cerebral, and visually stunning piece that is a playful mind-game of joyful complexity (the antithesis of Scarlett’s piece). Led by Vanessa Zahorian, Taras Domitro and Sofiane Sylve, the dancers attacked “Rubies” with joyful and calibrated abandon. Both pieces were memorably served. Other standouts were Pascal Molat (stepping in for Gennadi Nedvigin in “Drink”), and in “Symmetries,” Joan Boada, Lorena Feijoo and Zahorian, again.

All I want to know is why aren’t Southern California’s presenters bringing San Francisco Ballet here to dance for us? We need them.

 

Is there a more fabulous pairing on the LA dance scene than whip-smart, oversized Andrew Wojtal  and the physically omniscient Guzmán Rosado in Richard Siegal’s “The New 45”? Naw, I doubt it.

Not quite a couple, but something closer to buddy-movie material, Wojtal and Rosado slip in and out of one another’s orbit, wiggling body parts in isolation in Siegal’s sweet and slapstick duet.

They are just two of the standout dancers in BodyTraffic, the Los Angeles-based contemporary dance company that, in truth, is comprised of standouts. BodyTraffic had a two-night gig at the Broad Stage Feb. 26-27 (I was there the 27th; sorry for the delayed report). These are individuals who can meld into unison, but whom you also recognize for their distinctive styles and strengths.

The section for Rosada and Wojtal was part of the charming, five-part “The New 45,”  to recordings of Clark Terry, Oscar Peterson and others. If you follow BodyTraffic, you know Siegal’s “o2joy,” another upturned-smile of a dance to jazz standards; it is a BodyTraffic signature piece. “The New 45,” according to the program, was made earlier than “o2joy,” but only now had its local premiere. The two share a similar aesthetic and format—a loose, floppy, full-body reaction to different musical numbers. Co-director Tina Finkelman Berkett’s opening solo, for example, was sort the dance equivalent of scat-singing with Berkett wiggling her hips and jerking her body. Siegal knows how to make the BodyTraffic dancers shine; they do comedy well.

They also do good serious, as they demonstrated in Hofesh Shechter’s “Dust,” another local premiere. “Dust” was a dystopian fable, or maybe Shechter’s pessimistically realistic view of mankind. Projections on the backdrop announced that “In the beginning there was darkness,” and later announcements wonder what is worth “living for,” “dying for,” and “fighting for.” The three men and three women are divided by gender and stalk the space hunched over, shaking their hands and quivering. Faces to the ground, they looked pained, afraid. The piece has a driving, syncopated energy, making the humans look small, caught in a dark destiny. One man pulls himself apart from the group and finds himself in a splash of light. It’s not salvation, but rather a momentary refuge, and he ends up turning out the light, as though it were a bulb.

Next was an excerpt of “A Trick of the Light,” a “preview” according to the program (and thus not ready for reviewing), of a piece by Joshua Peugh that is premiering this month in Vancouver, British Columbia (wish our program insert had Peugh’s bio). I’ll just say that what we saw was a tantalizing bit of gentle nostalgia about the search for love, or maybe just the right dance partner.

After all that, it was hard to focus on even a short excerpt of Victor Quijada’s “Once again, before you go.” This was a clever movement work of controlled athleticism. The BodyTraffic dancers are so talented, so physically exciting, that they can make nearly anything visually appealing. But even they can’t fill something empty with meaning. The night’s other outstanding performers were Brandon Alley, Melissa Bourkas, Michele Carter, Bynh Ho (a nice addition to the group), Lindsey Matheis, and Miguel Perez. Finally, I don’t know if Berkett’s BodyTraffic partner, Lillian Barbeito,  has given up performing for good, but I missed her, and seeing the two of them together.

   

Sadie Black, stretching for the sky, in "Left Unsaid." Photo by Anne Slattery

Sadie Black, stretching for the sky, in “Left Unsaid.” Photo by Anne Slattery

I think Melissa Barak is one of our most talented and skillful ballet choreographers, one of the increasingly rare dance-makers who still believes in classical dance as a medium of artistry.   

I also find that the qualities that attract me to her work—its orderliness, romance, effortless flow, and her insightful use of the ballet vocabulary, plus women in pointe shoes—can sometimes turn into a piece’s liabilities. The orderliness occasionally looks like an academic exercise. Clever and complex phrases of steps overwhelm her dancers, particularly in their efforts to stay in together. Music is her inspiration, and I applaud her ear and ability to translate aural colors, melody and rhythm into movement. I would also like to feel and see her kindle the passions and attributes of her own dancers more often.

But we can’t forget this is a young company, not even two years old; only three of the 14 dancers have been with Barak Ballet for more than a year. So this is all my way of saying that though not every piece on the company’s concert at the Broad Stage this weekend (Feb. 6 and 7) was delightful, the fledgling troupe is an exciting presence for Los Angeles.

Barak presented two ballets new to local audiences and my favorite was the evening’s closer, “Middle of Somewhere,” a piece for four couples that was originally created for Sacramento Ballet. It opened with flurries of activity followed by sudden stasis, echoing the recorded music by Italian composer Ezio Bosso, which raced along and then stopped. A couple circled the stage, exited and then was replaced by a new one, all with crisp directional shifts. A central duet for Jennifer Drake and the expressive Mauro Villanueva suggested the simultaneous push and pull of a relationship straining under stress. The final section was even faster with big jumps and sparkling energy, the dancers better able to stay in unison than earlier in the evening. “Middle of Somewhere” gives us fresh and carefree play.

From "Yueh Fei." Photo by Anne Slattery

From “Yueh Fei.” Photo by Anne Slattery

“Yueh Fei,” on the other hand, looked dated, and uncomfortably quaint in its attempts to convey a Chinese affect. The ballet takes its cues from a contemporary composition of the same name by composer Huang Ruo. The music combines Western and Asian musical traditions with a mix of  strings and percussion, melody, tricky rhythms, and dissonance. Barak tried a similar melding—flexed feet, bent knees, upturned hands, and the S-shaped body of Indian dance. But in this instance, the phrases Barak has chosen looked stiff and pasted onto the music, rather than an organic outgrowth of it. Monique L’Heureux’s speckled lighting added interest and mystery.

The dancers were divided into a trio, two couples and leading duo, but all the dancers seemed to struggle with the steps and they were placed awkwardly about the stage, which is unusual for Barak. At the very end, Villanueva, a kind of god in shimmering gold tunic, stepped forward, raised a hand and then dramatically clenched his fist. With a sweeping arm, he threw down whatever it was he had “caught,” and with that simple gesture piqued my interest in some suggested magical ritual. The dancers spiraled outward from a clump, crouched in a circle surrounding Villanueva, and the piece was over, ending just at the spot where I became interested.

Barak invited Nicolo Fonte, the choreographer in residence at Salt Lake City’s Ballet West, to stage his 2003 piece “Left Unsaid” for her dancers. Set to a  piece (unidentified) by J.S. Bach, “Left Unsaid” was a satisfying counterpoint to Barak’s lighter style. Fonte has a sensual, stretched vocabulary, with the dancers’ lower bodies grounded into the stage. Three men, in black sport coats and trousers, danced with acute longing with a shifting trio of women, clad in sophisticated whitish-blue leotards (the handsome costumes by Kathy Scoggins).

Black and David Kim. Photo by Anne Slattery

Sadie Black and David Kim. Photo by Anne Slattery

The highlight was a duet for the passionate David Kim and fearless Sadie Black. The two moved progressively closer together on a diagonal, while Jesse Campbell and Evan Swenson circled them slowly, almost ominously. Black folding chairs were the not-very-original prop pieces, but I didn’t mind so much because I was so taken with the intensity of the dancing. Another nice work for the Barak repertory.

Here are a few more details about Trey McIntyre Project’s new, not-yet-titled ballet, which is being co-commissioned by the Segerstrom Center for the Arts and will be performed on the outdoor Plaza, Nov. 23-25.  In a prepared statement, McIntyre said the piece “will further examine the performer/audience relationship and seek to turn inside-out some of that traditional relationship.”

Does that mean the audience will be a part of this piece? We don’t know.

But what we do know is the new work will have photographic and video elements, the latter created by Andrea Lauer, and costumes by Peregrine Honig. TMP‘s 10 dancers will be joined by three from the Korean National Contemporary Dance Company: An Lee Chang, Tae Hee Kim and So Jin Lee. This cultural exchange began over the summer when TMP toured four Asian countries on a U.S. State Department cultural initiative. The Americans visited different contemporary troupes in each country, and McIntyre eventually selected the two-year-old Korean company, South Korea’s first contemporary dance troupe, as his partner for this unusual collaboration. TMP will appear Nov. 14 at the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Next Wave Festival (which is producing the exchange program), before coming to Costa Mesa. Single tickets for the Segerstrom Center performances go on sale Oct. 21.

For the past three weeks, Alonzo King’s LINES Ballet and Hubbard Street Dance Chicago, now led by Glenn Edgerton, have been in rehearsal in the dance studios at UCI. King is making a new piece for both companies. This is an unprecedented, and to my mind, potentially very exciting collaboration. King’s still-untitled ballet will have its premiere in Berkeley in February and the two companies will perform it, plus their own singular repertory, June 21-23, 2013 at the LA Music Center.  (Read my previous post about the Music Center’s 2012-2013 dance series.)

Before returning to their homes in San Francisco and the Windy City, respectively, they gave an informal showing of this work-in-progress at UCI’s Claire Trevor Theatre Friday and Saturday (tonight, Sept. 15). Afterward, King and Edgerton came out onstage and took questions from the audience, moderated by Jodie Gates, who is an associate professor of dance at UCI. Gates was a colleague-dancer with Edgerton at the Joffrey Ballet 20 years ago and she is also the artistic director of the Laguna Dance Festival, so she presented them at the just-concluded festival. (My LA Times review is here.) Their connections with King go back a long way; King came to the Joffrey in the mid-80s to create a piece that featured Gates.

I went to Friday’s informal showing. I can’t talk about the new piece because it’s unfinished and is not ready to be reviewed, or even discussed. But I do want to pass along some of the comments King and Edgerton made afterward because they were quite interesting. The back story for the collaboration goes like this: Edgerton was at the LINES studio overseeing an audition for the Hubbard Street summer intensive (not sure when this was). He wandered into the sudio next door where King was working with his dancers. King was “pulling on the dancers to go further,” Edgerton said. The working experience was so unique, so special, that Edgerton “wanted my dancers to experience that.

“It happened very naively, very simply.”

Both directors acknowledged that their dancers, though similarly trained, are different types and have different movement styles. The LINES dancers are like “Giacometti sculptures and mine are very earthy,” Edgerton summarized. Still, King was eager to go forward with this artistic experiment. They ended up at UCI, because it seemed like a good idea to work on “neutral ground” and a university setting was the perfect solution. Edgerton called Gates and she enthusiastically jumped on it. (As an aside, this has been a win-win situation for all three organizations, so much so that it would seem to be something that university dance departments should cultivate. The students have had the opportunity to work with the professionals, the companies had first-rate facilities and, perhaps most important, the works-in-progress performance gave the artistic directors the chance to see the piece onstage, a most precious and rare opportunity among dance companies, which do not have their own theaters.)

King did not talk about his inspiration for this particular work, but he is an enjoyable, easy-going speaker. He spews forth little pearls of wisdom. An unassuming man with a jovial manner and twinkling eyes, King said he sees his role as dance-maker this way: “We’re here to create something beautiful because that’s what we do. [We make dances] to give something to humanity.”

The creative impetus comes from many places he said — music, nature, metaphors, movement. “I could have millions of ideas in my head, but without them [the dancers] there would be no fruition.”

Gates asked him what it was like to work with the men and women of Hubbard Street, since he didn’t know them as well as his own dancers.

“I think that I don’t know anybody well at all. But when you’re in a room and you’re vulnerable I know you…. We hold onto training, identification. So when those things drop, I can see you.”

He wants his works to be clear, and precise “construction” is key. But King works a lot with metaphor and the dancers’ belief in those metaphors and their interpretation of the movement is key to the pieces not becoming muddied:

“If the idea is about water, let’s say, and there’s millions of metaphors of water, if the dancer leaves that idea and starts thinking of a solid, they’ve lost track of the dance. You’re definitely working with their [the dancers] minds and hearts.”

When asked what advice he would give to emerging choreographers, he suggested observing the construction of anything and everything — nature, buildings, even individual lives. Notice what works and what doesn’t and ask why that is. “Ask yourself, ‘Who am I?’  If you have something to say” in a dance, you need to know who you are and what makes you unique. Then you will make your own unique work, and not copy anyone else’s work, he said.

So what’s next? The original plan called for only two more joint rehearsals before the premiere on Feb. 1, 2013 at Cal Performances. Both men shook their heads at that challenge.

“Now that we see how integrated [the dancers are in the piece], we go back to the drawing board and see what we can do,” Edgerton said.

And how does King know when a new piece is done, he was asked.

“You stick in a thermometer,” he said, smiling sweetly.