It’s been a couple of years since I’ve seen Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo. And based on Friday night’s program at The Egg in Albany, it seems that the all-male, cross-dressing ensemble is having an identity crisis.
The ensemble known for its silly, slapstick parodies of classic ballets danced by men with equally amusing stage names is now moving away from its roots – presenting itself as a serious contender in the rigorous art of ballet.
Perhaps it’s the sign of the times. Men wearing tutus and tiara and dancing their hearts out en pointe is not so absurd or hilarious anymore. Or maybe the company’s Artistic Director Tory Dobrin wants to show the world that in order to spoof “Swan Lake,” a dancer must be capable of dancing it full out.
Whatever the reason, the Trocks, as they are fondly referred to, are showing off their technique as much as they are their comic timing. The ensemble juxtaposed its knockabout staple “Swan Lake” alongside a mostly dignified rendering of George Balanchine’s “Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux,” a challenging ballet for even the world’s greatest dancers. In these more sober presentations, including the mostly straight up dancing of the variations in “Raymonda’s Wedding,” leaves audiences a little bewildered – is this straight or satire?
Though inconsistent, the program was delightful. But I preferred the comedy, probably because that is what I expected. And besides, it’s always a joy to laugh.
There were plenty in “Swan Lake,” especially with the gaggle of swans who never quite achieve synchronicity. The laughter was also generous for “The Dying Swan,” a signature solo for all ballerinas. As danced by Olga Supphozova (aka Robert Cartier), “The Dying Swan” is an over-the-top melodrama for a creaky aging prima who seeks endless applause.
Both swan ballets have been in the 40-something Trocks’ repertory since its earliest days. And both obviously deserve to remain.
Interestingly, ripping away ballet’s pretensions inspires more people to go. The Egg, I was also happy to see, was full – not something that happens often with dance there or anywhere else. Maybe the lesson here is that “always leave them laughing” could be the antidote for anemic ticket sales for ballet.
But like the Trocks, I too find it hard to balance the love of laughter with devotion to the art. Both deserve respect – but sometimes you have to decide which side you are on.
No ballet endures like “Swan Lake.” The love story between a young, troubled prince and a bewitched, melancholy swan princess is often viewed as classical ballet’s cliché. But to the devotees, like me, a well-done “Swan Lake” is nothing short of miraculous.
Moscow Festival Ballet didn’t quite meet the miraculous threshold. But the touring company, now making its way across North America, did offer a pleasing rendition of the iconic ballet on Thursday night at Proctors.
The dancing, though not exceptional, was enough for the audience to suspend reality and accept the premise of the fairy tale. And the production values were gracefully becoming – offering a lake that shimmered and a palace that glowed.
But what sets my heart aflutter is the Tchaikovsky score. The composition, delicate melodies juxtaposed to the crashing crescendos, is what sweeps up an audience to believe that a young man under pressure to marry would find a true love with a large bird.
Artistic Director Sergei Radchenko’s handling of the score threatened to toppled the whole production. He chopped it up to accommodate American audiences who don’t want to sit through a three-hour ballet. That’s fine with me – but the snips were obvious.
Unfortunately, Moscow Festival Ballet does not have the luxury of an orchestra. A trimmed the score can go unnoticed without glitches at the hands of a skillful music director/conductor.
But the more annoying thing was stopping the music for the endless bows the dancers take during the ballet. This was most upsetting during the seductive black swan pas de deux. The music is so bold that the silences for Maria Sokolnikova’s acknowledge of the audience were jarring. Eventually the music resumed, mid-passage without missing a note. And the interrupted audience is expected to return and be tantalized.
The mid-ballet bow is a Russian thing that I have come to accept. But I like the American way better – where applause is spontaneous, forcing the action to stop because the audience is overcome with awe and admiration.
There is one more Russian – or I should say Soviet -- remnant that was interesting to note. The ending of this “Swan Lake” is a happy one. Rather than the prince and the swan killing themselves, which is the original final scene before the curtain drops, in Moscow Festival Ballet’s “Swan Lake,” the great love between the two overcame the sorcerer who has enslaved the swan princess. Thus, they live happily ever after.
During the Soviet era, ballet was supposed to uplift the people – therefore no sad endings. I’ll know when the old regime’s grip on ballet is over when Russians return to the original.
Regardless, Moscow Festival Ballet’s “Swan Lake” was a delight, with many of the dancers being singular – again the court jester whose endless tricks with jumps and turns astonished. Sadly, he goes unnamed in the program.
The most glorious dancers were not in the lead roles, but were relegated to soloists and corps de ballet. Despite it all, this “Swan Lake” reminded everyone why the ballet has survived more than a century – it remains the best of the best.
Momix dancers in "Sundance," one of 17 sections in "Opus Cactus"
On a cold winter night at The Egg, an ensemble of 10 dancer/acrobats/illusionist offered a welcomed respite with an ode to desert. “Opus Cactus” is yet another creation from the animated imagination of Moses Pendleton. As seen on Friday night, it warmed with its reds and yellows, delighted with is its imagery and met all expectations -- once again, proving Momix makes magic.
Like many of Momix’s evening-length formulations, the 2001 “Opus Cactus” takes the audience on a journey to explore every aspect of the subject at hand. As “Opus Cactus” is a southwest safari, the audience experiences its flora and fauna with masterful imagery that only Pendleton’s band of athletic artists could perform.
Take for example, the pole dances. In the first, three men, each handling their own long poles, launch off their rods to pose upside down in midair, again and again and again. In the second pole dance, two women straddle poles held aloft. Upright, they hold onto the pole by their inner thighs, and are then spun like pinwheels. It’s all muscle, but it is done with such fluidity and speed, that it appears easy. And it was also done with an eye for detail – line and the aesthetics. Ultimately, audiences are not just marveled by the feat, they are marveled by the beauty.
That is the thing. “Opus Cactus” is beautiful even in its most simple gestures. Consider the opening – “Desert Storm.” On a darkened stage, invisible dancers handle tumbling neon balls that appear like electric tumbleweeds. As they blow off and away, the curtain rises on a single dancer who represents a cactus wren. Seen only in silhouette against a glowing orange backdrop, she undulates her body like a bird ruffling its feathers. She bobs her head like a pecking lark and then takes flight, her arms and legs elevated to look like she is soaring.
These gorgeous moments tumble onto the stage, one after another. There is the “Ostrich of the Imagination” in which the women and men unite as one creature – she, the head and chest of the large, graceful bird, and he, the rump and the legs. Then there is the “Sidewinder” dance in which the women are whirling dervishes adorned with the poisonous snake followed by the gila monster, the venomous lizard, a conglomerate of four men writhing menacingly along the length of the floor.
There are many humorous moments too, such as when the dancer who becomes a lizard using his bottom as its head and the upside down heads, without bodies, singing along with Mickey Hart’s “Pigs in Space.”
Much of Momix’s wizardry is found in Pendleton’s astute selection of music from Adam Plack, Brian Eno and Transglobal Underground. It’s a combination of Native American, African to Bollywood sounds that are all hypnotic, elevating the sense and spurring the audience to buy into the amazing visuals.
It ends with “First Contact,” a glorious finale with women hanging from swings gliding over the audience as a giant puppet with a skeleton head bobs along. It was an exquisite end to a dazzling performance.
Jodi Melnick, left, with Elena Demyanenko
Despite 40-plus years of watching dance, I’m usually perplexed by the works shown at EMPAC. I almost always walk away wondering “what the heck was that all about.” But I also find that these dances are imprinted in my memory. A naked man crawling into spaces too small for his frame, Frankenstein-like figures screaming in the faces and throwing balls at the audience and a quiet soloist whose repetitive hum was to lull the spectators to sleep.
What these pieces have in common is exploration with technology. And on Saturday afternoon, dancer/choreographer Elena Demyanenko and filmmaker Erika Mijlin once again fulfilled EMPAC’s reputation to baffle and provoke by offering a world premiere that resonates on a personal and societal plane.
Titled “echo/archive,” the dance with Demyanenko, Eva Karczag, Jodi Melnick and Dana Reitz uses moving cameras, screens, sounds and lights to amplifie and/or obscure. Through a series of solos and duets, the piece enlarges the movement with technology, showing angles the audience would not naturally see, by projecting them on slowly moving screens. Sometimes the images are doubled or are multiplied to infinity. At other times, the projections play with double exposures – two dancers not together on stage, but together on screen.
Still, at other moments, the stage is so dark, that only the screen – usually just a square of color like orange or blue – is the only thing that illuminates them. The point is that the screens serve to remind us that everything we do has a ripple effect, and that those ripples are memorialized in our being. They are there even when we can’t see them, even when we are not there.
But that is just the framework. “echo/archive” is really about relationships – the relationships between Demyanenko with Karczag, Melnick and Reitz. And how they are echoed and archived.
Before I go there, I want to applaud Demyanenko, a former Trisha Brown dancer, for pulling in Karczag, Melnick and Reitz for her work. These are three mature dancers with decades in the field of modern dance. They have always been explorers and it was wonderful to see them again. And while Demyanenko is younger, it’s clear that the trio challenges her physically.
With Karczag (also a former Brown dancer), Demyanenko is like a Tai Chi student, freeze-framing moments with Karczag’s solid but liquid support. These two are one like mother and child or master and mentor. But in the end, they face each other as if Demyanenko is fit to stand on her own.
Melnick, on the other hand, is a fireball. She alone commands the space as she kicks and spins slicing the space at astonishing speeds. With Demyanenko, the two are like a puzzle that snaps together and then springs apart. Melnick is the launch Demyanenko earns.
The ending with Reitz is more mysterious. Reitz floats, her arms and hand gestures are delicate and graceful. The two come together in an ever-shifting landscape of light that continually reveals and cloaks them.
As the scenarios unfold, the ubiquitous screens fade. What this says about aftereffects of our actions and relationships is uncertain? Maybe it’s a judgment on our screened obsessed society.
Regardless, in the end, Demyanenko is at peace; the audience, still pondering.
Bridgman|Packer Dance uses video technology to enhance their dancing's impact
There are only two of them, but when Bridgman|Packer Dance take the stage, they appear to be a multitude.
That’s because the duet, a married couple, are masters of video technology. Like many choreographers, they use it to create an every shifting scene. But that’s just for starters. They project moving images onto their costumes and skin, which confuses the real with the imaginary. The video also multiplies their presence into infinity. It adds physical and emotional depth to their dances because they make seen what most dancers and dances can only imply.
This delightful duo, no strangers to the Capital Region, made a stop on Friday night at The Egg. They performed two of their best – “Under the Skin” and “Remembering What Never Happened.”
The opening piece, to a pulsating electronic jazz piece by Ken Field, starts off frenetic. While watching projected letters, numbers and symbols rise onto a backdrop, Art Bridgman would suddenly appear in the center of it all. And then so too would Myrna Packer. And then they would suddenly disappear or did they? Their real and video images of themselves combined into a fascinating stew that left viewers constantly guessing.
When they were together, they engaged in what they were best known to do – their own brand of contact improvisation. They would run at each other, collide and pose – Packer often upside down – a leg or arm shooting skyward. But there were many fluid moments where they embrace and glide as smoothly as ballroom waltzer.
Yet they are also solid soloists whose musings, which could be as simple as a running dash or a collapse to the floor, enchant because they are doubled, tripled, quadrupled, etc.
“Remembering What Never Happened,” with a variety of music, slows down the pace and explores the fallibility of memory. Cast into a rocky landscape, the two toss and tumble, trying to escape what appears to be a dangerous descent.
The music, ranging from Maurice Ravel to Etta Baker, is overlaid with echoing voices speaking of the exploit. It feels mysterious, risky and beautiful. And really, it couldn’t be so without the video – the third important partner in this collaboration between technology and bodies.
Kudos are due to Bridgman|Packer Dance video designers Peter Bobrow and Jim Monroe in “Under the Skin” and technology designer Phillip Gulley in “Remembering What Never Happened.” They make magic.
Do you know what a Kegel is?
That was the first thing Sara Juli asked her Skidmore College audience on Saturday night. And then she proceeded to demonstrate in her laugh-out-loud one-woman show, “Tense Vagina: an actual diagnosis.”
A Kegel for those who didn’t know, myself included, is an exercise to strengthen the pelvic muscles to avoid incontinence. It’s a condition Juli’s character suffers from, a symptom of her tense or spastic vagina.
Yet who could blame her for having a tense vagina – she’s a working mom.
The set was strewn with objects that scream Mommy -- a dollhouse, a Barbie karaoke machine and various stuff toys. And like the mom she is, Juli started by laying down rules of behavior while passing out snacks.
“You can have as many as you want, but you can have no more than two snacks, two snacks. After you are done, you have to keep your wrapper, keep your wrapper and throw it out later. If you can’t keep your wrapper, give it to the person sitting next to you. If they don’t want it, come up here to the garbage I placed here. I placed it here for you. I’m not going around picking up after you. If I see one fucking goldfish on the floor,” she said in a rapid-fire patter like a frazzled mom talking to a toddler.
The show was a mix of maniac vocalizations, pelvic floor exercises and crazy audience interactions. She dashed about the crowd, combing hair, blowing a nose and snuggling. The audience members were her children whom she nurtured as much as she scolded.
At one point, her Kegel exercises required the use of a vibrator, which she has the audience pass around.
“Don’t worry, I washed it before the show,” she said. “Don’t stick it in your ear.”
As audience members handed it around, giggling, she reluctantly took the rest of us through the step-by-step medical instructions for the vibrator. It was hysterical.
She then set up a garden of vibrators – of all shapes and colors – that hummed along as she tended them.
Juli’s plight was comically enhanced by her facile facial expressions and her 1950s mom apparel – a circle skirt with tulle petticoat dressed with heels and apron. Imagine Donna Reed with kids screaming “Mommy” a 100 times a day while “Farmer in the Dell” plays over and over in her mind as she tries to do deep breathing exercises on the floor.
While there was not a lot of dancing, Juli moved frenetically. Jabbing or slicing arms and legs expressed her worry, stress and anxiety that finally came to an end.
Keleging conquered incontinence and Juli and the kids lived happily ever after.
If you missed Saturday’s show, “Tense Vagina: an actual diagnosis” will be repeated at 7:30 p.m. Monday and Tuesday, Feb. 5 and 6, at the Performing Arts Center at the University at Albany. Tickets are $20 and $15 for students, seniors and UAlbany faculty and staff. Tickets can be purchased by calling 518-442-3997 or emailing email@example.com.
Northeast Ballet dances Tchaikovsky's ballet "The Nutcracker" at Proctors.
Four years ago was the last time I saw Northeast Ballet Company’s “The Nutcracker.” At the time, I praised its dancers for ushering in a more mature, professional looking production.
The same could be said about this year’s holiday classic, but more so. From the seats in Proctors, I can see that Artistic Director Darlene Myers’ efforts to attract more boys to her school has paid off. It’s gratifying to see a local production able to cast actual boys in boys roles, which is a rarity for many regional dance studios. But it’s not just the boys. All of Northeast Ballet’s dancers fill their roles with aplomb.
Here are some of the best moments from the Tchaikovsky ballet.
Lucas Rodriguez is superb in the title role. As the wooden soldier that Clara loves, Rodriguez is sharp as he salutes and marches about the stage, the embodiment of the perfect recruit – strong and upright.
The snow scene is always precious because it is the Clara’s transition from the warmth of the family home to the cooling tingle of adventure. While Adrienne Canterna and Barton Cowperthwaite show off their technical prowess in the snow pas, it is the Snow Queen, Alexandra Lindsay, and her crystals and corps de ballet that made this scene a cyclone of sparkling blue beauty. Together, the dancers are with each other every step of the way, dancing collectively in one gorgeous swirl.
Canterna and Cowperthwaite return to dazzle with their acrobatics as the leads in the Arabian divertissement. Their exotic twists and tumbles quicken hearts.
Also delicious, in the Magic Kingdom of the Sweets are the Russians with Luca Spadinger in a series of bouncing straddle jumps and Bruce Williams as Mother Ginger, the big bosom flirt with too many children.
Myers also inserts many enchanting touches that are exclusive to her production: the flaming book, Uncle Drosselmeyer’s smoky rise from the depth and Bonnie, the patience, obedient horse who carries Clara on her excursion to the world beyond.
Of course, making the production even more special is the inclusion of two favorite dancers from the region’s favorite ballet company – Lauren Lovette and Andrew Veyette from New York City Ballet. Lovette is always a crowd-pleasure as she takes and projects so much joy in the ballet’s grand pas de deux. And Veyette, a last minute replacement for Gonzalo Garcia, is one of today’s most masterful cavaliers – able, caring and refined. Together, they are gold – spun for the audience’s pleasure.
The show will be repeated today at 2 p.m. at Proctors in Schenectady.
In a lightless room, the senses are heightened. That shutting down of sight especially perks the ears. And that’s how an audience sat on Saturday night at MassMoCA’s showing of “Listening to Walls Wear Off Their Color.”
This haunting work-in-progress, created in just a few days at sprawling museum for contemporary art, was a byproduct of the vivid imaginations of director Maya Zbib, choreographer Lee Serle (both of whom performed) and conceptual artist Mateo Lopez.
The piece, though still in its earliest stages, transported viewers to an alternative realm where time is not linear and one’s mind is a flashpoint of memories, mostly of loss of home and loved ones, and readjusting in unknown land. It was an ode to refuges, uprooted and sent to an unfamiliar city where they were isolated, literally boxed in by their language, their look and their culture. But it was also about the universal need to love, to seek out and touch fellow humans.
“Listening to Walls” began in total darkness with the sound of a synthetically created hum. The audience sat like that for what seems like an eternity, until we heard a voice. It was Zbib. She said “the city awakens.” Then in a quiet, controlled, but strong tone, she spilled out shards of a life’s moments: the home’s rattled windows from explosions, the sewing kit in one’s bag, the recipes you wrote for your son and sleeping in the bottom deck of a ship.
Together, it created a sense of a woman who is forced to leave and seek a safe haven.
When the lights finally rise, we see three figures (Serle and dancers Simon Courchel and Jin Ju Song-Begin) and three upright box structures. Serle hangs out of his, either sleeping or dead. The other two are standing inside these coffin like builds – Song-Begin facing outward, but Courchel half-hidden.
To a limpid electronic soundscape designed by John Torres and Zbib’s guiding voice, the dancers come to life and effortlessly wheel their boxes about their world silently. They walk their structures, combining and reconfiguring them again and again to create rooms and outdoor spaces in which the dancers appeared either to be vulnerable or shielded.
Throughout Zbib spoke of the woman, lost in a foreign city and in love with a stranger. In episodic clips, she told of her search for him, his adverted eyes and her sense of his closeness. The intimacy was striking.
Toward the end, the three were together, holding hands inside one of their arranged box clusters. But their proximity ended with Serle flat on the floor again and Song-Begin arched lifeless atop of him. Courchel walked away from it all. But as he left, he hesitated and turned back to the heartbreaking carnage of xenophobic loneliness.
Stella Abrera danced the "Nutcracker" grand pas de deux with Alexandre Hammoudi at Kaatsbaan's 28th annual gala.
Kaatsbaan International Dance Center’s galas are unlike any other fancy fundraising events for dance. The directors don’t get bogged down in motifs, premieres or novelties. They strive for the best.
And because the best unwinds like a spool of gold in such an intimate setting, the center’s 120-seat auditorium, audiences are struck by the power of the art not the price of ornamentation.
That’s what happened on Saturday night.
The center’s 28th annual “A Passion for Dance” featured New York Theatre Ballet in Jerome Robbins’ Grecian “Antique Epigraphs” with the peerless composer Joan Tower with Michael Scales at the piano playing the four-hands Debussy’s score. The evening also showcased the company in a pas de deux from “Such Longings” by Richard Alston as well as the “Nutracracker” grand pas de deux with American Ballet Theatre principals Stella Abrera and Alexandre Hammoudi. Legendary ballerina Martine Van Hamel performed an all-too short solo “On Performing.” Martha Graham Dance Company star Blakeley White-McGuire shattered the night with excerpts from “Cave of the Heart.” And that was followed by a knock-out world premiere choreographed by New York City Ballet principal Lauren Lovette.
It was a fantastic night.
There is hardly a squabble with anything that was done – except for maybe the lighting in “Antique Epigraphs,” which usually casts a sepia-toned shimmer on the dancers. Staged by Kyra Nichols, the eight female dancers, dressed in muted colored tunics, enthralled with Robbins’ stylized configurations that came to rest in elegant poses. They looked as if an urn has spun, pitching its bas relief figures to life. Needless to say, the music with Tower, Scales and flutist Mira Magrill was gorgeous.
Equally beautiful and moving was Steven Melendez and Amanda Treiber in “Such Longings” to Chopin’s Mazurka Op 17 No 4 and his Nocturne Op 27 No 2. Melendez, the lead male in many New York Theatre Ballet programs, has matured into a soulful dancer that brings much to the stage. The rapport with Treiber too, whom he has been partnered with for years, shows a richness and depth that often goes missing when two dancers meet.
Abrera and Hammoudi also share chemistry and daring in the grand pas de deux in the holiday favorite from Tchaikovsky. Choreographed by ABT’s Alexei Ratmansky, the pas savored the usual Sugarplum Fairy and her Cavalier’s elegance with a dash of sport. While a tad under rehearsed, Hammoudi missed his mark a few times, their sauciness kept everyone in the seats smiling.
Even more delightful was Lovette’s premiere of “Le Jeune” for five couples from ABT Studio Company. To Eric Whitacre’s “Equus,” the dancers flew through a frolicsome and frothy gambol that announced that Lovette is not only is a wonderful dancer, she’s also an amazing dance maker. The ballet had a retro-Balanchine look with the female dancer in leotards encircled with a belt. But it was fully-fledged contemporary creation that signaled the end of a drought for female choreographers coming out of City Ballet.
The Van Hamel short, conceived by Ann Marie De Angelo, was an ode to the joys of performing. While the prima ballerina can probably no longer whip of 32 fouettes without pain, she has not lost her glamorous sparkle.
Finally, White-McGuire held audiences in a vice as Medea in Graham’s “Cave of the Heart.” Her grip on the role, its intentions and its murderous ending was unflinching. It also reminded how modern Graham’s work remains. No one, except those in the know, could date it to 1946. White-McGuire lent it a vitality that could speak to everyone today.
Randy James is the founder and artistic director of the inventive 10 Hairy Legs.
This might sounds sexist, but there’s something about a group of men dancing together onstage. They pump more power, grab more air and shoot their authority through souls of an audience in a way that a troupe of women simply can’t.
And that’s the initial appeal of 10 Hairy Legs, an all-male ensemble of dancers. But then there is the technique – a fizzy brew of old-school modern and contact improvisation with acrobatics and marital arts. The meld is stunning to watch because the five men seize it with such natural fluidity and flair. They are like one body wrapped unto itself that is constantly undulating in ways that viewers cannot pull their eyes from.
The company, a brainchild of choreographer Randy James (a once frequent artistic guest at Skidmore College), previewed its “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe” on Saturday night at the Kaatsbaan International Center for Dance. Choreographed by James, this is an atypical work as it opens the company up to female artists – five in all. It’s also a work that can appeal to children, families and those who are tepid toward dance, telling the tale from the first book from C.S. Lewis’ “Chronicles of Narnia” series.
While a preview, it’s not fair to fully review. Let’s just say the final battle series is epic. Sarah Houspian’s depiction of the White Witch is chilling and her annihilation by The Lion, danced by Alex Biegelson, and his band of faithful is triumphant.
Before it premieres, however, I hope the costumes by Abraham Cruz become more literal. I couldn’t tell the beavers from the birds. And it was Biegelson’s regal portrayal of the Lion that keyed me in on his character because he looked like the Wolf.
The music, a mix of Mozart pieces, was ideal for the tale between good and evil. The personalities of the selections, bright and bouncy and dark and disquieting, set a perfect tone for the episodic telling.
The evening also featured 10 Hairy Legs doing what they do best –interlocking and bouncing their bodies off each other in a hypnotic dance. “Trouble Will Find Me,” choreographed by Doug Elkins, is set the robust music and vocals by Pakistani artist Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan.
The five men started off strong and kept up the heated, but playful exchange in which they started off as five independent spirits who eventually explore every open space of their fellow dancer – from ear to arm pit and through the legs. The timing at which they attack the movement is pinhead precise.
They assemble and disperse like a living puzzle. It’s fascinating and makes me and, anyone with eyes, long for more of 10 Hairy Legs.