ADF @ The Nasher: Yossi Berg and Oded Graf

When you go to see a dance, do you expect to be able to actually see it? Yeah, me too. What about a seat, do you want a seat for an hour-long performance? How about a back on that seat? Yep, that would be necessary for me. And if the performance is general admission, forcing early arrival and competitive seat-claiming, would you expect the damn thing to go ahead and start on time?

If you are with me on these things, you probably do not want to go to dance events at the Nasher Museum at Duke. Even though they often turn out to be interesting–even wonderful, like Mark Haim’s piece a couple of years ago–the aggravation factor is awfully high, and increases with the size of the audience.

The museum atrium is a nice place to present small-scale dance or movement theatre. But–it is flat. There are no risers. People sitting on the floor can see; people sitting in the first row, and maybe the second row of chairs can see; people on the few tall stools in the back can see, except when the performers are on the floor…but folks in between see this:

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View of Come Jump With Me in the Nasher atrium from the third row of chairs, 7/10/17. Photo: Coke Ariail.

 

The other serious issue about the Nasher atrium as a performance space is that its acoustics are very difficult. Even normal conversations are a struggle in there, because of the sound bouncing off all those hard surfaces. When the performance includes loudly amplified music and competing speech, speech loses. So, you may find yourself not only unable to see movement but unable to comprehend the texts that are supposed to be an integral part of a work.

That was certainly the case last night for the Yossi Berg and Oded Graf Dance Theatre presentation of Come Jump With Me. (7 pm stated performance time; at 7:13 the silence your cellphone decree came; at 7:14 the show began–at which point I’d been waiting for 37 minutes.) The two performers, Berg and Olivia Court Mesa, never spoke softly, and they cranked all the way up to scream…and the music/sound went up in decibels along with the voices. While this was effective at transmitting something of contemporary conditions in Israel, these artists’ home, it was not effective at increasing understanding, let alone empathy.

I’ve had the idea for a long time that for art–political or not–to be effective, it needs to distill its ideas and passions, and suffuse that tincture into the viewer’s consciousness. It seems counter-productive to make the audience actually suffer, for example, when the artist could generate an empathetic awareness of suffering and its impacts. If I’m defending myself against assault, I tend not to feel any empathy toward the aggressor.

Come Jump With Me struck me as unnecssarily hostile, and I found myself thinking some horrible thoughts in return. This was a real shame, because there is a lot of smart, witty, stuff in the hour-long piece (which really could have been tightened up to 40-45 minutes). It’s a bundle of contradictions–this is not about Israel/this is loving Israel–expressed mostly in spoken word, with movement playing an illustrative role. There is some very impressive movement, and it’s clear in its picture-making, but there is no dance.

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One of the few tender moments in Come Jump With Me. Yossi Berg and Oded Graf Dance Theatre, ADF @the Nasher, 7/10/17. Photo: Ben McKeown.

 

By dint of repetition and tonal changes, Come Jump With Me‘s banal phrases take on meaning, and reveal something of the promise and the trap of the idea and the actuality of the state of Israel, and indicate a miserable state of communal psychology. Mesa’s truly bizarre carryings-on with red, heart-shaped lollipops (suckers, if you will) do nothing to make one think there might be sanity somewhere.

Its tightly circumscribed performance area (demarcated with masking tape) mimics the geographical constriction of Israel, wedged between the Heights and the sea. Again and again, the performers rush from boundary to boundary. “Is this the Holy Land?” Berg asks, reverently, at the beginning. “Is this the Holy Land?” Berg asks despairingly near the end, before breaking the perimeter, rolling himself in the taped boundaries pulled off the floor. As the sound system blasts a refrain of “too many tears,” the two performers kayak away. At least, I thought, they have a paddle.

Many people in the Triangle area will remember the multi-faceted artistic exchange between North Carolina and Israel 20 years ago. Come Jump With Me reminded me of various artworks from that exchange, so I could not see it as fresh, or particularly provocative. But it does make it horribly clear that conditions in Israel have worsened rather than improved in two decades. If that was its intent, then the piece, however exasperating, is a success.

The event repeats July 11 and 12.

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Olivia Court Mesa and Yossi Berg at the end of Come Jump With Me. Yossi Berg and Oded Graf Dance Theatre, ADF @ the Nasher, 7/10/17. Photo: Ben McKeown.

 

ADF: Paul Taylor Dance Company, testing survival strategies

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The Paul Taylor Dance Company, Heather McGinley, center, performing Taylor’s Cascade at ADF in the DPAC, 7/7/17. Photo: Ben McKeown.

 

Paul Taylor has been one of the greatest dance makers of all time, and for decades his company has performed the works that have poured out of him, and only his works–but even Paul Taylor won’t live forever. What’s a troupe to do, when its leader glides off into the spirit world? What’s the best way to preserve the dances, while carrying on into the future? There’s the Merce Cunningham method, in which the company is closed down, but the dances are licensed and their production controlled by a trust. There’s the Martha Graham method, in which the company continues, keeping the Graham works in repertory, while adding suitable works by other choreographers. Both extremes have merit, and pitfalls.

But if the company remains dedicated solely to the works of its founder, after he or she has crossed the bar, sooner rather than later, it will become a mausoleum. Can the founder’s spirit and aesthetic be carried forward via new dances made by other artists?

That’s the question for the Paul Taylor Dance Company, which has begun commissioning and performing dances by younger choreographers. This appearance of the company at the American Dance Festival offers the first opportunity in this area for viewers to see how that might work. The July 7 program in the DPAC sandwiched a 2016 dance by Larry Keigwin between two classic Taylor pieces. The July 8 program will feature a Doug Elkins work.

It doesn’t look to me like Keigwin is the man to take the mantle. His Rush Hour showed off the extraordinary physical abilities of the dancers, but it lacked the openness, vitality and variation that mark a Taylor work, no matter how minor. Paul Taylor dances make one actively glad to be alive; this particular Keigwin work focused on the struggle of staying alive. No playfulness here. The dancers’ bodies were rigid, their gestures constrained, and almost all the action took place at the same level, although during some of the more aggressive bits, bodies did hit the floor. Maybe the saddest thing was that the dancers were drained of specificity; they were moving ciphers, sexless zeroes–not the rounded human characters who inhabit a Paul Taylor dance.

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The Paul Taylor Dance Company performing Larry Keigwin’s Rush Hour. Parisa Khobdeh and Michael Trusnovec, front. The American Dance Festival at DPAC, 7/7/17. Photo: Ben McKeown.

 

Rush Hour begins at speed and maintains relentless velocity throughout, racing along to abrasive music by Adam Crystal. There’s not an instant to catch one’s breath, or consider. It’s a portrait, in black and gray, of ruthless competition for space and place. Although impressively energetic and precise, it is cold in affect. And although highly designed–the pattern-making is its greatest strength–it is mechanical, even arbitrary, and damn near humorless. Whereas Taylor makes sequences that seem natural and absolutely necessary, in Rush Hour, everything felt inconsequential, and as if something else could have been substituted with equal effect, as long as it was fast and slick. It was exciting, though, to see all those bodies slicing so close to each other, hurtling around, and the crowd roared as if at a circus. But Rush Hour is a junk food rush, with no real nutrition.

The paucity of its movement language, and its lack of musicality, were obvious enough in contrast to the evening’s first work, Taylor’s lovely Cascade (1999), set to portions of three Bach concerti, but were made even more evident by the program’s final dance, the celestial Syzygy from 1987. While you could hardly call Taylor’s style Baroque, he does have a genius for elaboration, for the movement or gesture that continues far beyond the limited pedestrian shorthand utilized by Keigwin. While Taylor has developed a stock of positions, phrases and sequences that he utilizes again and again in very different works, he also goes far and wide to bring back the unexpected, the off-kilter, the odd angle, the silly riff. He surprises you. People sometimes tell me they think Paul Taylor is boring; I think they haven’t been really looking at the work.

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Paul Taylor Dance Company performing Syzygy, Madelyn Ho leading, at ADF at DPAC, 7/7/17. Photo: Ben McKeown.

 

The company dancers were in rare form last night–the dancing was gorgeous beyond words in Cascade, with George Smallwood really standing out. Parisa Khobdeh’s solo was wondrous, and Michelle Fleet and Michael Trusnovec in the Andante of Concerto no. 7–well, it doesn’t get much better than that. It’s program position tonight will be taken by Book of the Beasts, with a diverse selection of classical music performed on pedal harpsichord. Doug Elkins’ The Weight of Smoke will follow (and will probably include all the humor missing from the Keigwin work), and the evening will close with a reprise of Syzygy, by the same cast the performed it so well last night, led by Madelyn Ho. It would be worth going for that last dance alone. Note that the Saturday night program will begin at 7 p.m.

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“…all shine on, like the moon and the stars and the sun…” The Paul Taylor Dance Company orbiting in Taylor’s Syzygy, at the American Dance Festival, 7/7/17. Photo: Ben McKeown.

 

 

 

 

ADF: Pilobolus–with Banjos

Whether you’ve never seen the ever-regenerating dance troupe Pilobolus, or you’ve seen them so many times that you think you’re done–this is a very good year to watch the company at the American Dance Festival. The Pils and ADF go back together to the beginning of time (at least, to the beginning of Pilobolus), and it is easy to feel jaded about their annual re-appearance in the ADF summer season. And like any long-lived entity, Pilobolus has had times when it was less brilliant–but this is not one of them. The current group of dancers has that special magic together, and each dancer exhibits the full splendor of the Pilobolus style. Yes, it is the most expensive ticket of the season, but you will absolutely get your money’s worth. The program length was listed as 105 minutes–but that was before they added in a new work, and it does not include the onstage pre-show warm-ups. The show presented June 30th in DPAC repeats July 1 at 7 p.m.

Friday night saw the world premiere of yet another ADF-commissioned piece, Echo in the Valley, for which Pilobolus collaborated with the world’s greatest banjo duo, Bela Fleck and Abigail Washburn. This is a very dark work for the company, and unusually narrative, with scenes of struggle and death in Appalachian coal mining country (the bad old days, dark as a dungeon way down in the mine). The staging is fantastic, with piercing lighting by Thom Weaver, and clogging boards set up with amplification for both Washburn (she and Fleck play on stage) and the dancers. Who are wearing shoes! When Heather Jeane Favretto stepped up and began clogging, I nearly fell out of my seat. Talk about trying something new! Holy clogging Piloboleans! (And check out Washburn’s double rhythm when she dances at the microphone.) The music is great–a mix of atmospheric riffs and bursts, with some of the old songs, which Washburn burns into the listener with her amazing voice, ranging from pure high lonesome to scorching gravel in the space of a phrase. Also burned into memory is a long scene in which the giant dancer Jacob Michael Warren looms in frozen mourning over his dead beloved, the violence in his soul contained until his friend tries to draw him away. The friend takes a beating, but really, he has given the only gift of love that can provide solace to the mourning miner–some place to release his rage. Echo in the Valley is profoundly moving.

The program opens with the very beautiful 2014 work On the Nature of Things (ADF co-commission). Two men, one woman and a raised circular stand–and Vivaldi. Three magnificent human bodies doing graceful, impossible things in as little clothing as the law allows. The performance on the 30th was phenomenal, with Antoine Banks-Sullivan, Nathaniel Buchsbaum and Krystal Butler. Ms. Butler is ALL THAT.

The troupe added into the program a new work called Branches, in which they appear as a flock of birds, with scenes from dawn to sunset. It was completely delightful and made an excellent bridge between On the Nature of Things and Echo in the Valley. I expect this piece will become a program regular, it is just so much fun to watch people become birds. And speaking as a person who spends a lot of time watching birds being birds, I can say that Pilobolus gets the behaviors just right.

After intermission comes the clever [esc], which is really a magic act. Once before was more than enough of this piece for me–I really have a hard time with a woman being bound with duct tape and a plastic bag taped over her head. Even knowing she’s going to escape, it makes me sick. The other tricks are not upsetting, but still, once you’ve seen them, you’ve seen them.

However, once is not enough for the 2007 piece Rushes, one of the early collaborations by Pilobolus with makers outside the company, in this case, Inbal Pinto and Avshalom Pollak. It involves a dozen small white chairs, a white floor circle, six dancers and a suitcase, and a harmonious mix of the most unlikely musical bedfellows. Rushes evokes so many things, most of which have to do with journeying–and seeking and hiding and finding; escaping and rescuing and surviving. I had remembered it quite well, but it burst upon me afresh with this spectacular cast, who carry out their amazing feats of balance, strength, endurance and grace with gorgeous vitality, imbuing the resolutely non-verbal composition with visual and kinetic clarity.

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Pilobolus performing Rushes at ADF, 6/30/17, in the DPAC. The mystical lighting is by Yoann Tivoli. Photo: Ben McKeown.

 

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