THE FAIRYTALE LIVES OF RUSSIAN GIRLS, onstage at Manbites Dog through May 9

Annie (Faye Goodwin) is fed by her

Annie (Faye Goodwin) is fed by her “not quite Auntie Yaroslava” AKA Baba Yaga, who eats young girls (Carly Prentis Jones) in Manbites Dog’s striking production of THE FAIRYTALE LIVES OF RUSSIAN GIRLS. Photo: Alan Dehmer.

Floral matryoshka set, smallest doll nested.  Photo: BrokenSphere via Wikimedia Commons.

Floral matryoshka set, smallest doll nested.
Photo: BrokenSphere via Wikimedia Commons.

Some days, the bear eats you; some days you eat the bear.  Other times, that canny old witch Baba Yaga fattens you up before she roasts your bones for supper–The End. But in Meg Miroshnik’s contemporary Moscow, the women aren’t playing by the old rules any more, even though their lives are still as onionized as matryoshka dolls, each iteration of self constrained by a skin of old ways imposed by an ancient patriarchal society. “Action must be taken!” they cry to each other as they lurch from one perilous situation to the next doing the best they can to stay alive, protect their friends, and be happy. Between the classic beginning to a Russian fairy tale, “they lived, they were,” and “The End” (no happily ever after), these women take bold and surprising actions with stunning sang-froid, often using language that could blister paint. In the hands of director Jules Odendahl-James, the play is brazen, feminist, provocative, sad, bitingly humorous–yet another Manbites Dog production not to be missed.

Annie the American (Faye Goodwin) is welcomed to Russia by a customs officer (Laurel Ullman) in Manbites Dog's production of THE FAIRYTALE LIVES OF RUSSIAN GIRLS. Photo: Jules Odendahl-James.

Annie the American (Faye Goodwin) is welcomed to Russia by a customs officer (Laurel Ullman) in THE FAIRYTALE LIVES OF RUSSIAN GIRLS. Photo: Jules Odendahl-James.

When I took Russian history in college, no women were mentioned, other than Catherine the Great and assorted czarinas. One knew of some cultural figures–Ahkmatova, Pavlova, Plisetskaya–and of course, Russian women in fiction; and that women in the USSR were being educated and trained for “male” jobs like astrophysics and utilizing heavy equipment. But even after the revolutions that created the communist state, women as political leaders were conspicuously absent. The Russian Bear was always male.

It would be difficult for the young women on stage in Miroshnik’s fascinating one-act, The Fairytale Lives of Russian Girls, to comprehend how large the USSR loomed for people of my age group. The insane geo-politics of the Cold War torqued everyone. Kruschev! The Iron Curtain! Duck and cover! This way to the bomb shelter! The KGB! The Gulags! The Evil Empire! On and on. By the mid-1980s, even the most ardent believers in the pure possibilities of communism had been disabused to the idea that that purity could be found in the USSR.

Raisa Gorbachova, R, with Pamela Harriman, in Washington, DC, during USSR General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev's summit meeting with US President Ronald Reagan, that led to the great thawing of the Cold War.  December, 10, 1987. Photo by: Chris Wilkins, AFP, 51500037.

Raisa Gorbachova, R, with Pamela Harriman, in Washington, DC, during USSR General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev’s summit meeting with US President Ronald Reagan, that led to the great thawing of the Cold War. December, 10, 1987. Photo by: Chris Wilkins, AFP, 51500037.

So, great was the skepticism and later the celebration when Mikhail Gorbachev began to reach out for a detente with the West. Glasnost! Perestroika! With him, shockingly, was his wife, Raisa Gorbachova. No one had ever seen the Communist leaders’ wives. Scholar, philosopher, fashionista, she blazed across the Western consciousness, a completely new image of the contemporary Russian woman. The Gorbachevs soon fell from grace, but still, the image of Raisa remained overlaid on the old images of tired workers, queuing mothers, scarved peasants.

Gorbachova’s fairytale took a dark path after her husband’s ouster and the collapse of the USSR, and ended with a fast-moving leukemia in 1999. But before then, she had, as The Guardian put it, “destroyed the image of Soviet women as potato-shaped battleaxes in headscarves,” which makes her the foremother of Meg Miroshnik’s women of the Pussy Riot era.

As we all know, communism in the former USSR was replaced by the sickest form of capitalism, all repressive systems remaining firmly in place. Very few women’s voices have been heard since that transition.

Miroshnik, in an artistic way, provides a keyhole view into the strange difficult lives of young women in the new chaos of a country where change has been great, though bedrock change has not yet occurred. But, her work suggests, today’s young women are swinging on the pendulum of history in four-inch heels, battle-axes at the ready, prepared to eviscerate the bad old bear.

Annie get your axe--there's more than one way to skin a bear. Faye Goodwin as American Annie. Rehearsal photo by Jules Odendahl-James.

Annie get your axe–there’s more than one way to skin a bear. Faye Goodwin as American Annie. Rehearsal photo by Jules Odendahl-James.

The actors of the Manbites Dog production are uniformly powerful, and Odendahl-James made casting decisions that allow amazing visuals–three are tall, and three range from tiny to short–within the visual richness of Sonya Drum’s set design. The costuming, also by Drum with help from Dierdre Shipman, is a knock-out, from Auntie/Baba Yaga’s crone clothes (and mask, by Will Deedler) to Masha’s minimal dress and maximal boots. There’s first-rate lighting by Jenni Mann Becker, and excellent, appropriate live music by Bart Matthews.

But even if all this design richness were removed, these actors would get the points across. Faye Goodwin as naive American Annie–a Russian-American Jew, sent back to Moscow by her mother to improve her Russian and for some darker purpose–grows up before our eyes. She’s staying with her “auntie,” the wicked witch Baba Yaga, who Carly Prentis Jones totally nails. Jessica Flemming as Masha, the across-the-hall neighbor who befriends Annie, proves remarkably moving in this stylized role. Tiny Mikaela Saccoccio buzzes around like a dangerous insect in her pivotal role as Katya, while tall Jeanine Frost commands four different characters, including the whore Natasha. She has the most chilling stories, and is the one the others turn to when things get really rough. Laurel Ullman transforms herself repeatedly for the four remaining supporting characters. What an ensemble!

Annie the American (Faye Goodwin) receives advice on the rules of Russian fairytales from Nastya the whore (Jeanine Frost). Photo: Jules Odendahl-James.

Annie the American (Faye Goodwin) receives advice on the rules of Russian fairytales from Nastya the whore (Jeanine Frost). Photo: Jules Odendahl-James.

Annie the American (Faye Goodwin) prepares to battle potatoes (Jeanine Brinell Frost) bewitched by Baba Yaga. Note the Pussy Riot-style head covering . Photo: Jules Odendahl-James.

Annie (Faye Goodwin) prepares to battle potatoes (Jeanine Frost) bewitched by Baba Yaga. Note the Pussy Riot-style head covering . Photo: Jules Odendahl-James.

A Thoroughly Modern Ballerina: Wondrous Whelan Closes CPA Season

What do you do next after the New York Times has declared you “America’s greatest contemporary ballerina” but your body says the time is approaching to “leave ’em while you’re lookin’ good”? If you are Wendy Whelan, you retire from your position as a principal dancer in the New York City Ballet covered in glory;  plunge into the unknown with your Wendy Whelan New Works Initiative, and call the first work made after yourself: Restless Creature.

In actuality, Whelan’s career with the NYCB and the foundation of her Initiative overlapped, with hip surgery in the middle.

Wendy Whelan. Photo: Nisian Hughes.

Wendy Whelan. Photo: Nisian Hughes.

“I met with Wendy Whelan about three years ago to discuss the project,” said Carolina Performing Arts executive director Emil Kang from the stage on April 21. Restless Creature was co-commissioned by CPA, Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival, and the Joyce Theater Foundation (yes, Carolina’s playing in the big leagues here). Whelan was scheduled to bring it to CPA a year ago, but a week after its August, 2013 premiere at Jacob’s Pillow (excellent video of artists in discussion here), Whelan went in for hip surgery and touring went on hold while she healed. She returned briefly to the NYCB, giving her farewell performance October 18, 2014, then turned her attention back to Restless Creature and other new projects.

Dance fans may remember that Whelan appeared, rather surprisingly, with the Martha Graham Dance Company at CPA two years ago, shortly before CPA announced its 2014 schedule. “We were the ones who gave the work its final technical rehearsals before its premiere at Jacob’s Pillow,” said Kang, to the eager audience last night, who had been waiting an extra year for this member of “ballet royalty” to sweep long-legged across the Memorial Hall stage, in four pas de deux with four (male) choreographer/dancers.

It was worth the wait. Whelan’s extraordinarily beautiful line and exemplary technique are well-known, but the force of her will, her precision and command of space, along with her humor and her joyful buoyancy, when experienced live, still leave the viewer alternately holding her breath and gasping in wonder. Whelan’s not that big, but she can make herself very, very long. Her outstretched arms gather it in, and her extended legs just eat up the space. There was nothing, other than the absence of big leaps (which would have been unlikely in these choreographies, anyway), to indicate that she’d so recently been under the knife. I didn’t see one second of hesitation or inappropriate delicacy; she was strong, bold and sure, and her partners certainly didn’t treat her like she might break.

It was fantastic to see works by these four compelling contemporary choreographers in such close proximity in time (program with music details below). There was barely time to reset my stopwatch between dances (11:43; 16:00; 11:24; 13:18, with Whelan dancing most of each one), so one could quickly spot the commonalities and contrasts. Alejandro Cerrudo’s Ego et Tu was smooth, a flow of opening and closing shapes and ribboning turns with some magical lifts that somehow signified a partnership of equality. A period of silence made the bodies stand out like bold print. Joshua Beamish’s Conditional Sentences was very brisk and funny, with quirky offsets and amazing reversals of motion above and below the waist. Kyle Abraham’s The Serpent and the Smoke, for which the back curtain was raised and the lights turned toward the audience, also had a liquid quality, but also wonderful passages of skipping, and a lot of mirroring of the bodies. For one indelible image, Abraham and Whelan both lay on their sides, facing the audience, each propped on one elbow, their forearms pressed into one column, their heads inclined towards each other above it, brilliantly lit from the front, burnished against the gloom behind them. There was something about opposites here, in a yin-yang way, balancing opposites.

First Fall, by Brian Brooks, was heart-stopping from start to finish. The stage was further stripped–the back scrim raised, the side curtains lifted to reveal the lighting trees, with all the lighting heads set low. Whelan emerges into the raw space, looking for an instant lost and young in her little yellow dress. After some tentative encounters, Brooks gives her a light instigating shove on the shoulder, and the genie billows out of the bottle. They move together in amazing ways–then the music stops. Once again, the unaccompanied motion looks bigger and bolder, more daring and honest, and as Whelan passes in front of the sidelights, the sculptural articulation of her musculature is clearly delineated. Then a new music begins, and the first fall happens. Brooks crouches on all fours; Whelan leans back and back and back until she has to let go and fall onto his back. He raises her, and they do this over and over in many variations as hypnotic as the Philip Glass music. My wits were thoroughly scattered, my heart beat madly. Here’s a little video from Jacob’s Pillow.

Kang hinted that Whelan will return to CPA–be ready to get your tickets. The new season will be announced next month.

EGO ET TU (2013)
alejandro Cerrudo, choreography
alejandro Cerrudo and Wendy Whelan, performers

sunny artist Management inc., Wendy Whelan, executive producers

ilter ibrahimof, valérie Cusson, producers the Joyce theater foundation, co-producer Carolina Performing arts,

Jacob’s Pillow dance festival,

the Joyce theater foundation, co-commissioners david Michalek, creative director
Joe levasseur, lighting design
karen Young, costume design

davison scandrett, production manager Meredith Belis, stage manager Courtney ozaki Moch, project manager

Music: “Monologue” from Perfect Sense and The Twins (Prague) by Max Richter;
Orphée’s Bedroom by Philip Glass; We (Too) Shall Rest by Ólafur Arnalds; Intermezzo II by Gavin Bryars

Atlantic Screen Group [Max Richter, “Perfect Sense”], Universal Music Publishing Group [Max Richter, “The Twins (Prague)”]; ©1993, 1984 Dunvagen Music Publishers Inc. Used by Permission [Philip Glass, “Orphée’s Bedroom”]; Nettwerk One Music Group [Ólafur Arnalds]; European American Distributors Company [Gavin Bryars]

Joshua Beamish, choreography
Joshua Beamish and Wendy Whelan, performers

Music: Partita No. 2 in C minor BMV 826 by J.S. Bach from Glenn Gould Plays Bach

kyle abraham, choreography
kyle abraham and Wendy Whelan, performers

Music: #304 and #320 by Hauschka & Hildur Guðnadóttir
Music used by permission: Music Sales Corporation, G. Schirmer, Inc.; Touch Music

Brian Brooks, choreography
Brian Brooks and Wendy Whelan, performers

Music: 1957 Award Montage; November 25, Ichigaya; 1962: Body Building; Mishima/Closing; String Quartet No. 3 (“Mishima”) by Philip Glass from Brooklyn Rider plays Philip Glass

©1993, 1984 Dunvagen Music Publishers Inc. Used by Permission.

First Fall was commissioned by Damian Woetzel for the 2012 Vail International Dance Festival in Vail, Colorado.

Martha Graham Dance Company, 89 Seasons Young

The Martha Graham Dance Company gave a thrilling performance last night at Carolina Performing Arts. The program repeats tonight, 4/15/15. Dance fans will hate themselves in the morning if they miss the program’s final work, Echo.

Once Miss Graham died in 1991, there was a certain amount of dithering around about how her company would continue. When Janet Eilber, a former principal dancer with Graham, became the company artistic director in 2005, she continued to preserve and reconstruct Graham’s work, but also, as she said from the stage on the 14th, “to commission new work that resonates with Martha Graham’s legacy.” In 2014, the company premiered such a work by Greek dancer and choreographer Andonis Foniadakis.

Maintaining classic Graham style with full-powered grace. Photo: courtesy MGDC/CPA.

Maintaining classic Graham style with full-powered grace. Photo: courtesy MGDC/CPA.

His Echo, based loosely on the myth of Narcissus and Echo, is the most erotic, passionately charged dance I’ve seen in many a year. Danced by Lloyd Mayor as Narcissus and Lloyd Knight as his powerfully attractive reflection, and the ravishing PeiJu Chien-Pott as the nymph Echo, plus an ensemble of seven, this piece alone is worth the ticket. The mythic theme, the sexuality, the entrancing, propulsive music by Julien Tarride, the fabulous skirted costumes by Anastasios Sofroniou and the magical scenic and lighting design by Clifton Taylor are all highly resonant with Graham’s work. The dancing was big and precise at once, with lots of reversals of direction that let the costumes unfurl into fluid shapes, and some blink-inducing lifts and unusual intertwinings.  Although I thought the piece could have been edited to lose the final coda and end on a particularly astounding image, Echo is an astonishing dance, and does so well the aesthetic work that only dance can do. There’s some good video on the choregrapher’s site.

Narcissus and his double in Echo. Photo: courtesy MGDC/CPA.

Narcissus and his double in Echo. Photo: courtesy MGDC/CPA.

The program also includes works commissioned by Carolina Performing Arts. This concert features three new Variations on Graham’s famous Lamentation, one by Chapel Hill native tap artist Michelle Dorrance. It was curious to hear percussive hard-shod foot music as an accompaniment to, rather than a result of the dancing, and to see how Dorrance attempted to fuse her kinetic style with the Graham technique. Not altogether great, but it looks like there’s territory to explore here. The Gerring Variation is more in the Merce Cunningham tradition, and was a solid piece, and the Tayeh Variation was pretty exciting. I still like Miss Graham’s original best: a film of her dancing it precedes the new Variations (of which there are now 12 total, created since 2007).

The program’s first act includes Nacho Duato’s Rust, which CPA commissioned for the Graham company and which premiered in Memorial Hall April 26, 2013. It’s still ferocious, it’s still about torture. It still needs to be seen, and seen again.

It followed on the heels of Steps in the Street, a suite from Graham’s 1936 Chronicle, another overtly political dance. Sadly, the politics of the 2010s bear a strong resemblance to those of the 1930s, and keep this work as timely as Rust. The dancing was very fine last night, with all ten women in lockstep to Wallingford Riegger’s martial music. In long black dresses, moving backwards, clutching themselves, looking over their shoulders, they communicate a chill danger. Triangle dance fans will remember seeing it on the same 2008 ADF program with Lamentation.

The program is leavened by an absurdist dance-theater piece by Annie-B Parson and Paul Lazar of the marvelous Big Dance Theater. According to MGDC’s Janet Eilber, The Snow Falls in the Winter, which the Graham company premiered in New York in February of this year, was inspired by a Eugene Ionesco play, but, she said, Annie-B told her that “the play was awful,” and that she threw out the plot. “So don’t look for one,” Eilber cautioned the crowd. You couldn’t have found one if you were looking. But the series of shifting scenes and ridiculous goings-on had me giggling aloud. I didn’t even mind that there were microphones, and talking. Effervescent was the non-sense.

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