Martha Graham Dance Company, Updated, at CPA

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A moment from Martha Graham’s frolicking Maple Leaf Rag. Photo: Costas.

 

The Martha Graham Dance Company, like the companies of several other of the great modern dance choreographers, is still struggling to find the right mix of classic works by the late artist and new works by others that will allow the company to continue to live and thrive. The program at Carolina Performing Arts last night–which repeats Friday, March 24–illustrates the dichotomy, and some of the choice-making.

The evening opens with Act 2 of Graham’s powerful Clytemnestra, with its Noguchi set and Egyptian music. Yep, Act 2. The piece really doesn’t work so well without Act 1. I don’t know if the lackluster performance was due to the cast having to plunge in, dramatically speaking, without any lead-up, or for some other reason. The dancing, while correct, lacked passion–it never caught fire. Not even PeiJu Chien-Pott, as Clytemnestra, worked up any feeling as her children prepared to take their bloody revenge upon her.

The program switches gears with Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui’s new work, Mosaic, a co-commission by Carolina Performing Arts. Where Clytemnestra is highly stylized, and makes much use of angular profiles, Mosaic is very fluid, its individual images submerged in the kinetic flow. It was very interesting to see something made of little pieces that was all about the joining together rather than the separate bits. The delicious partnering and fabulous limber agility in the shape-making were inseparable from the swirling stage patterns. It was very lovely, and in retrospect deeply satisfying in the way its form was its content.

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A studio shot of Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui’s Mosaic, co-commissioned by Carolina Performing Arts for the Martha Graham Dance Company. Photo courtesy MGDC/CPA.

 

After intermission comes comes Annie-B Parson’s I used to love you, described as a re-imagining of Martha Graham’s comedic 1941 dance, Punch and The Judy, itself derived from the Punch and Judy shows with puppets or marionettes. Parson’s work, more theatrical than dancey, includes everything but the kitchen sink: ergonomic rolling chairs, projections large and small, music, noise, text, radical reimagining–or “updating”–of various subtexts, fabulous bright costumes, and–oh, you guessed it–dancers with microphones. Dancers with microphones who were not experts at using them. Some of Will Eno’s text came through; some of it was irretrievably lost to microphone noise and feedback. Will Eno’s text! It was hard not to be pissed off about this. In fact, I failed. However, the piece is quite entertaining in its way, although it undercut its own cleverness with numerous odd lags in timing, which diminished its funniness. Another issue with the piece came to light while discussing it with a student next to me: he had never heard of Punch and Judy. Part of the interest of this work lies in its layered cultural references, yet younger viewers may not be able to see below the hyper-active surface.

The evening closes with Martha Graham’s last dance, the effervescent, angst-free Maple Leaf Rag from 1990, set to Scott Joplin’s lively Elite Syncopations, Bethena and the Maple Leaf Rag (arranged by Chris Landriau). There is nothing here that is not lovable–Graham even sends up herself, charmingly–and Graham aficionados will recognize many of her striking forms and movement phrases from the course of her career–there are quite a few similarities with the more buoyant sections of her Appalachian Spring, for instance. Some may find Maple Leaf Rag lacking in substance, but you know, joy is an ethereal thing.

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Dancers at play in Martha Graham’s Maple Leaf Rag. Photo: Costas.

Crème de la Crème

Carolina Performing Arts presented the Vienna Philharmonic orchestra last night in Memorial Hall, with Franz Welser-Möst conducting. The music was sublime.

They played Arnold Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht (Transfigured Night), op. 4, as arranged for string orchestra (it was originally for a sextet), which is very beautiful and deeply consoling. The Vienna Philharmonic painted the strong feelings from the inspiring poem about forgiving love (by Richard Dehmel, 1896) in saturated complex hues that streamed and flowed and blended. The liquidity of the music, the total integration of all the types and planes of sound, the pure elegance of its expression put the listener in thrall as it told the poem without recourse to mere words.

The Schubert Symphony No. 9 in C Major, D.944, “The Great,” was similar in terms of flow, if quite a lot more sprightly. What a delightful piece of music, light-infused,  buoyant with life, with lots of switchbacks and swirls, and fast-changing colors, tones and tempi. In the first and fourth movements there are charming references to Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” that seem like both homages and the preening of a young artist; in this performance, they sparkled on the surface of the river of sounds before moving into the past as other notes seized their days.

Hearing one of the greatest orchestras in the world was as marvelous as expected, but the added benefit of seeing an orchestra is seeing the conductor (each one so different)–and watching Maestro Welser-Möst at work was also wonderful. He’s slim and compact, except for his hair, and wears a well-cut tailcoat. (In fact, all the men in the orchestra wear tailcoats–and there are very few women–I could see only five or six last night.) He also stands on a podium without a rail between him and the audience, so that the elegant line is unmarred (just as in the music). Rarely raising his arms above shoulder level, he has a complete language for the left hand and another for the right, in which he holds a short baton. He turns this way and that, gathering in the sounds, often making smoothing motions. He didn’t tap his feet, or keep a rhythm by shifting his body, but as “The Great” grew in intensity, he began to vibrate all over–you could see it in his crown of silver hair. So much passion under the reserve.

What a night of transportive music.

The sense of reaching a cultural summit was also very powerful. To become cultured (a desirable goal), I learned in childhood, not only must one read, but look at art and listen to music and go to plays in person. Ideally one would travel, and listen to music in its many homes: a person steeped in the great traditions of European classical music would naturally have Vienna’s Musikverein among her desired destinations, in order to hear the Vienna Philharmonic in its Golden Room.

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Not at Memorial Hall. The Vienna Philharmonic with Franz Welser-Möst at the Musikverein. Photo © Richard Schuster.

 

I will probably never make it to the Musikverein, but at last I have heard the superb playing of the Vienna Philharmonic, hearing for myself the standard-setting integrated sounds, fluid dynamics, and emotional clarity of this orchestra. Without leaving home! I’m struggling to express how grateful and enriched I feel to have been one of the 1200 reverent listeners packed into the hall. And that it was the same hall in which I heard my first live symphony orchestra (the NC Symphony, under Benjamin Swalin) 55 years ago only increases my sense of having been on a long strange trip among the thorny hierarchies of quality and value in music and art, and of having come out onto a cliff with a wide view of glory.

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Crème de la Crème with whipped cream on top: The encore in Memorial Hall 2/27/17. Backstage phone photo courtesy Carolina Performing Arts.

What I didn’t expect, but received, from this concert was a sense of cultural validation, of personal connection with some of what’s best in the European musical tradition, and, most powerfully, of belonging to that culture–that rarefied culture at the pinnacle of refinement. CPA brings many fine orchestras to Memorial, but no matter how great the music, none has had the same impact on my sense of identity.

Suddenly, the fantastic multi-cultural work being done by CPA and the other area university presenters takes on a new look. I go to all these events because I want to know about all these people and places–I’m a traveller–but at each one, there will be people who feel like they have come home, or that home has come to back them, acknowledging and validating them. (I know, I know, if it weren’t for Eurocentric White Privilege, I would have thought of that years ago.)

We are living in a thoroughly frightening time. It becomes more vital every day to visit each others’ homes, with curiosity and open hearts. Aside from bringing the aesthetic bliss, this is what cultural arts programs do–invite us in to all the houses so that our neighbors are no longer strangers and increasingly, we can all be at home in the world.

 

 

Stars, Satellites and the Ferris Wheel of Love: BRIGHT HALF LIFE, at Manbites

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Women in love: JoRose (Vicky) and Tamara Kissane (Erica), in Tanya Barfield’s BRIGHT HALF LIFE, as directed by Jules Odendahl-James. At Manbites Dog Theater through March 4, 2017. Photo: Alex Maness.

Manbites Dog Theater opened a delightfully challenging and touchingly intimate recent play on February 17.  Tanya Barfield‘s Bright Half Life, which sketches nearly 50 years of love between Vicky and Erica, was first produced in 2015; this is the regional premiere. The poetic script is directed with delicately applied force by Jules Odendahl-James, who knows just when to slow down for the script’s switchbacks, and when to power out of its curves. She and the two actors, Tamara Kissane and JoRose, have made a beautiful piece of theatre.

Vicky and Erica’s story dances through time, the many short vignettes taking increased meaning through added context, like a jigsaw puzzle coming together. Certain scenes or lines repeat, with tiny variations, like all those pieces of blue sky. Essential differences in the Vicky’s and Erica’s personalities and characters are wonderfully conveyed through metaphors and astronomical references, but the practical differences in their situations play out bluntly. Kissane and JoRose ride the  waveforms and cycles of long-time love with breathtaking honesty.

Even though many of the “actions” in this 75 minute work “take place” in varied locales, watching Erica and Vicky talk and remember and have adventures and break up and get married and have fights and have children and break up and rediscover and get divorced and remember again the electric love and realize that the half-life of their star still shines and that the jumping out of airplanes and the flying of kites and and the riding of Ferris wheels are still theirs forever– all that makes it feel much more as if it takes place in a silk and velvet boudoir. One almost feels a voyeur, a secret watcher, of the very private lives of these vividly imagined women. The deliciously bifurcated experience of a play–losing oneself in it/being aware of its separateness from one–is intensified by the same dynamic playing out in these lovers’ lives, underscoring that the erotic energies which drive the love engine are very similar to those that drive artful performance.

The essential duality of a couple in love was nicely echoed in the effective set design by Sonya Leigh Drum. Using no more than a raised platform with a ramp on one end, steps in the middle and an L on the other end, along with a lot of small lamps, she made a place set apart, the women’s private terrain–yet an arrangement flexible enough to be used for office work, mattress testing, skydiving and all the rest of life. Drum also designed the costumes. Joseph Amodei’s sound mix was, on opening night, kept to such low levels that perhaps it would have been better turned off, but this may have been an attempt to further deepen the feeling of intimacy, and an effort not to drown the women, who sometimes spoke very softly. Jenni Mann Becker’s lighting goes over-bright at times, but generally is very effective at amplifying the emotional tones of the various scenes–which means it changes often, enriching the visuals.

This is a rather special production, very tightly put together, with particularly fine acting. Kissane is luminous; JoRose, radiant. Highly recommended. Through March 4.

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JoRose as Vicky, and Tamara Kissane as Erica, in Tanya Barfield’s BRIGHT HALF LIFE, playing at Manbites Dog Theater through March 4, 2017. Photo: Alex Maness.

 

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