Complexions at the Westobou Festival 2014

hissy fits

Hissy Fits by Dwight Rhoden

Here in Augusta, GA we don’t get much quality dance performance, so I’m always sure to see whatever is offered in the annual Westobou Festival, a really nice arts celebration that occurs each fall and is, sadly, under-attended. This year the dance company was featured on October 2nd, my birthday, so it felt like a special gift for me.

Complexions Contemporary Ballet is a New York-based company celebrating 20 years. Under the artistic directorship of Dwight Rhoden and Desmond Richardson, the group’s “foremost innovation is that dance should be about removing boundaries, not reinforcing them. Whether it be the limiting traditions of a single style, period, venue, or culture, Complexions transcends them all, creating an open, continually evolving form of dance that reflects the movement of our world—and all its constituent cultures—as an interrelated whole.”Also, the ensemble is comprised of dancers of varying heights, body types – and colors – which is pretty awesome.

Last night’s performance featured a large cast of impressively strong dancers attacking three long, challenging pieces by Rhoden. Some individuals stood out among others, Phil Orsano most especially, although the choreography was very much ensemble-driven. In a small, egalitarian company, though, one would expect a greater degree of precision and togetherness. Throughout the program, dancers were consistently out of sync by just a beat or so. The effect was a little sloppy and confusing – the audience was never sure which steps were intended to be executed in canon and which were simply being executed by dancers slightly “off” from one another. A corps featuring so many different shapes and heights requires a pretty meticulous rehearsal master to achieve the necessary precision to best show off the choreography. Perhaps one is needed here.

Headspace began with the dancers facing upstage and for a moment there was the “Chorus Line” effect of our watching from behind as though the real audience were on the other side of the backdrop. That moment went nowhere, however. The dance proceeded without further reference to any such allusion.

It was a long piece set to jazz music by Terence Blanchard. Clad in black leotards, the dancers performed in varying groups, clusters and duos. The steps were neoclassical – a modern feel with a balletic origin. It was an impressive piece, if not a bit long. I wished for closure at the exquisite moment when a female dancer slowly spun a male upside down on the floor – but the piece continued a bit longer and repeated many phrases, with seemingly no concession to the ebb and flow of the changing musical tone.

Hissy Fits was a little disappointing only because its mood felt overly similar to its predecessor. By this time, I was craving a fresh feel – maybe some softness in the arms to interrupt all the angular extension that ruled the night – as well as some pointe work, which was never to be last evening. This piece, executed inexplicably in “underwear” (think beige panties, black socks and white camisoles), came off much like Headspace set to Bach music instead of jazz.

Innervisions seemed to enliven both performers and audience. A crowd-pleaser set to Stevie Wonder songs, it was a classic example of funky jazz dance. I was worried that the evening would fall on the showy side – Complexions made a recent appearance on “So You Think You Can Dance” – but even this raucous piece didn’t cross over into shallow tricks. It was a puff piece, but a pleasant and resectable one. The only discordance came in the middle of the suite when the grim “Ghetto Village” played with no apparent change in the mood of the dancing. Stevie was singing, “families buying dog food now / starvation roams the streets / babies die before they’re born / infected by the grief” … and we were all still celebrating.

If I sound overly critical of the evening, perhaps I should reiterate that I am so grateful for the opportunity here to see a program worth taking the time to critique. I very much hope to have more such opportunities in Augusta. Although I could do without the en masse opening of potato-chip bags in the theatre – must Americans eat at simply EVERY event? – and the red wine, which the woman behind me thoughtlessly held while applauding, staining my white shirt. On my birthday. But I’m not complaining!




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Misty Copeland’s 15 Minutes

American Ballet Theatre (ABT) soloist Misty Copeland is everywhere these days. From interviews on the major television networks and a guest appearance on NPR’s “Wait Wait…Don’t Tell Me,” to regular social media posts, Copeland has gained notoriety beyond the inner circle of the ballet world.

With the recent Under Armor commercial featuring her having gone viral – if you’ve visited Facebook this week, you’ve definitely seen it – it’s all the rage for the general public to comment on her physical strength and marvel that ballet is truly athletic, as much a “sport” as football or hockey, etc., etc. Under Armor certainly seems to have achieved its intended goal. Copeland is strong, determined, successful – and hot! – and everybody’s uniformly amazed by her.

As they should be. Copeland is a gorgeous dancer and a beautiful, successful woman. What most people fail to grasp, I believe, is that she is no stronger or more physically impressive than her peers at the top of the ballet profession. Any dancer performing at Misty’s level – or above, as she is not yet a principal ballerina – can do what she does. The calves so prominently displayed in the commercial, the control and balance, the strength and spirit…that IS ballet. If Under Armor is helping to spread that gospel, then I’m grateful. But, as physically challenging as it is, ballet is not a sport. It requires every bit the same bodily talent and discipline but ballet is an art, demanding not only physical capability but grace, musicality and a transcendent stage presence. There are plenty of dancers out there with Misty Copeland’s calves but her rise is attributable to the miraculous union of her body’s ability with her exceptional artistry.

Part of Copeland’s meteoric rise to popularity is, of course, the fact that she’s a very rare example of a successful black ballerina, one who is more shapely than your average dancer. For this I admire Copeland’s tenacity and I celebrate ABT for recognizing her as a valuable contributor to the art form. Under Armor is smart to cash in on Copeland’s unique position. But while it’s positive that the company is promoting the idea that ballet is tougher than you think, it does dance a disservice to reduce its definition to pure sport. That’s the problem with a sportswear label being the leading educator about ballet to the general public. Dance companies around the world – the true experts – should be teaching us about ballet on TV and social media. As I’ve said all along, it’s past time to unleash the archival footage and play it for the world to see. Invite new audiences into the rarefied dance world by making accessible the incredible strength – and beauty – of ballet and the artists who dedicate their lives to performing it.

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Hubbard Street Dance Chicago

Hubbard Street Dance Chicago at the 2014 Spoleto Festival 


It’s been many years since I last saw Hubbard Street Dance perform live (that show was staged at Wolf Trap center for Performing Arts in Vienna, VA and it was fabulous) so the company’s participation at the 2014 Spoleto Festival was the main impetus for my spending this weekend in Charleston, SC. It was worth the trip.


Gnawa by Nacho Duato 

Opening the program was Nacho Duato’s “Gnawa,’ a visually stunning piece inspired by the Spanish-born choreographer’s feelings for the Mediterranean aesthetic. It was an energetic beginning to the show, danced impeccably by the group of 14. Most memorable was when the ensemble assembled in a sort of circular heap: a heaving mass of people expanding and contracting, with a dancer or dancers reaching out and sometimes flying over the formation here and there. The moment evoked a balanced sense of both community and individuality, both beautiful and life-affirming.  Q

Quintett by William Forsythe

After the first intermission came William Forsythe’s “Quintett,” which the choreographer intended as a final love letter to his dying young wife. In Forsythe’s own words in a May 2012 Chicago Tribune review:

It’s not at all morbid…I think if you saw it and didn’t know the background, you’d never guess. There’s no attempt to create any pathos. The message comes from the dancers in it, a message about living and dancing. 

This, I was glad to hear because I definitely didn’t “guess” the works’ inspiration. In fact, I wasn’t at all sure what to make of the piece. And I blame the music. I want to say that I enjoyed the spirit of the piece and Forsythe’s inventive choreography. However, the score – Britain’s Gavin Bryar’s “Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet” – was so repetitive and went on for so long that I lost all focus and just held on to my seat, waiting for it to be over.

The music is comprised of a short orchestral phrase accompanying a recording of an old homeless man singing a mumbled, tuneless lyric, played over and over again, ad infinitum. Perhaps Forsythe’s usual audience of Germans can better tolerate the sound. I was not the only one driven to near insanity by it. The girls behind me loudly voiced their annoyance. I eyed them for their rudeness – but I was totally thinking the same thing. Forsythe feels his piece is about the desire to live but it sure had me wanting to JUST END IT ALREADY.dean

PACOPEPEPLUTO by Alejandro Cerrudo

Mercifully, the second intermission was followed with Cerrudo’s PACOPEPEPLUTO. Three brief solos, one on the heels of the other, were so full of power and humor that it all ended too quickly and the audience was left wanting more. Because the piece is set to Dean Martin songs, I hadn’t high hopes for enjoying it personally, but the choreography and energetic dancers overcame my resistance immediately.

I’m not sure why the dancers were near-naked or why the lighting was so dim. A friend pointed out that suits and top hats would have seemed more appropriate for costumes. I’m all for seeing every bit of those incredible bodies work but a little more lighting would have made it more interesting in several respects! I hold criticism, however, as the performance space (a makeshift stage in TD Arena) could have been the culprit.


Falling Angels by Jiří Kylián

Completing the program was Kylian’s fascinating “Fallen Angels.” Kylian’s use of choreographic repetition stood in contrast with the musical repetitiveness about which I previously complained. Steps acquired increasing interest as one ballerina after another explored them in her own space. From Wikipedia:

Falling Angels depicts females and female dancers in their aim to achieve perfection but succumb in various stages to the human female psyche and female events such as ambition, seduction, pregnancy, birth, death, motherhood and self-awareness. It is about the things that pull and push a dancer from the ‘purity’ of dance and performance. 

This statement reeks, I feel, of anti-feminism. However, by replacing its specifically female-oriented phrasing with a more universally human angle, I arrive on a truthful commentary on humanity’s noble, yet impossible striving for perfection. Complete purity, in any form, artistic or otherwise, is simply not human.

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New York Public Library’s new online dance video archive

If the ballet companies won’t make their work more widely available, I’m glad the library is stepping up. Hopefully others will follow suit.


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The Consort

Music: Dowland, Neusidler, Morley and anonymous composers

Choreography: Eliot Feld

Premiere: American Ballet Company, New York 1970


Try finding footage – or even a still photograph! – of this ballet online and see for yourself the lack of any record of its existence. This is a perfect example of how potential audiences are missing out on dance history and another opportunity to discover its joy.

Just this week New York City Ballet posted footage from its recent performance of The Sleeping Beauty on Facebook. What a brilliant marketing tool! When will NYCB and its ilk stop hoarding footage and share it publicly for free online? Rather than driving down ticket sales, surely such access can only serve to peak interest.

With such a dearth of visual data on Eliot Feld’s The Consort, it’s hard to see why exactly Balanchine included it in his “101 Greats.”  A 1989 review* by Martin Bernheimer of Feld’s later ballets laments their diminished quality compared to The Consort’s “inventive antics.” Indeed, the ballet is sure to have plenty of those. Beginning with costume and choreography suited to the ballet’s Elizabethan score, the piece soon devolves – or evolves? – into an earthy, sexual foray. The dancers cast off traditional clothing onstage, revealing peasant gear befitting the loose romp to follow. Reviewers largely agree that this is where Feld’s choreography shines.

Deborah Jowett of The Village Voice says of The Consort’s conclusion, which sees the rowdy peasants engaged in “a debauch,” “It reminded me of one of those Breughel scenes: you feel that because most of the time the peasants must have worked so hard, their appetites for play and drunken oblivion must have been immense, simple and quickly sated.”

Additional resources


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Concerto Barocco

Concerto Barocco

Choreography: George Balanchine

Music: Johann Sebastian Bach

Premiere: Pre-NYC Ballet ensemble, May 29, 1940

As was his custom, Balanchine designed this ballet upon the score, composed in this case by Bach. He took the music as a point of departure and choreographed a non-narrative dance as its complement.  Always with the music as his guide, Balanchine rarely introduced story into his ballets. “If the score is a truly great one,” said Balanchine, “[the choreographer] … can present his impression in terms of pure dance.”

Concerto Barocco was the first of many Balanchine works to be costumed with practice attire. Today it’s a familiar aesthetic, stylistically typical of Balanchine’s work. As much of a dance lover as I am, the star of the piece for me is Bach’s gorgeous score. The choreography is sometimes lyrical and often sharp and athletic, a once unexpected interpretation of the music that is par for the course now that Balanchine is so ubiquitous.

Additional resources

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La Fille Mal Gardee (Paris Opera Ballet)

La Fille Mal Gardee (The Unchaperoned/WaywardDaughter)

Choreography: Jean Dauberval

Music: Ferdinand Herold

Premiere: France, 1789

My summer visit to the Paris Opera to see La Fille Mal Gardee had less to do with any particular interest in the production than with my long-held wish to see the opera house itself. The ridiculous chicken dance in the first few minutes of the ballet didn’t much bother me because I was too preoccupied with the gorgeous Chagall ceiling and images of “La Loge.”

I could tell, however, that the American guy in front of me (coerced into attendance, I’m sure, by his female companion) was thinking that ballet is the dumbest thing he’d ever seen. And if the first 20 minutes of La Fille had been my only exposure to dance, I’d have had to agree with him.

What once may have been charming or amusing – dancers in full chicken costume clomping about in gigantic plastic feet – is now embarrassingly silly. The effect of a pastoral scene might have been achieved with more subtly and artfully. I also remain unmoved by the tradition of en travesti roles (female characters portrayed by male dancers), which is employed in La Fille in the character of The Widow Simone. In a modern context it seems either bigoted (is it funny to see a man playing at femininity? are we laughing at the idea of the male ballet dancer?) or consciously contemporary (are we demonstrating our “ok-ness” with sexual ambiguity?) or strangely both. La Fille creates an exceptionally uncomfortable tension in the juxtaposition of clumsy Widow Simone and odd, effeminate suitor Alain. It feels incredibly un-PC to be giggling at the loping old woman, whom we know is played by a man, and the prancing sissy. The audience laughs along with the main characters and their villager friends and it feels like we’re all ganging up on Simone and Alain, like bullies at a playground.

Redeeming factors, however, did rescue this ballet for me and I now recall it fondly. The relationship between the title character (Lise, the un-guarded daughter) and her lover Colas is tender and mature. In love from the outset, their union grows deeper and more committed throughout the ballet. It’s a welcome change from the more typical boy meets girl scenario. The intimacy and friendship between the two are more believable than the star-crossed romances of other ballet lovers.

There is a recurring theme using ribbons, which is cleverly choreographed and beautiful. At times, Lisa and Colas lovingly entwine one another in colorful spools and later the village engages in a lively maypole dance.  Surprisingly, the loveliest, most memorable moment of the ballet is from a brief mime sequence. Lise, believing she is alone, imagines her life as Colas’ wife. Colas suddenly reveals himself and, realizing he has witnessed her reverie, Lise pulls her shawl over her head in embarrassment. Her shyness and humor, and the playful reconciliation that follows demonstrates true intimacy between the two.

In contrast with the cliche of the ballet’s pastoral setting, the relationship between Lisa and Colas feels relatable to a contemporary audience. Balanchine writes in “101” of La Fille that “the earliest of ballets in the current repertory, its universally comical situations are no doubt responsible for its survival.” I would guess, though, that it’s the universal love theme that’s caused La Fille to endure, through numerous re-workings over 150+ years, as a modern ballet treasure.




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