in: Reviews

June 30, 2010

Rite, Ritual, and Romantic Struggle: Music and Dance Open Jacob’s Pillow, Tanglewood Festivals

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Rhythms reminiscent of Rite of Spring drove the most riveting performances in the June 25 and 28 offerings by the State Ballet of Georgia and the Mark Morris Dance Group that kicked off the dance and music seasons of the Jacob’s Pillow Dance in the Ted Shawn Theater and Ozawa Hall at Tanglewood, respectively. Both companies are justifiably renowned for bringing music front and center in their dances, and in moments tender and fierce, they showed keen awareness of the composers’ intentions, especially when sharing the stage with brilliant young piano and string players. In each program, ceremony and synchronous movement held in check powerful impulses of sexuality, violence, and self-abnegation. Passionate live performances of Stravinsky, Bizet, Chopin, Henry Cowell, and Lou Harrison, propelled leaps and lifts, slaps and stomps, prancing parades and paralytic pauses, along with astounding mad dashes by men and women flying over every square foot of stage. Those in attendance will not soon forget the virtuosity, expressivity, and stamina of these brilliant musicians and dancers.

State Ballet of Georgia at Jacob’s Pillow

Nina Ananiashvili, founder and artistic director of the Georgians and renowned principal of the Bolshoi, Kirov, and New York City ballet companies, offered a generous, three-part survey of a sweep of classical and modern dance that depicted the arc of her career. A set of delicious classical amuse-bouches, to recorded music by Delibes (Sylvia), Offenbach (La Chatte Metamorphosée en Femme), Massenet (Thaïs), and Johann Straus II (Fruhlingstimmen), all choreographed by Frederic Ashton, preceded a pair of live performances by Jeanette Fang, piano, and David Southern, violin, of Stravinsky’s Duo Concertant, choreographed by George Balanchine, and, with Fang performing alone, off-stage, Bizet’s Variations Chromatiques, retitled “Bizet Variations Pas de Six” in choreography by Alexei Ratmansky. The program closed with “Falling Angels” by choreographer Ji?í Kylián, set to recorded excerpts of Steve Reich’s Drumming.

Surely the most stunning moment of the first set was at the beginning of the Massanet, when, to that familiar, deeply-affecting descending melody, the powerful David Ananeli entered as a one-man sedan-chair, carrying Ananiashvili herself high on his right shoulder for what felt like 10 minutes as she slowly and exquisitely began her tribute to Anna Pavlova, with over-the-head arm movements, wrist-to-wrist, finger-to finger, undulating side-to-side, ultimately dismounting with a lovely, continuous, balanced sweep. Although Ananeli was alter-cast as a subordinate in this star turn, he was a worthy, musically-attuned counterweight to Ananiashvili’s controlled and whimsical presence, giving arm, hand, and lift in magnificently restrained reciprocations of longing and love. Would that that old, unidentified, undeniably pretty cello recording, effective as it surely was, had been played instead by the stunning duo presented after the intermission!

Efforts to integrate live music into dance performance in the Ted Shawn Theatre are inevitably frustrated, if not compromised, by the hum of the ceiling fans and the buzz of the air conditioning machinery overhead. In the old days, with the barn-door open at stage rear of a hot Sunday afternoon, the primitive blowers produced a kind of informal languor, apposite to the rough-and-ready history of the Pillow. Not, however, on this night.

In her otherwise-informative introduction of the Georgia State Ballet’s performance, Ella Baff, the executive director of Jacob’s Pillow, exclaimed, “Live dance, live music, what could be better!” Hear, hear. But when the lights dimmed almost to near-total darkness between program sections, the din grew inescapably from background to bloody distraction. And when a violin and piano had to fight to be heard at the outset of the Stravinsky, and when the sound technician miked up an off-stage, out-of-tune piano level to full flagrante at the beginning of the Bizet, one could not but wonder about the real place of music in the enterprise. Sadly, on this night, it could not have been but subordinate, whether or not by intention.

Notwithstanding these limitations, the pianist Annette Fang, playing a roll-out baby grand, and the violinist David Southern, miked directly, brought forth an inspired reading of the Stravinsky “Duo Concertant.” This work bristles with spiky rhythms and triad-on-triad harmonies redolent of the “Rite of Spring” and “Soldier’s Tale,” that underlay vivid, arching, chromatic lines, counterposed against the glowing cantabiles and romantic village tunes that one hears in the composer’s songs and in such ballet music as “Les Noces.” Indeed, there reigned here the vivid collaborative sprit of Diaghalev, if not of Ruth St. Denis, whose portrait, opposite her former partner Shawn’s, adorns one wing of the stage. The costumes were simple and the stage-set plain, but the melding of melody and movement, dissonance and drama, manifested a total commitment to making transcendent art by two duos of players and dancers.

At the beginning, Balanchine places the man and woman behind the piano, between the keyboard at the left and the violin at the right. Sebastian Kloborg and Nino Gogua listened attentively to the music until one, provoked by a musical stimulus or emotional impulse, pulled the other flirtatiously or forcefully to the center, where together they spun, fell, pranced, held, and delicately and indelicately intertwined. There was magic here in both music and dance, and especially in this seamless fusion of the arts. This piece was sublimely elevating and moving, the best of the evening.

The Bizet followed quickly after a short pause during which the grand piano was pushed off the stage, preparing the way for a lively, three-couple sortie that required the entire stage and its flies for soaring comings and goings. The choreographer, Alexis Ratmansky, who composed the dance in 2008 while serving with Anianashvili at the American Ballet Theater, contributed this comment to the program notes, focusing on the absence of narrative structure: “As George Balanchine used to say, when woman and man dance, it is already a story.”

This story, however, included a genuine devil, an over-amplified and out-of-tune instrument that sounded more like a neglected fortepiano or barrelhouse upright than the previously enjoyed baby grand. When suddenly, mid-way through the piece, the volume was ramped down, the inadequacy of the instrument was emphasized, not diminished, giving further dismay to a listener trying to stay engaged with the Bizet.

Notwithstanding, the piece worked well because of Annette Fang’s unremitting musicianship and indomitable character, and the evening’s most charming moment came at the end, when two of the dancers en pointe pulled her into their bows, held both her hands as they toed backwards to stage rear, and quickly returned to the front with their admired captive, a game and comely presence, wearing high heels.

The evening ended with a stunning, eight-woman evocation of feminine self-consciousness and striving for corporeal perfection and human connection. These “Falling Angels” wore sexy black leotards and reached out to one another across aching acres of separation, but also in tight company, the yearning emphasized by pin-point spots that pierced the darkened stage to reveal fingers straining to touch and hands grasping desperately to hold, the circle of light expanding to reveal entire bodies tortured by failed communication, falling, weeping, the whole troupe synchronizing a miserably controlling gesture: wrists over the heads and under their jaws, forcing their mouths shut. Those clamping limbs weren’t their own, their pained expressions suggested, but the many cultural and personal forces that silence women’s voices.

The piece included stylized emulations of frenzied workout routines, Michael Jackson moves, and slinky, sensuous steps performed by the entire ensemble in synchrony. Carried dancers fluttered their hands and struggled to break free, yet the rhythms of the bongos and midrange tom-toms appeared to lift the women’s spirits. In the end, the joy of the dance enabled the angels to rise above earthly adversity.

Here, ironically, the music, however canned and amplified in low-fi, served well as background. Compared to the African percussion ensembles that so obviously inspired it, these excerpts of Reich’s “Drumming” included neither the syncopations nor rhythmic anticipations that give the real thing its tension and swing. The downbeats were relentless and plodding, and the superimposed layers of rhythm added a bit of energy, if not real excitement and spice, focusing the eye and ear on the dancers.

Mark Morris at Tanglewood

Mark Morris’s annual Tanglewood visit, as always, featured his own brand of choreography that takes inspiration and draws energy from music performed in real time. Four large works were offered, “Mosaic and United,” to music by Henry Cowell (excerpts from his third and fourth String Quartets ); “Sang-Froid,” to piano music by Chopin (excerpts from Etude in A minor, Op. 10/2; Mazurka in A minor, Op.68/2; Etude in G flat, Op. 25/9; Mazurka in D, Op. 33/2; Berceuse in D-flat, Op. 57; Waltz in D-flat, Op.64/1, “The Minute Waltz”; Nocturne in F Minor, Op. 55/1; Prelude in A. Op. 28/7; and Etude in A minor, Op. 25/11), and the world premiere of a new work “The Muir,” (to folk songs arranged by Beethoven, “Ye shepherds of this pleasant vale,” “The sweetest lad was Jamie,” “Cease your funning,” “Sally in our alley,” “Could this ill world have been contriv’d,” “What shall I do to shew how much I love her?” “Sunset,” “ Come fill, fill my good fellow,” and “The lovely lass of Inverness.” After another pause came “Grand Duo,” to music by Lou Harrison (“Grand Duo: Prelude, Stampede, A Round, and Polka”).

At the outset of “Mosaic and United,” Cowell’s dense, lush music seemed to compensate for nearly every dissonant passage with a prominent, friendly, major chord. This uncertainty of intention was reciprocated by an ensemble of three men and two women who were clad in colorful, flowing pajamas by Isaac Mizrahi. A sense of precariousness and frustration pervaded the opening portion of the piece. Both men and women lifted their partners, whose arms and legs vibrated and fluttered, as the music became wispy and the jackets were shed. The beautifully played, arching, extended cello line propelled upward the faces and gestures of three dancers and framed the entire subsequent movement. Kathryn Bates Williams (A New Fromm Player) gave a splendid accounting of this challenging and exposed mini-concerto.

The cello, with lively rhythm, jump-started a lively, folksy sequence in 5/4 time. Some lovely quartet ensemble work counter-posed warm, rich sonorities against a parade of dancers lost in their individual thoughts. A man and woman broke away in a passionate duet. The woman retreated, dancing sensuously to a fabulous cello line that conjured circles and arabesques. When another man entered and stood alone, she ran distractedly and fell. As the cello line descended, she seemed almost to die, but when the cello ascended once more, she regained her excited animation, circling the two men. The cello’s voice appeared to evoke her passions, thoughts, and conflicts, and the dissonances were saucy and hot.

Suddenly the harmonic mood shifted to major, and a happy and lively ensemble was pulled to stop by a sustained triad. Then a keening, urgent, high cello melody began, with violins and viola stamping out fierce rhythms reminiscent of Bartok. A couple leapt into action with distinctive folk turns, jumps, and swings. Bursts of movement, stamping heels and races around and across the stage led to the first real summer wildness on the Ozawa Hall stage, the music feeding the dance, and vice versa. Once more Williams’s brilliant high-register cello led the action before everyone ran off.

A spiccato section followed, the bows of the second violin, viola, and cello bouncing the 3/4 meter as the first violin sang a lyrical melody. The female dancers returned in a sensuous, slow formation as the men circled around them. Soon re-garbed in their bright tops, two men suddenly carried off one woman, then another, then another. When grabbed, they folded. Did their fancy threads enable this aggression? Were the women seduced by such male display? Could they possibly have desired this abduction?

Then as Williams struck a set of lively 7/4 and 5/4 rhythmic riffs, another string player drummed on the back of her instrument, a slow and thoughtful final passage began, marked by beautifully expressive, sustained chords without obvious metric indications. Strong, assertive, rhythm returned, with strong and sonorous cello leading the way. A march with high kicks brought the company from the back to the front of the stage with a kind of fearsome inevitability, and the piece ended to clamorous applause.

Chopin was next, and what Chopin it was! Ryan McCullough, a Tanglewood Music Center Fellow, gave a bravura accounting of this unusual suite of familiar gems, sustaining with humor the 3/4 rhythms of the Mazurkas (as if the dancers really needed the extra emphasis) and spinning out the impossible thirds and embellishments of the Etudes as if they were cotton candy. The Berceuse was lovingly played. The dancers mimed his music, nodded off, lost balance, awakening suddenly. The ravishingly beautiful Chopin projected a sense of comfort that balanced the darkness, mystery and loss of control in the dance.

The Opus 64, No.1, waltz came across as a send-up of every performer who has tried to rush it into a minute’s display. Dancers careened across the stage, but were blocked by a fence formed by three of their colleagues, making the point, perhaps, that high art isn’t a technical show. Here, Ryan McCullough’s virtuosity was evident and understated, his playing projecting a warmth in the slightly slower, middle section, that conjured the humanity of Artur Rubenstein. The men that formed the blockade danced together here, sweetly and gently.

In the Nocturne, a sense of awkwardness and impending tragedy pervaded a small group of couples who looked balefully across the floor at one another, even as their stilted movements betrayed isolation from their partners. Failing and dying alone were suggested by seemingly unsuccessful efforts to revive fallen dancers. This was a brave and unflinching reflection on the tragedy of loss and our own essential separateness. McCullough evinced both its sadness and compassion at a thoughtfully nuanced slow tempo. Brilliant cascades of sound closed out the piece, and the dancers gave every indication of being moved – literally and figuratively – by the music. This is why we come to Tanglewood.

“The Muir,” though beautifully danced and sung, was an exercise in frustration. From Row N left, just 50 feet from the box where the quartet of singers and piano trio were placed, it was impossible to discern a single clear syllable of the English lyrics. This was not the fault of the soloists, all of whom sung articulately and with feeling, but rather with the problematic acoustics associated with positioning the singers in a low-ceilinged corner forward of extreme stage left. Although two and a half pages of single-spaced text were provided in the program, it was impossible to read them in the darkened hall. And who, anyway, would want to read them on one’s lap while trying to watch a dance performance?

The charming, vernacular lyrics were essential to both dance and song. Would it not have been appropriate to provide the singers with adequate amplification or positions on the stage, or to utilize the supertitle system announced in this very printed program to interpret the forthcoming “Beowulf” in Ozawa Hall? As it stood, this performance left an impression of vigorous and pleasant dancing, colorful ball-gowns, intensely presented Beethoven, and an inattention to detail that risked spoiling a Mark Morris world premiere.

The “Grand Duo” that closed out the evening came across as a kind of confectionary “Rite of Spring.” Michelle Yard was the star of the show, provoking worry for her safety as unbearable tension rose in the Prelude movement. She turned from one couple to another, reaching desperately for engagement and protection, as the piano punched out inexorable rhythms, with right-fisted clusters of notes evoking a sacrificial ritual. She retreated to stage rear, facing away, her red dress almost shouting “Stop this!” Then silence. And darkness. A thrilling, menacing pause. What was coming next?

But fortunately, even as devices of threat and victimization returned, and the music ebbed and flowed, Ms. Yard survived, and, indeed, triumphed in a lovely panoply of turns, bows, jumps, pairings, and affecting reconnections. Of all the dancers in the company, she projected the most human vulnerability and resiliency in the face of the cruel fusion of rite and cruelty.

Were Harrison’s music to have had more tissue and harmonic richness, the piece would have been more devastating. Although its rhythms and interplay between piano and violin were lively and infused with respect for the compositional tradition associated with the Ballets Russes, it paled in comparison to the exalting Stravinsky “Duo Concertant” that so energized the evening at Jacob’s Pillow. This is not to say, however, that it was not well played. Both Katherine Bormann, the violinist, and Nolan Pearson, the pianist, gave it their all, and provided exemplary collaboration to all the action on the stage.

Mark Morris’s vision is not a pessimistic one. He appears to eschew the formalism and abstracted standards of beauty that pervade the classic ballet tradition, and to favor down-to-earth athleticism and emotional expression. In triumphs like “Mosaic and United” and “Sang-Froid,” he melds music and movement with substance and style, posing big questions and giving assurance that high art can allay the discomforts of the examined life.

Eli Newberger studied music theory and reviewed classical music for the Yale Daily News. Performing music, he wrote in “Medicine of the Tuba” in Doctors Afield (Yale University Press, 1999), helps him to care. That chapter and other writings on music and medicine may be found on his website, here.

2 Comments

  1. Ryan MacEvoy McCullough is my favorite pianist. Glad to see him getting the attention he deserves!

    Comment by Bonnie Davies — July 1, 2010 at 10:01 pm

  2. Fine fluid interesting writing style- erudite and informative. Kind of a marathon of a review! New Yorker, anyone? Good for you about carping about the condition of instruments, sloppy amplification and suboptimal acoustics!

    I am impressed with your fund of knowledge about dance ! Did you take a crash course or were you always a balletomane?

    I really hope that you contribute on a regular basis. You are a real high value addition to the Intelligencer. Kudos!

    Comment by Tony S — July 5, 2010 at 2:26 pm

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