Monday, January 20, 2014

Of Bach, Balanchine and break dance

Ryan Valente and Ayako Takahashi in rehearsal.

I suppose "breaking down barriers" counts as one of our cultural mantras.  And as such slogans go - well, I suppose it's not bad.  (Who can be against breaking down barriers?)  I wish, however, that sometimes it could be expanded a bit, perhaps to "We're breaking down barriers - to go someplace new!"  This, however, rarely happens.  Almost never, in fact.  Indeed, the people most proud of breaking down barriers are generally the last to have any idea what to do once the barriers are broken.

Such questions reliably occur to me whenever I see the well-intentioned efforts of two rising stars on the local scene. A Far Cry is the talented, well-connected, local-but-global string orchestra that makes much of the fact that it's conductor-free - but struggles to claim a clear artistic identity beyond that.  It's hard not to like the earnest idealism of the Criers, as they're known - but what they're "about," i.e., what a conductor-free orchestra is supposed to reveal to us (beyond its utility as a platform for its performers' own talents) - remains something of a mystery.

Meanwhile the up-and-coming Urbanity Dance, a company/studio led by choreographer Betsi Graves, operates with something of the same innocent collective vibe (even if Graves is clearly in charge).  I think I caught Urbanity's first concert almost five years ago, and was charmed by the fledgling troupe's energy and commitment - and by Graves' own obvious leadership and logistical skills.  But even then I noted her choreography, though always smart and diverting, seemed a bit vague in its specifics, and often "bumped against a certain artistic ceiling."

So I was unsurprised to find the two groups aligned in "Chemistry," an evening built around Bach and Stravinsky - specifically, a suite of Bach dances pleasingly arranged for A Far Cry by Eric Nathan, and Graves' own take on Apollon Musagète (roughly "Apollo, Leader of the Muses"), the Stravinsky ballet that is closely identified with George Balanchine's iconic treatment of it.

We were advised in advance of "Chemistry" (as per usual) that barriers were about to be breached, breakthroughs were in the offing, and the walls dividing us were soon to fall, etc. These time-honored PR chestnuts are always nice to hear again, of course, and Graves did sort of deliver on her promise -  the company did, for a time, break through the invisible wall separating them from the orchestra, so that once or twice the two groups moved in concert. This has actually been done before - but it wowed the crowd, and it was quite charming. Luckily it was also brief - because to be honest, I'm not at all interested in watching classical musicians try to dance (trust me, by and large they dance like Elaine.) And I have to admit, as time went on I also found myself rubbing my head, as the performance bounced repeatedly against - well - a certain artistic ceiling.

But first the good news. In what may have counted as their first pan ever, I recently pilloried A Far Cry for a completely blank performance of Mozart's "Prague" Symphony.  But I have to report the Criers were in fine form in "Chemistry" - largely because neither the Bach nor the Stravinsky was symphonic in complexity, and individually the Criers are all superb talents.  There were, of course, interpretive decisions to be made about the Bach, as there are now at least two camps regarding how baroque music should be performed (and their collective politic dynamic generally nudges the Criers toward the academic consensus).  In the end, the players split the difference; they nodded toward the early music crowd by playing with almost no vibrato; but they simultaneously avoided the lilting, danceable meters that have now become de rigeur for period performance - their phrasings and rhythms sounded modern.

This sense of abstraction was a bit ironic given that this was a dance concert (and that the question of exactly how dance music became art music in the baroque period all but cries out for explication). But Graves wasn't interested in period dance - she was basically doing Modern 101 (with a hint of jazz, and a few post-modern touches). And she's certainly a solid, sometimes even inspired, choreographer.  Her opening salvo, in which the Urbanites gamboled like sprites among the playing Criers, was sweet in a college-girl "Oh-c'mon-why-won't-you-dance-with-me?" kind of way, and no doubt conjured in much of the audience memories of eager girls dragging their awkward boyfriends out on the dance floor, as they have since time immemorial.  And from this face-off Graves did tease one intriguingly metaphoric moment, in which the Criers suddenly leaned back (while still playing!) to be caught in the arms of the dancers. I wished Graves had been able to develop this insight further - it felt like only the first step in the development of her theme; but then she seemed to only intermittently keep that theme in focus.

What came next was really more about, well, just "girl stuff" - although the results were always appealing.  In one witty skit, a pair of "mean girls" were manipulated into a truce by the "chairs" (or friends?) on which they were seated; in another, a prom queen type lovingly groomed a "dress" made of her many admirers - then suddenly she yearned for freedom. So she tossed her living "gown" away - but then, shocked at her nakedness, desperately clawed back her submissive clique.  There were other moments of frisky physical wit - dancers became bodices and bustles in one inspired bit, and body surfing and even the iPhone found their way onto the stage.

So it was soon apparent that Graves is a born comic, and has a sweetly sardonic eye trained on the antics of her collegiate and twenty-something milieu.  I liked all her sketches, but - I just didn't see how they connected to Bach.  And beyond the funny punchlines, it was hard to see how her choreography developed over the course of the piece; when not doing comedy, she tended to rely on cookie-cutter group moves that telegraphed concepts like "yearning" or "conformity" - often danced right on the beat. It was hard to discern a signature vocabulary that Graves could call her own.

Similar issues informed her take on Apollon Musagète - although to be fair, perhaps she did herself no favors by openly quoting Balanchine.  (Which is a bit like a fledgling playwright invoking Shakespeare - it sets up a comparison no one in their right mind should want.)  It's probably worth mentioning, though, that once more Graves seemed to imagine that political metaphor could count as artistic content; she lifted Balanchine's structure pretty much wholesale for Appolon, in which the god Apollo "awakens" three muses - Calliope, Polyhymnia, and Terpsichore - before settling on Terpsichore (the muse of dance, naturally) as his consort.  

In Balanchine's version, this spare script ramifies in all sorts of intriguing directions; the austereness of his choreographic friezes echoes the neo-classical thrust of the Stravinsky (played with passion, btw, by A Far Cry, particularly violinist Omar Chen Guey), while the story of the lonely god of art resonates with Balanchine's own status as a master choreographer.  Graves's chief gambit was to update all this for feminists; her "Apollo" became "Ayallo" (the charismatic Ayako Takahashi), who presided over three male "muses" (Rossi Lamont Walter, Ryan Valente, and Brian Washburn).

The trouble was, the muses felt undifferentiated - their solos turned inward, in the vocabulary of break and street dancing (another political statement that seemed to hang in the air artistically). Nonetheless, the men did the best (or at least the most individual) dancing of the night - particularly Rossi Lamont Walker (to be honest, I was too often aware that only a few of Graves' smart, muscular women had achieved a really professional technical sheen). 

But Ayallo seemed unmoved; indeed, she seemed off in her own vaguely onanistic world, so we never understood her connection to Terpsichore - even though for a moment, when the two played hide-and-seek among A Far Cry, we felt a pleasing echo of Graves' "dancing-strings" gambit. Again, if only she had pursued this further! But instead Graves attempted another Balanchine update; in place of the fateful personal clinch that Mr. B. conjured for Stravinsky's "apotheosis," she pulled all of Urbanity Dance back onto the stage to lift up Ayallo collaboratively.

Which was a lovely gesture. And I'm sure spoke to Graves' personal experience. And honestly, if Urbanity Dance had actually come up with anything like Balanchine's achievement, it would have been triumphant, instead of coming off as sweet, but drenched in unconscious irony.

But then again, the crowd loved it - although few of them, I think, knew the Balanchine. So all I could do was sigh. You know, I wish collaboration could trump genius - really I do.  Our artistic lives would be so much richer if it could!  But I don't think it ever has - and I don't think it ever will.

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