Over the weekend I saw the second of the two experimental performances sponsored by the Guggenheim in celebration of the museum’s current Kandinsky exhibit. (The first was the Isabella Rossellini reading / light show I wrote about earlier). This one, which took place at Columbia University’s Miller Theater, sought to honor the ideals of the early 20th Century Kandinsky-led Blue Rider movement, which advocated the bringing together of visual, music, and literary artists to produce art that would engage all of the senses.

So, this production, The Blue Rider in Performance, combined poetry/opera libretti, music, dance, and paintings and other visuals. During the first half of the program, soprano Susan Narucki sang libretti by various composers including Arnold Schoenberg, Thomas de Hartmann, Arthur Lourie, and Anton Webern, while Sarah Rothenberg (who also conceived and directed the show), played piano.

Both women were brilliant. I also loved the images projected onto the back wall during the singing and piano playing. Sometimes a vibrant full-blown painting by Kandinsky would appear, at other times the wall would go blank and a black line would slowly begin wending its way across that wall — a painting in progress. At other times, there would be no painting, but instead a kind of light show of shadow play of what was happening onstage. The lights would catch Rothenberg as she played. She’d sometimes appear rather ghostlike, sometimes macabre, sometimes threatening, as she’d hunch over her piano, creating a rather wicked shadow, while swaying her body rather violently about as her hands flew back and forth across the keys, producing an equally violent-sounding melody.

I didn’t know that much about Kandinsky, and so, after these performances did some research. Art  historians and critics have used his painting, The Blue Rider (above), to show how he used color. Kandinsky was considered the father of abstract art. He wasn’t as interested in painting figures realistically as he was evoking an emotional response in the viewer through color and shadow – -blue being the color of spirituality to him. In the image above, your eye is drawn to the movement of the rider. But the movement is depicted through a series of colors– the blue of his jacket is lighter than that cast on the ground by his shadow — rather than specific details. Is he carrying a child in his arms or not? It’s not really clear. But you get the sense that the rider is moving very fast toward something; you feel an urgency.

I felt that as well with the way they used the lights to shadow Ms. Rothenberg as she played piano. You couldn’t see details in her movement, which was illuminated in large shadows on the back wall, but she was moving across that keyboard madly, her movements blending into one another. She looked like a mad scientist at times. The sometimes chaotic melody, along with these shadows, combined to create this feeling of frenzy, or of being haunted by something.

(photo by Julieta Cervantes, taken from the NY Times)

In the second half of the program, the piano was removed and the Brentano String Quartet took the stage and played Schoenberg’s String Quartet No. 2 in F-sharp minor, Op. 10 (Arnold Schoenberg was a member of the Blue Rider Group as well). During the first part of this second half, four dancers from Armitage Gone! Dance performed choreography by former “punk ballerina” Karole Armitage. Opera Chic informs that Schoenberg wrote this piece during a rather trauma-filled period in his life, when his wife left him for another man – an artist Schoenberg had hired to teach him to paint — then returned home, upon which the artist committed suicide and destroyed all of his artwork.

The four dancers — two male, two female — in broad strokes portrayed this story, the two women initially beginning as companions, then fighting, breaking into couples with the two men. The couples would mirror each other — one would struggle, performing tension-filled lifts and supported stretches, while the other would be more at peace with one another. Then it would change. At one point, one of the couples was engaged in this really sadly beautiful statue-like embrace where the woman leaned toward the man, putting her weight into his chest, seemingly needing him, while he, considerably taller than she, rested one elbow atop her shoulder, and held his hand to his forehead, as if his mind was full of turmoil, trying to decide what to do about her. It was such a mesmerizing pose, especially with the way they held it for a considerable time, I almost couldn’t take my eyes off of them to watch the other couple dance.

During the second half, the dancers exited and the soprano returned. So there wasn’t a whole lot of dance. But, despite that, I really enjoyed these two experimental performances the Guggenheim put on. More please!

The Kandinsky exhibit continues through mid-January.

Top image taken from the Miller Theater site; the second, of Kandinsky’s Blue Rider, from here.

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