MORPHOSES OPENS ITS 2009 NEW YORK SEASON WITH ITS BEST PROGRAM THUS FAR

Performance photos coming soon; in the meantime please enjoy another BRILLIANT photo by Kyle Froman.

Christopher Wheeldon’s Morphoses opened its NY season last night at City Center and I felt it was the best program they’ve done in their three years of existence. (At least Program A was; tonight I’ll see Program B). It’s a varied program with work by four different choreographers: Wheeldon himself; Bolshoi A.D.-turned ABT resident choreographer Alexei Ratmansky, whom all the critics downright worship; Australian Tim Harbour; and the Dutch husband and wife team Lightfoot Leon.

I must talk first about the third piece on the program, that by Lightfoot Leon, Softly As I Leave You. This is one of the most riveting pas de deux I’ve ever seen and it’s performed by the absolutely mesmerizing Drew Jacoby and Rubinald Pronk. Every single person who is not a professional critic was absolutely spellbound by it, could not stop talking about it. This happened at both the Fall For Dance Festival, where the work premiered (which I wrote about here), and last night. It’s simply about a couple, one partner’s decision to leave the other, and it’s a harrowing decision. After the lights went out on the final poignant image, the elderly woman on my left, whom I didn’t know, grabbed me and said, “Oh my God, that was so good!” And from my friend, who thinks the Arvo Part music used (Spiegel im Spiegel) is completely over-used and was expecting not to like it for that reason: “Oh my God, that music actually worked here!” she exclaimed, open-mouthed. She agreed it was one of the best duets she’d ever seen. And people were going on and on about it during intermission, both here and at FFD.

So why in the world do the critics hate it so much??? They ALL do. ALL OF THEM. It’s like in order to be a professional critic there are certain things you’re required to hate and this is one of them. And yet audiences are so overwhelmed by its power. Clement Crisp rants, “I can find not one iota of merit in its vulgar posturings.” Guardian critic Luke Jennings calls it “slick surfaced” and replete with “glib insincerity.” I can’t remember Alastair Macaulay’s exact words after its FFD premiere, but he hated it too. And a Ballet.co critic whom I spoke with at an ABT Guggenheim event (and who was the only non-Brit of the lot) complained how awful he thought it was as well.

This happened — I’m sorry, I’m getting off on a tangent — but this happened with practically every Fall For Dance piece, and with ABT’s recent season: EVERY SINGLE CRITIC hated every single one of the pieces the public adored (Barton, Millepied, Mark Dendy’s BRILLIANT Afternoon of the Fauns) and loved those they found least compelling (Ratmansky). I mean, more on this later, but what do you do if you’re an artistic director or choreographer? Do you cater to the critics — the “important people” or do you trust us, the commoners?

Anyway, mine and my friend’s second favorite piece of the night was Tim Harbour’s Leaving Songs. Guess what: all the critics hated it. I need to move to Europe… This dance had such emotional depth. It was about the cycle of life, death and rebirth — though I’m not sure you’d know that if the choreographer hadn’t said so in a little film clip shown before the program. But that doesn’t matter; you can come up with your own meaning anyway. The movement was kind of a combination of modern, classical and what looked to me to be African, and the music, by Australian composer Ross Edwards, is equally varied, at points sounding classical European, at points more percussive and African-sounding.

There were several striking moments, such as the point during a pas de deux where a man puts his hands around a woman’s neck and she falls before him. It kind of seems as if he’s strangling her out of anger, but then her arms flutter about beautifully, almost-bird like. It’s a combination of violence and grace. And there’s a moment where the group is dancing in ensemble and the movement is very wavy and undulating, very African, and everyone’s moving in unison and the music slows and the dancers slow, almost like they’re approaching death. Then the drums start pulsating and the dancers come to life and begin sidling cautiously but with intention toward the front of the stage. There are also several very sexually suggestive scenes with women’s legs splayed in the air. No tights are worn, and my friend and I couldn’t stop wondering how in the world they keep those leotards from shifting…

Anyway, I found the Harbour very compelling. And Rubinald Pronk really stood out here as well. He has so much fluidity and expansiveness in his body, and I don’t think anyone has more intense eyes.

(photo from Vail website)

Alexei Ratmansky’s Bolero was enjoyable too, largely because of the familiar Ravel music. For me, Ratmansky is one of those artists whose work doesn’t jump out at you and hit you over the head with its brilliance. Rather, I’ll need to see a dance of his several times before I get a sense of what it’s about, before I can fully appreciate it. Wheeldon’s work is the same. The critics seem to think this is the mark of a good choreographer — that it grows on you and you notice new things with each viewing, and I suppose it is. But for the average consumer, going to the ballet so often to see pieces over and over again to understand and appreciate them more fully can get prohibitively expensive. Dance art is not like a museum or art gallery where you can stand there for as long as you like.

Anyway, in Bolero, there are four pairs of women and men, each person wearing a number on his or her top. The women wear white tops and little skirts, almost like cheerleaders and the men wear black. If the women were cheerleaders, the men didn’t seem to be any kind of sports players though. They danced in groups divided between male and female, almost as if they were competing with each other, or as if their movement was some kind of back and forth dialog. And then toward the end, they began to partner each other more, the crescendo of the music complemented by various lifts that I found at points to be a little humorous, though it may have just been me. For example, when those trombones (I think that’s what they are anyway; maybe they’re tubas), are blaring kind of off-key at the end, the men lift the women over their heads, upside-down and the women do these upside-down developes, their legs splaying along with the warped trombones. I thought it was funny but I might be the only one.

And then the first piece on the program was Wheeldon’s Commedia (photo above by Erin Baiano), which was made in homage to Ballets Russes and was premiered last year. I wrote a bit about it here and here.

Here’s an excerpt from the company performing Commedia at the Vail International Dance Festival:

Also, this season marks the company’s collaboration with the young orchestra (most players are under 30, Wheeldon said), Philharmonic Orchestra of the Americas, founded and directed by the very entertaining, energetic Alondra de la Parra — yes, a female conductor OMG! The evening opened with Wheeldon giving a little address and then the orchestra playing on Overture to Estancia: Malambo by Alberto Ginastera. At the same time the orchestra played the Overture (this was their first time playing in a pit for dance, and not centerstage, by the way), a screen was dropped over the stage and a delightfully humorous film was shown of the dramatic conductor directing her crew, the violinists all swaying dramatically in unison at points. It was a lot of fun. Whole night was very good.

9 Comments

  1. I loved how Jacoby & Pronk summarized the London Morphoses season in a tweet ” audience response = great, critics' response = poop”!

    Commedia is one of my favorite Wheeldon pieces ever, I think I like it better than Carrousel. The “lovers pas de deux” is so delicate & moving. Who danced it in NY? (here in London we had Watson & Benjamin – same cast as last year)

    E.

  2. In NY it was danced by Danielle Rowe & Matthew Prescott. I really enjoyed the first program, especially Commedia. I thought it had more sweetness and geniality than I remembered from last season. Different dancers = different impressions.

  3. Hey Tonya –

    It's a brutal question. I can't speak for every critic (and I liked the Harbour best from Program A) but I think the problem with the response to Lightfoot Leon piece *might* be generational. I liked the performances but feel like the work is more effect than substance – something that honestly a critic will care about more than the general audience. But it's my job to object to that, IMO.

    There is a disconnect between the critics and the audience – I don't even own a TV, I couldn't care less about Dancing With The Stars or So You Can Think You Can Dance. I give a lot fewer points for great dancing – most dancers right now are a lot better than the material they dance – and I feel like it's an important part of my job to object to that as well. Maybe that's another part of the disconnect?

    Best regards –

    Leigh

  4. It’s interesting to contrast the approach of the dance critics you’ve mentioned with that of book critics, who seem to be much more concerned with and aware of the idea of intended audience. It’s pretty standard to see lines like “For fans of cerebral mysteries” or “Fans of [insert author name here] will be right at home.”

    Even when they don’t like a book themselves, critics will often acknowledge its appeal to a different sort of reader. And a book that falls short of Flaubert might still be a “guilty pleasure” or “decent beach read” or whatever.

    There was one book blogger who absolutely hated my novel but ended her review by saying that fans of J.D. Salinger might like the writing(!). I’d never been so happy for a bad review in my life.

    These dance critics seem less concerned with the audience. Obviously, they have more knowledge and historical perspective than most dance-goers, but It might be nice to have a little more acknowledgment of the diversity of tastes. Maybe an occasional: “While fans of SYTYCD will admire the showmandship and athleticism, [total slam here]…” or “Mark Morris fans [are wrong] but…”

    Maybe some of that is a British thing, but then, Wheeldon is British. Maybe they root for different soccer—er, football—teams? Whatever, Morphoses rocked last night.

  5. I wonder if some of the difference Michael describes doesn't stem, at least in part, from the fact that there are so many more venues for book criticism than there are for dance criticism. I see the “for fans of…” sort of review most often in the trade publications (Publishers Weekly for example, or Library Journal) while they seem far less common in, say, the Times. And many genre books simply don't get reviewed in large, widely read publications. Rather, they're reviewed in publications geared toward that particular genre so there's a great awareness of writing for a specific audience. Romances, for example, make up a large portion of the market, they sell a great many copies, but they're generally not being in big newspapers.

    There are also so many more people writing book reviews than there are dance reviews that it seems natural that you'd wind up with a greater diversity of opinion. More people lead to more opportunities to disagree. One hopes, anyway.

  6. Hi Meg,
    Yeah, I think that’s totally true: There are more books and more reviewers, and so it is self-evidently helpful to categorize books by genre and cross-reference authors in reviews. But the basic question is the same: Does the reviewer acknowledge perspectives and tastes other than his or her own? In books, the answer is often yes; in dance, it seems more often to be no.

  7. I wonder if some of the difference Michael describes doesn't stem, at least in part, from the fact that there are so many more venues for book criticism than there are for dance criticism. I see the “for fans of…” sort of review most often in the trade publications (Publishers Weekly for example, or Library Journal) while they seem far less common in, say, the Times. And many genre books simply don't get reviewed in large, widely read publications. Rather, they're reviewed in publications geared toward that particular genre so there's a great awareness of writing for a specific audience. Romances, for example, make up a large portion of the market, they sell a great many copies, but they're generally not being in big newspapers.

    There are also so many more people writing book reviews than there are dance reviews that it seems natural that you'd wind up with a greater diversity of opinion. More people lead to more opportunities to disagree. One hopes, anyway.

  8. Hi Meg,
    Yeah, I think that’s totally true: There are more books and more reviewers, and so it is self-evidently helpful to categorize books by genre and cross-reference authors in reviews. But the basic question is the same: Does the reviewer acknowledge perspectives and tastes other than his or her own? In books, the answer is often yes; in dance, it seems more often to be no.

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