A Year-end List for a Dreadful Year
There’s no way around it: it’s been a miserable year for the performing arts here in the US (and just about everywhere else). Dance was no exception. Almost every live performance was canceled, and let’s face it, dance does not do well online. One quickly tires of staring at a screen; the mind freezes. That give-and-take that happens in real space, dancer-to-viewer, is missing. As are all the magical elements of the theater: live music, and the ability to choose where to look, to be surprised by some tiny detail upstage left, or to be engulfed by sound and movement and costumes and lights. For a moment, you can think of nothing else.
But still, there were highlights, moments in which for whatever reason, some spark illuminated the soul. Some happened in person, some were virtual, all of them whetted the appetite for the resurgence of dance, and music, and theater, sometime soon.
1) The last performance I saw in a theater before the world shut down was Alexei Ratmansky’s Of Love and Rage for American Ballet Theatre, which premiered at the Segerstrom Center for the Arts in Costa Mesa in early March. Now that performance feels like the end of an era, the last waltz in Vienna before the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand. Of Love and War is ballet’s equivalent to a Hollywood colossal, with a huge cast, elaborate sets inspired by Antiquity (by Jean-Marc Puissant), bombastic music by Aram Khachaturian, and a fast-moving plot worthy of a Douglas Fairbanks double-header. The story is drawn from Chariton’s 1st-century AD romance Chaereas and Callirhoe, a tale of love, woe, and adventure. When I saw it, the choreography was still freshly-made. The ballet was in the process of coming into being. It was all the more exciting to witness the dramatic scenes – including a wonderful battle – and rip-roaring character dances, coming to life. Will we see this kind of ballet-spectacle again anytime soon?
2) The next live performance I saw took place four months later, on a former horse farm in upstate New York (Tivoli). Nothing could have been further from the experience I’ve just described. The Kaatsbaan Summer Festival was made possible by the quick thinking and determination of two extraordinary women, Stella Abrera and Sonja Kostich, who looked around at all the dancers who were out of work and said, we’ve got to do something about this. They had a stage built in the middle of a green field on the property of Kaatsbaan – usually home to masterclasses and residencies – and invited groups of dancers to quarantine and rehearse following strict protocols. The show I saw consisted of half an hour in which four people performed solos, only one with live musical accompaniment. I barely remember the choreographies, but what I do remember is the feeling of being around dancers again, the way my mind relaxed, like a muscle remembering a familiar sensation. That said, I do remember the beauty of Leonardo Sandoval’s tap solo, accompanied by Gregory Richardson on double bass. The two entered a friendly conversation, their voices replaced by tapping feet, claps, snaps and pizzicato strings. It was bliss.
3) Most of the dances produced this year were, by necessity, virtual. Most were heartfelt, serious, anguished. All were appropriate to the moment. But not many managed to bridge the gap between the screen and that part of the brain that responds to dance. One that did was Andrea Miller’s New Song for New York City Ballet’s virtual fall season. Maybe it was Victor Jara’s androgynous, wounded voice singing “no canto por cantar, ni por tener buena voz, canto porque la guitarra tiene sentido y razon, tiene corazón de tierra.” (What a beautiful choice of music.) Or maybe it was seeing the four dancers splashing around in the Henry Moore fountain at Lincoln Center under the warm sun. Or the way the camera traveled across the plaza creating a sense of depth and space (something most video dances lack). The choreography was simple and human: dancers running up a hill, leaping on the far side of a fountain, gliding and falling in the foreground. But it felt honest and true.
4 and 5) Two of the best dances on film I saw this year were created for Fall for Dance, which also went virtual this year. Both looked like they might be just as effective if performed live and in person. In fact, I hope we get to see them performed here or elsewhere someday soon.
The first was Jamar Roberts’ Morani / Mungu (Black Warrior/Black God). The solo, performed by Roberts on the stage of City Center, made use of his powerful build, his muscular back and long arms, and his gentle, expressive face. It was a solo about pain, set to a triptych of music: “Black Is,” by The Last Poets; Coltrane’s “The Drum Thing”; and Nina Simone’s “You’ll Never Walk Alone,” for piano. It seemed as if the tragedies of the summer – the unjust killing of George Floyd and others by police, the death of thousands from disease – were coursing through Roberts’ body. It was an extraordinary performance.
As was that of Sara Mearns and David Hallberg in Christopher Wheeldon’s The Two of Us, set to four Joni Mitchell songs. Again, it helps that it was set to Joni Mitchell, whose voice transmits a sense of gravity, maturity, and regret, all mixed into one. But what made this pas de deux special was the way Wheeldon channeled those qualities and combined them with those of his two dancers – Mearns in particular. Their focus, their ability to show the slightest detail. The steps looked spontaneous, connected to emotion, not acted out but felt, in the moment. The words spoke of memory and longing; the movements were private, delicate, almost tentative. In its final moments, as Mearns arched her back in Hallberg’s arms while reaching away from him, the duet captured the vulnerability and loneliness we have all felt at some point this year.
Best wishes to all of you for the holidays, and here’s to a better 2021.