Friday, March 27, 2015

Dance artist Jessica Chen lights a candle

Jessica Chen
(photo: Vanessa Gonzalez-Bunster)

In 2013, I interviewed dancer-choreographer Jessica Chen (J Chen Project) a little over a year since a near-fatal car accident left her with injuries so severe that she needed surgery and spent two weeks in a medically-induced coma. (Read Unbreakable Spirit: dancer Jessica Chen--here). Towards the end of that Q&A, I asked Chen, "What is the absolutely most important thing that people should know about you?" She told me, "I am a fighter, and I am a rebel." She said the hospital had to strap her down and place an alarm on her bed because she'd once tried to leave. That's the artist you see today in her suite of dances, Never Was Broken: a dance through life and death and life, running now at Ailey Citigroup Theater.

Jessica Chen
(photo courtesy of the artist)

Chen combines this toughness with a sense of spirituality and gratitude infusing every aspect of her program. The evening begins with a "pre-show invocation installation" on a stage strewn with votive candles and lissome, swirly dancers as, over an instrumental track from Sade, vocalist Enrico Rodriguez sings of the desire to "focus my energies to heal my body/fill my mind with beautiful images and sounds." In this song, forgiveness is called "the healer of hearts." Dances that follow bear titles like Let Us Pray, No (evil), Leap of Faith and Amen--this last one set to a reading of The Lord's Prayer. Program notes express Chen's articles of faith on art and life itself. At no point, though, does any of this seem overly pious or overbearing. It's a sharing she handles with grace, and the gutsiness of her choreographic voice helps to balance things out.

Under Alan Edwards's dramatic chiaroscuro lighting, Chen's movement ideas flow and ebb and flow again with the wild force and sinuosity of ocean waves. Dancers, when connecting with others, resemble nerves firing impulses and influence across synapses. These abstract interactions, always searching and inventive, suggest an entire system illustrated across the stage--one brain, one body--healthfully proceeding with its work. In Chen, I recognize a desire for beauty--her version of tikkun olam, to make connections and make sense of the world through movement.

The most eye-opening work on this program, though, travels a dark space. It's Training the Devil, a piece Chen co-choreographed with Chien-Hao Chang. The piece explores the volatile nature of a relationship between lovers apparently equal in strength and bullheadedness. Chen makes a fascinating match with her partner and mirror Sandy Shelton, a whirlwind. Even without knowledge of Chen's backstory, one would be impressed with the confidence and tenacity of this artist in body, mind and spirit.

Performers: Jessica Aronoff, Flannery Houston, Sandy Shelton, Rafael Sanchez, Yasmin Schoenmann and Cole Mills with vocalist Enrico Rodriguez

Guest choreographers: Norbert de la Cruz III, Nicole Smith and Chien-Hao Chang

Never Was Broken concludes this evening with a performance at 8pm. For information and tickets, click here.

Ailey Citigroup Theater
405 West 55th Street (at 9th Avenue), Manhattan
(map/directions)

Thursday, March 26, 2015

On the nature of climate change: Karole Armitage at AMNH

Two scenes from On the Nature of Things by Karole Armitage
(photos: Julieta Cervantes)

Elizabeth Kolbert wrote in Field Notes From A Catastrophe, "It may seem impossible to imagine that a technologically advanced society could choose, in essence, to destroy itself, but that is what we are now in the process of doing.

Problems such as climate disruption, toxification of Earth, loss of biodiversity, loss of ecosystem services are solveable, but to do so human behavior must be basically altered.
In the twenty-first century we have created a civilization that is way out of step with the realities of our planet. 
--Paul Ehrlich, from text for On the Nature of Things

So our beloved American Museum of Natural History has funding from that climate change-denying Koch brother (click here). Well, last night's world premiere of On the Nature of Things, staged beneath the museum's iconic blue whale, felt like nothing short of an exorcism.

Choreographer Karole Armitage (Armitage Gone! Dance) filled Milstein Hall of Ocean Life with a multi-generational corps, including dancers from Manhattan Youth Ballet, as Stanford biologist Paul Ehrlich, performing live narration, laid down the science in layperson's terms. The message? Uncompromising: Climate is changing, we are responsible for it, and we are responsible for it.

And, no, I'm not merely repeating myself. We did it. Now we have to fix it.

Armitage and Ehrlich--a longtime friend of the choreographer's father, a biologist--fervently agree that the only way to engage most people with the complex science around climate and environment is through the heart, hence through the power of the arts. In that light, On the Nature of Things serves more as a supportive underscore, I think, than as educator or motivator--at least, up there on Manhattan's Upper West Side. The piece was made for the museum, but imagine the public service Armitage could do by touring it around the heartland and southlands before our next elections.

As a visual phenomenon, the work benefits, first, from its unique setting which places its uniformly-costumed dancers--a subliminal message in that coral color scheme?--in the midst of the museum's displays, encircled by onlookers there and on balconies. Armitage handles the hall's broad open floor with dramatic force, her deployment of dancers suggesting rising population, mounting tensions, collisions, competition for space and dominance. Her movement technique--a fusion of modern and ballet, meticulous, often showy--can hold the eye without necessarily spelling out matters spoken by Dr. Ehrlich. Unfortunately, the narration-dance overlay does not work. Luckily, I had the script and time to read it beforehand.

One wonders at the presence of a few dancers en pointe, especially when they use those pointe shoes for the clever but weirdly distracting trick of a quick slip across the floor. The dancers, though, are all in. They accomplish a handsome, coherent performance culminating in the choreographer's vision of serenity, hope and healing that we have yet to earn.

On the Nature of Things will continue with performances tonight and tomorrow at 7pm. For information and tickets, click here.

American Museum of Natural History
Central Park West and 79th Street, Manhattan
(Enter at 79th Street underneath staircase.)
(map/directions)

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Other American Museum of Natural History presentations of interest:


Our Earth’s Future: One-Day Course
Saturday, April 11, 9am–4pm
Free with application, available on amnh.org

In a special one-day offering, Dr. Debra Tillinger will lead an in-depth exploration of the science of the Arctic and Antarctic regions, and how changes in these two critical areas of Earth indicate and catalyze the impacts of climate change. Participants will hear from guest speakers on the geology, biology, and cultures of these beautiful and fragile parts of the world. They will also engage in discussions, take Museum hall tours, and enjoy a challenging game of geopolitics—SMARTIC, in which players must enact real-life solutions to the potential large-scale problems anticipated by the impact of climate change in the polar regions. Refreshments will be served.

Milstein Science Series: Sea Turtles
Sunday, May 3, 11am–4:30pm 
Free for Members or with Museum admission

Sea turtles are simply astounding! They lived alongside dinosaurs 150 million years ago, and still survive today. Playing a crucial role in our oceans’ ecosystems, this incredible animal group is now endangered due to climate change, poaching, habitat destruction, and accidental capture in fishing gear. Learn more about these resilient aquatic creatures and the conservation efforts in place to protect them with Eleanor Sterling, Chief Conservation Scientist, Center for Biodiversity & Conservation at the American Museum of Natural History; Wallace J. Nichols, scientist and New York Times-bestselling author of Blue Mind; and Michael Coyne, executive director of seaturtle.org. The event includes a live music performance by Bash the Trash, playing instruments made out of reused and repurposed materials.

For additional information, call 212-769-5100 or visit the Museum’s website at amnh.org.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Hold the date! Tuesday, May 12: Dance Criticism in New York

Dance Criticism in New York

presented by
Gibney Dance Center
280 Broadway, Manhattan

moderated by
Eva Yaa Asantewaa
InfiniteBody

Tuesday, May 12 
6pm to 8:30pm

Free admission
(RSVP information to come)


Do dance critics play a useful, integrated role within New York’s dance community? 

How well do they serve the field and its audiences? 

How can dance writing and its presentation evolve to make the most of changed and challenging economic, social and technological environments?

Listen to insights from our panel of dance writers--

A Nia Austin-Edwards
Charmaine Warren
Jaime Shearn Coan
Marissa Perel
Rose Anne Thom
and
Siobhan Burke

--as they respond to these questions as well as "The Perfect Dance Critic," an essay by Miguel Gutierrez. Brief presentations will be followed by a frank, lively community discussion of your own ideas and strategies around dance criticism in New York.

Confirming Adams: Attacca and The Francesca Harper Project

John Adams "Confirmed" Dances
Attacca Quartet
l-r: Luke Fleming, Amy Schroeder, Keiko Tokunaga and Andrew Yee
(photo: Lisa-Marie Mazzucco)

Limor TomerMetropolitan Museum of Art's Curator of Performance, was admittedly starstruck to be onstage with composer John Adams last evening at the museum's auditorium. For his part, Adams playfully disputed her description of his work--"I don't really think of Bach when I think of myself...I'm more inspired by country fiddling and R. Crumb comics"--while praising Attacca Quartet, there to present John Adams "Confirmed" Dances, selections from his chamber works for strings

Mentioning past collaborations with Shen Wei and Trisha Brown, Tomer noted the museum's intent to work more often with dance artists. And, indeed, in this concert, Attacca's music would be paired with The Francesca Harper Project and guests from Dance Theater of Harlem and Howard University.

Marred only by a technical glitch that briefly interrupted the performance of John's Book of Alleged Dances (1994), the concert proved why the young musicians--Luke Fleming (viola), Amy Schroeder (violin), Keiko Tokunaga (violin) and Andrew Yee (cello)--have won multiple awards. Their needle-fine sensitivity, clear, distinct polyrhythmic layers and blistering speed--this last, especially in the driven, early moments of String Quartet, a piece from 2008--more than live up to Adams's word for Attacca: "jaw-dropping."

In John's Book of Alleged Dances, the dances Adams had in mind were, yes, just in mind--"alleged," he has said, because "the steps for them had yet to be invented." Enter Francesca Harper with her background spanning Forsythe, Broadway and DTH to "confirm" them. She opened with a restless solo Bradley Shelver made for her, set to Adams's "Judah to Ocean." Her charismatic presence--a tall, pliant woman in a tomato red dress--flared through across the stage, taking command. But her approach to Alleged Dances for the dazzling, superheroic Eriko Iisaku and her dancers went much further and was more intriguing. Show-off images that, mindful of Adams, never take themselves too seriously; lush, gleaming beauty prone to being off-kilter, even bizarre; an elastic, athletic, aggressive rush that, coming from a troupe of mostly women, can look...well, jaw-dropping. I much prefered this disruptive Harper to the more conventional sculptor of String Quartet, danced by the guests from DTH and Howard. She posed hard challenges to her own dancers in Alleged, and they confirmed that they are up to the task.

******
Seven Words

Hear Attacca Quartet perform a string quartet arrangement of Haydn's Seven Last Words of Christ on the Cross with video by Ofri Cnaani at the Metropolitan Museum of Art's Grace Rainey Rogers Auditorium on Thursday, April 2, 7pm.

For information and tickets, click here.

Metropolitan Museum of Art
1000 Fifth Avenue (street entrance at East 83rd Street), Manhattan
(directions)

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Sorry I Will Miss Your Show

Eva Yaa Asantewaa
(photo by D. Feller)

Gibney Dance Center has a running program they call Sorry I Missed Your Show. So I'm riffing off that title here because I want you to know that I'm aware how exceedingly tough it is to get press coverage (and decent press coverage) for dance shows in New York.

Throughout the year, I get numerous requests--not only press releases but also personal emails and Facebook messages--and try to juggle those requests along with my own interests and personal needs. No secret: I love dance a lot--as well as other arts and other activities; I am generally a quiet yet wildly multifaceted person--but have not managed to acquire bilocation or multi-location as my superpower!

Of course, ask, but there will be times when, for any number of reasons, I cannot get to your show (or even your rehearsal or informal showing). And it's better for all of us that I recognize those times and honor them. That way, I'm going to be more nourished, rested, resourceful, at ease and effective at what I do when I do get there.

Here's what led me to write this post:

How to Not Die: Some Survival Tips for Black Women Who Are Asked to Do Too Much

It's a terrific post, written in June 2013 by educator Robin M. Boylorn for the Crunk Feminist Collective blog. While it's directed to Black women, it contains wisdom that anyone should consider, and perhaps someday you too will take some of these ideas and recommendations to heart.

In the meantime, please remember that I'm grateful for what the arts, particularly dance, have meant to me throughout my entire life. I might not get to every show, but I stand with you in support and celebration.

Love,
Eva

Sunday, March 22, 2015

A season of celebration for dance artist Davalois Fearon

Davalois Fearon, left, with Gino Grenek and Nicholas Sciscione,
members of the Stephen Petronio Dance Company
(photo: Sarah Silver)

The 30th anniversary of the Stephen Petronio Dance Company happens to coincide with another notable anniversary for this renowned and stylish troupe. Dancer and Education Coordinator Davalois Fearon is marking ten years working with Petronio. She's excited to be part of the launch of the company's five-year Bloodlines project which will pair classics of postmodern dance with Petronio's repertory. This season, the troupe will present Merce Cunningham's RainForest (1968) alongside the world premiere of Petronio’s Locomotor/Non Locomotor at The Joyce Theater (April 7-12).

A native of Jamaica, Fearon was raised in the South Bronx from the age of four with her siblings. She remembers her immediate surroundings as "not the safest neighborhood."

"But my parents did a good job of sheltering us," she says. "I had no idea that I was in Crack Central. We would go to school and then come straight back. When I was at home, it was like going back to Jamaica. I had a very Jamaican upbringing."

She's been dancing, she says, "since I was out of the womb" and would force her older sister--"quiet and more like a bookworm but always supporting me"--to put on shows for the family gatherings.

"Jamaicans love to dance, and it would be rooted in reggae with a gymnastic influence. As I got older, I got exposed to pop, hip hop and salsa. I would always be performing for anyone who would look!"

In eighth grade, she took part in an eight-week Alvin Ailey outreach program where she had her first exposure to ballet, studying with Ron Alexander. Her parents, like many Caribbean immigrants, foresaw a secure career path--perhaps medicine or law--and did not support the idea that their daughter might choose dance instead.

"In their minds, they had the big American dream, and they wanted that for us."

Money was tight, too.

"I auditioned in socks, because I didn't have ballet shoes and didn't know where to get them," she recalls, marveling that she made it into the school anyway. In fact, Fearon had to sit out her first class at Ailey, lacking the proper attire for class--a school requirement. "My first pair of ballet shoes, tights and leotard were from the lost-and-found." But dance was, for her, "like a calling, something I had to do."

Today, in her role as a dance teacher, she looks for similar desire and focus in her young students.

"You have to want it so bad that you're looking for every little detail that the teacher is giving you. I have this one student, about five years old. In her first class, she didn't know anything--didn't know a plié, didn't know first position. Now she knows the whole class by heart--there, right in the front, in first position, ready to go before anyone else. 'I know what's coming!' It's beautiful, really beautiful."

With role models like Ailey, Denise Jefferson and Judith Jamison--"the pride they brought to the work"--Fearon made steady and accelerated progress up the levels of Ailey training.

"They saw something in me that I didn't know that I had, and that helped build my confidence."

She won a scholarship to Purchase College Conservatory of Dance, where she earned her BFA in 2005. In a way, even her parents' resistance helped strengthen her resolve even as she was forced to take numerous jobs to support her pursuit.

"Junior year, I thought about auditioning. I had to show my parents that I can do this. You don't have to worry about me."

She auditioned for Petronio and spent her senior year as an apprentice to the troupe.

Today, her parents could not be more proud, her mother remembering being able to buy Fearon at least one crucial item--a pair of pointe shoes.


Davalois Fearon
in Petronio's Beauty and the Brut
(photo: Sarah Silver)

So, what's most interesting, challenging and eye-opening about dancing for a maverick like Stephen Petronio?

"Stephen is an incredible mover," she says. "He started late as a dancer, and that speaks to me. I started with reggae and hip hop and salsa and then started training.

"We were in rehearsal, and Stephen was working with Joshua Tuason on a solo, and he did a syncopated move that reminded me of something African that I knew from my Ailey training. And here is Stephen, you know, tall, white, bald man doing that and doing figure eights a lot like salsa dancing. The freedom and choices that he comes up with I love because I have that wide background, too. I can do that, too. I can move into a moonwalk one minute and a so de chat the next. His range of movement is all over the place--a lot of fun!"

But, at first, the work was just different enough from what she'd seen of conventional ballet and modern dance training to be a challenge. Remembering, her initial efforts to enter Petronio's philosophy and approach to movement, Fearon took a proposal to him. She wanted to write a syllabus as a guide for other company members and future recruits.

"I would see new dancers come into the company and go through the same struggles. 'You know what? I don't get it.' It was a need I saw not only for our dancers but for our outside teaching work, decoding what he would do in a way that, say, a first-year Juilliard student could understand."

Interviewing students gave her insight into what they needed from the company, and she was able to convince Petronio to create an education department.

Besides performing and teaching, Fearon has been developing her own voice as a choreographer. One upcoming project--Consider Water, her first full-length piece--was inspired by a talk with a UN ambassador working on issues of water-related disasters and scarcity of safe drinking water in many regions of the world. He happened to read about Fearon in a New York Times article and reached out to her. She told him of water shortages in Jamaica and how her family paid to get water shipped to her grandmother's house. The ambassador simply challenged her, "Well, what are you going to do about it?"

"I was thinking, Wow, I don't have much money. I can't save the world. But I have dance."



Excerpts from Consider Water,
a work in progress choreographed by Davalois Fearon
with music by Mike McGinnis


Fearon began work on Consider Water as a way to raise awareness of water-related concerns. The project has taken off, connecting her to supporters and collaborators such as the Bronx Council on the Arts (BCA) and the Bronx River Alliance, a respected local environmental organization. Through the BCA, which awarded her a 2014 BRIO fellowship, she will present excerpts of Consider Water at the Andrew Freedman Home, an arts-related community center, on May 1, and at the Bronx River Alliance Fish Festival on June 6. She plans to preview the finished piece in September at BAAD! (Bronx Academy of Arts and Dance).

To learn more about Fearon and her Consider Water project, visit her Web site here. See the Stephen Petronio Dance Company at The Joyce Theater, April 7–12. For complete schedule and ticketing information, click here.

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Davalois Fearon is a dancer, teacher, and choreographer born in Jamaica and raised in The Bronx, New York. In 2005, Fearon received a BFA from the Purchase College Conservatory of Dance program and has since performed and taught around the world with Stephen Petronio Company, staged its repertory, assisted as rehearsal director, and is currently its Education Coordinator. As a choreographer, she is a recipient of the 2014 Bronx Council on the Arts BRIO fellowship and a member of The Joyce Theater’s Prestigious Young Leaders Circle Artists’ Committee. Her choreography has been presented throughout New York City, including at Bronx Academy of Art and Dance, Bronx Art Space, Roulette, The Vasquez, the Inception to Exhibition Dance Festival, The Warwick Summer Arts Festival, as well as at the Light Box, Portland OR and Atlantic Center for the Arts, New Smyrna Beach, Florida. Fearon has created work in collaboration with internationally renowned poet Patricia Smith, multi-reedist Mike McGinnis, and fashion photographer Nigel HoSang. In addition, she has performed with Daniel Ezralow, Forces of Nature, Ballet Noir, Darrell Robinson, and Ballet International Africans. She is proud to be celebrating her tenth year with the company.

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