Friday, October 20, 2017

Sharing, surviving: Black men dance at Danspace Project

Damon Green performs at Danspace Project in
Working on Better Versions of Prayers: Volume 1
by Chicago dancemaker J'Sun Howard
(photo: Ian Douglas)

Ricarrdo Valentine, above,
and below with Orlando Zane Hunter, Jr.
of Brother(hood) Dance!
in how to survive a plague
(photos: Ian Douglas)

Demonstrations, marches, sit-ins/die-ins/love-ins, rallies, prayer: are there alternatives to these forms of protest that we can employ to generate positive change? 

For his presentation at Danspace Project, Chicago's J'Sun Howard asks this question and offers a possible answer in a trio for Black queer men entitled Working On Better Versions of Prayers: Version 1. Is Howard's result actually a better version of prayer?  Of protest? That's never clear but, choreographically, this dance is easy on the eyes.

Dancers D. Banks, Damon Green and Will Harris mark off an uncluttered space in which, from the start, we can focus on the lyrical fluidity of their movement--a flowing reach and unfurling, a cursive squiggling and twirling and twining that, while accelerating or embracing flourishes of basketball or hip hop or voguing or West African movement, never loses control or its through line. Howard writes with an aesthetically conservative hand. He is a lover of beauty and of the beauty in these dancers, presenting them subtly, sympathetically and with utopian vision--the world he wants to see.

One moment alone appears disruptive--a dancer's brief, frustrated interaction with part of the decor and his partner's intervention. This second dancer's role presents interesting questions: Is he helping his mate? Or is he restraining him? And then, near Howard's conclusion, comes the mystery figure (Green) emerging with face obscured, head enveloped in a leafy bush strung with Christmas lights--a remarkable, if cryptic, image.
In a “reverential gesture to lost ancestral artistic dreams,” Hunter and Valentine seek to venerate the Black African bodies that were exiled from the urgency of care and shunned by their communities and government [during the HIV/AIDS pandemic].
Orlando Zane Hunter, Jr and Ricarrdo Valentine--the Black gay couple who are Brother(hood) Dance!--now have built how to survive a plague, a popular feature of Danspace’s Platform 2016: Lost & Found, into a work of enhanced, operatic proportions. Their aesthetics call for so much sensory engagement--and, yes, overload--you might expect the generous sights and sounds to be joined by offerings of food and libations. No such luck. But we did get to sample the aromatherapeutic artistry by Nicole Wilkins. I thought I caught a waft of something minty at one point, and then something else, pleasant enough but unidentifiable.

Ultimately, the sexy and ecstatic ritual of how to survive a plague is, I think, an invitation to take what we need by way of self-care. In that context, what works for one, in one moment, might not work for another, and many things will compete for your attention. You will find exuberant dance (with superb technique, always) overlapped with poetry and humor and glorious singing and visuals and kooky-fun costuming and booming voiceovers and, for a precious few, a chance to get up and shake your body. Trickster Eshu and Mother Kali share and dance this Carnaval, neither exactly shy and retiring types. I thank these deities--and more--for the audacity of Hunter and Valentine and look forward to whatever they bring us next.

Vocals: Starr Busby
Costume design: Shane Ballard
Lighting Design: Carol Mullins

Shared Evening: Brother(hood) Dance! & J'Sun Howard continues tonight and tomorrow at Danspace Project with performances at 8pm. For information and tickets, click here.

Nicole Wilkins recommends arriving hydrated for the best possible experience [of the aromoatherapy]; water will also be available during the show. If you have any questions or concerns please call the Danspace Project office at (212) 674.8112.
Danspace Project
St. Mark's Church-in-the-Bowery
131 East 10th Street (at Second Avenue), Manhattan

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Wednesday, October 18, 2017

NEW@Graham: Celebrating a decade of "Lamentation Variations"

Lament not. Janet Eilber plans to keep dreaming up ways to revivify America's longest-running dance troupe, the Martha Graham Dance Company, and Graham's famed solo, Lamentations, continues to show the way.

Last evening, the company celebrated the 10th year of Lamentation Variations, its unusual commissioning project launched in 2007 as artistic director Eilber noticed that the season's opening night would fall on the anniversary of 9/11. Since then, Eilber has invited dancemakers, representing a diversity of aesthetic approaches, to respond to or re-imagine the Graham solo. So, Yes to Judson genius Yvonne Rainer rethinking Lamentation or tap genius Michelle Dorrance remixing it!

The commissioned artists pledge fidelity, more or less, to a set of spartan rules limiting length (no longer than Graham's four minutes), rehearsal time (10 hours tops) and sets (absolutely none allowed). Even given these restrictions, each has managed to re-envision the original in signature ways--for instance, turning the spare, tense, wrenching angularity of Graham's grieving into something eerily luxurious for soloist Katherine Crockett (Richard Move, 2007), bringing the entire company onstage (Larry Keigwin, 2007), turning the solo into an interracial male duet (Kyle Abraham, 2015) or teaching Memphis Jookin to a cluster of nine young Grahamites (Lil Buck, 2017).

"The question became 'How to put new choreography on the stage next to Graham classics," said Eilber as she opened the evening in the company's studio at Westbeth, former home of Merce Cunningham's troupe. "Would I get run out of town?" Ultimately, though, she found that introducing new work helped audiences "appreciate Martha Graham more and remember what a radical she was."

A radical, indeed. Throughout these opening remarks, an early 1940s video of Graham dancing Lamentation played behind and loomed over Eilber, proving her correct. Graham worked that solo. Her concept and vision for it, along with her fierce performance, remain unmatched. Last evening's program featured Variations by Abraham, Keigwin, Gwen Welliver (preparing for a 2018 Tallahassee premiere), Bulareyaung Pagarlava as well as Lil Buck's New York premiere. Each offered elements of interest...and yet...and yet...Graham remains queen.

Lamentation Variations concludes this evening with another informal toast and studio showing at 7pm, featuring Variations by Aszure Barton, Doug Varone, Richard Move, Larry Keigwin and Lil Buck. Click here for information and ticketing.

Martha Graham Studio Theater
Westbeth, 55 Bethune Street (11th Floor), Manhattan

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Saturday, October 14, 2017

Tap artist Kazu Kumagai and friends rock 92Y

92Y's Dig Dance series hit big last night with Kazu Kumagai: HEAR/HEAR, an intimate yet full-on performance by the 2016 Bessie-winning Kumagai and friends in the Y's Buttenweiser Hall. The show featured Kumagai's talents in tap, music and poetry, and he was accompanied by bass player Alex Blake, guitarist Masa Shimizu and singer, Sabrina Clery, whose heartbreaking voice always leaves me wanting to hear more of it. Special guest Ted Louis Levy--multiple award winner and nominee for work on Broadway and television--turned up the heat with his amusing stories, unique jazz vocals and smooth dancing.

Kumagai is anything but smooth in intent or execution, but even his tuning up on the wood platforms sounded good. Brushing the wood, pecking at it with one knee locked, going quieter, he's a man always in search of the right sounds to channel his concerns. He'll find it with the inside edge of a foot, or drop his heels with thwacks you feel like repeated jolts to the chest, or fire off a steady fusillade of beats while Shimizu weaves around him. While he might pivot to one or another direction once in a long while, maybe facing the musician with whom he's dialoguing, he tends to root himself somewhere on the wood and drill it...earnestly. The relative stationary nature of his dancing underscores his role as musician playing the instrument of tap against surface. We can appreciate, even more, what he's doing to create sound. A lot of power in his game, but his technical control can also takes us to quiet, thoughtful places.

So much of his poetry is about searching--for the authentic self, for someone who can be there for one's search for the self, for authentic expression that sometimes takes an artist to the edge. ("I want to know if you'll stand in the center of the fire with me and not shrink back.") He's a man on a mission and one with much on his mind.

Levy's sunnier, funnier, Mr. Show Biz approach stands in contrast, but the two guys together? They can take it from delicate trading of tiny gestures on the wood all the way to thunder, Levy bringing out the spark and charm and, yes, the aggression in Kumagai.

"I'm not an improvisationalist," the not-even-nearly-winded Levy said afterwards, "But you made me look good!" Yes. He did.

It was nice to hear Levy invoke tap icons like Chuck Green, Buster Brown and Dianne Walker in his solo as he danced away as if it were the most natural thing in the world to teach an audience while beguiling them. I loved his unconventional vocalizing of "Nature Boy," the classic song first recorded and most associated with Nat King Cole, and Marvin Gaye's "Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler)" which offered the two men--one Black, the other forever revering the Black mentors in his life--the perfect opportunity to take a knee.

If you were not in the house last night, I hope you already have your ticket for tonight. For this evening's show, Kumagai will be joined by acclaimed tap artist, educator and mentor Brenda Bufalino.

Kazu Kumagai: HEAR/HEAR concludes with an 8pm show tonight.  For information and tickets, click here.

92Y (Buttenweiser Hall)
Lexington Avenue at 92nd Street
, Manhattan

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