Theater archives

Black on White


On January 22, Hugo Fiorato led the New York City Ballet orchestra in “Happy Birthday” to George Balanchine, and as usual, the company (at the New York State Theater through February 24) gifted its late master with a new ballet. Hallelujah Junction, Peter Martins’s eighth work to John Adams’s music, strikingly matches the rhythmic variety and drive of the eponymous score for two pianos. The music pauses occasionally or waxes lyrical, but you sense it racing along in eighth notes; the choreography rides the propulsiveness with tautly frisky steps.

The two pianists, Cameron Grant and Richard Moredock, sit at the back on a high platform behind a scrim. Because Kirsten Lund Nielsen has dressed the ensemble men in white practice clothes, and the women in black, the first moment they all appear together it’s as if the pianos’ white and black keys are spilling down and marching toward the audience. At the ballet’s first two performances, Gitte Lindstrom and Andrew Bowman of the Royal Danish Ballet (for whom Martins made Hallelujah) danced principal roles, both in white—she charmingly perky with slightly loose feet, he appealingly soft in his strength. Benjamin Millepied bursts into their calmly tender duet, and throughout the ballet his black attire and wonderfully zesty dancing emphasize his role as a rogue element, maybe a matchmaker, maybe even a good-pal Benno to their swanny courtship. A high point is the two men’s canonic diagonal across the stage; legs beating the air in brisés, they’re like competing dragonflies.

Martins pulls out a changing display of clean-edged designs the way you’d unfold a cut square of paper into a design of lacy symmetry. Lindstrom is fenced by four women. Millepied vaults in a square formed by four men. Two linked trios and a couple skim through bright patterns. Martins has also made smart little duets for Abi Stafford and Craig Hall, Ashley Bouder and Antonio Carmena, Glenn Keenan and Amar Ramasar, Sarah Ricard and Jonathan Stafford. He shows off these up-and-coming dancers (Abi Stafford was just promoted to soloist) as if to say to Balanchine, “Happy Birthday. Look what we have for you!”

Kriota Willberg’s Dura Mater often performs in clubs; her clever, eccentric dances don’t drift around a lot. Her recent Ladykillers fits neatly into the small, elegantly appointed Axis Company theater on Sheridan Square. Pointe shoes take her dancers up, falls take them down, and curious gestures create a busy stir without occupying much space. In the lobby, we’re primed by a video of the Grand Pas of the Wilis from Giselle—a killing machine built of ghostly maidens. The topics of the evening are dangerous women and danger to women, viewed satirically. A Siren (Willberg), masked by fringe, lures with her bare, muscular back and sinuous hips. Pomo Wilis Stasia Blyskal, Kate Kennedy, and Tomiko Magario arch and stretch on the floor garbed in decaying wedding dresses and shrouded in net, their legs stained with mud. In an enjoyable if inscrutable film by Janis Astor Del Valle, the spy Mata Hari (entrancing Buffy Miller) seduces a count with her pseudo-Middle Eastern wiles. Closer to home, in the two-part Euthanasia, a pair of spiky nurses on pointe scrutinize a hapless patient, and three women in hospital gowns huddle on the floor, rocking tensely, at the mercy of a fiercely self-involved “caregiver” (Magario), who looks about six-foot-five on toe and scary as hell.

The disturbing little tableaux don’t press points home; we shiver or laugh uneasily. But the finale, Housewife, is suddenly political. Sixteen women (including recruits from a workshop) yell, recoil from a slap, and fall in a polyphonic vision of abuse by unseen hands. Here, the accompaniment (much of which has been abrasive and electronic until now) offers the ironic sweetness of Mozart and Schumann.

Five videotape variations called Kill Vicky separate the dances. In all of them, Willberg and Vicky Virgin attack each other like pit bulls, while various dance-world men ignore them as much as possible. Douglas Dunn keeps dancing when they invade his studio; Eliot Feld closes his office door when they get too rowdy. David White drinks his coffee. Neil Greenberg does look alarmed, but when Keith Sabado tries to break up the fight, he gets fatally stabbed in the gut with a pointe shoe.

The brothers Grimm might be taken aback by Jody Oberfelder, who approaches their fairy tales with gutsy wit and a vocabulary derived in part from acrobatics. Her charming The Story Thus Far fairly climbed the walls of little Dixon Place last month. So involved is Jessica Lööf in a book of Grimm stories that she jams its spine between her teeth and turns its splaying pages into a dragon’s mouth. A frog prince and his bemused lady (Brian Caggiano and Storme Sundberg) tangle their limbs intricately. Magic apples become props that Lööf, Sundberg, and Sara Joel nestle seductively in the crooks of their elbows, tuck behind their knees, and slyly clamp between their thighs during bourrées—all to loveliness by Schumann. (The well-chosen music ranges from lieder and German folk songs to wonderful lusty tunes by Frank London of the Klezmatics. Tine Kindermann sings some of them live, garbed by Miche Kimsa as a sort of benevolent sorceress.)

Oberfelder is not retelling familiar plots. Her 17 little dances extract an essential truth from each tale, with quotes in the program as guidelines. Acrobatics function as metaphor. Summoning up blindness in “Divine Betrothal,” she keeps Joel grafted to Caggiano much of the time; they cartwheel holding hands. “Sojourn” embodies the line “She had the gift of seeing far into the distance”; no matter what complicated, linked gymnastics Caggiano, Sundberg, and Matthew Thornton indulge in, the wide-eyed Sundberg always seems to end up aloft, scanning the horizon.

The six performers excel at far more than flipping through the air. They reveal awkwardness, uncertainty, and the trove of emotions behind the stories. Oberfelder conflates the fierce old tales with childhood innocence, without losing the dark undertones. The one about a mother stewing her little son and feeding him to his father is expressed by conflict on a very small table, uneasy play with potatoes, and a last-ditch round of musical chairs. The choreography reveals not the horrid act, but the apprehension that to lose the game can be a dreadful thing.

This fall, Nala Najan sent me a video. It was a goodbye gift. Watching him in his prime, performing Bharata Natyam, Kathak, and Chhau solos, reminded me all over again what an extraordinary dancer he was. His gestures and postures were so clean, so bold, so full of fire, his acting so expressive, his slender body a reed swaying with passion. When I thanked him, I asked what made a boy born Roberto Rivera leave America at 15 to study in India. He answered that that was another story. Maybe he’d find time to tell it. AIDS finally claimed him, at 69, on January 7. Too soon!