Sunday, March 31, 2019

Douglas Messerli | "The Square and the Tower" (on the Malpaso Dance Company performing at the Wallis Annenberg Center for Performing Arts)

the square and the tower
by Douglas Messerli

Malpaso Dance Company (Fernando Sáez, Executive Director, Osnel Delgado (Artistic Director) and Daileidys Carrazana (Associate Director) in production with Joyce Theater Productions at the Wallis Annenberg Center for Performing Arts in Beverly Hills / the performance I saw with Thérèse Bachand at the Bram Goldsmith Theater was on March 28, 2019

Another of what I have expressed as my endless coincidences occurred last night while attending the Cuban Dance Company’s performance at the Willis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts. The first piece of their wonderful concert was a remarkable version of Merce Cunningham’s Fielding Sixes, viewed just a few days shy of that dancer/choreographer’s 100 birthday.
   I’d met some of his former company members, Paul Taylor and Karole Armitage (with whom Howard and I once shared dinner with David Salle), and I knew Cunningham’s lover John Cage. Taylor, in fact, was immediately responsible for my studying for about a year with the Joffrey Dance Company in New York, an experience which I loved. Inexplicably, I’d never been able to actually see any of Cunningham’s dances.
     Fortunately, that was righted last night at the performance, with a reduction of 7 minutes of the 1980, 28-minute performance, with music from Cage’s original Improvisation IV, and with new costumes by David Quinn and different lighting by Manuel Da Silva.
     The original was described by dance critic Anna Kisselgof:

"The first thing that strikes the eye in Merce Cunningham's new ''Fielding Sixes,'' which had its New York premiere Thursday night at City Center, is Monika Fulleman's fetching
     Charles Atlas's initial beige-lavender lighting draws attention to a purple treelike shape, and this method of painterly blotch is duplicated in a green form implying a flower or a toadstool, while a burst of red erupts at the far right. Three burlap hangings complete the picture.
     The same free finger-painting atmosphere is reflected in the activities of the dancers, who start out as a duo, turn into a trio and then into a quartet. This human paint drips all over the spatial canvas that Mr. Cunningham knows, better than anyone, how to fill with a painter's eye.
     In all there are 14 dancers, and Miss Fullemann's costumes reflect the colors of her set. The men are in shiny purple tights, some with white tops. The women are in light green, wearing shorts over tights. This color-coordination would seem a violation of Mr. Cunningham's method of isolating the decor from the choreography and sound during the
composition of his work."

     The Malpaso Dance Company’s performance was cut down to 11 minutes (with permission from the Cunningham Foundation), staged by Jamie Scott with costumes—in the case the women sheathed in steely light blue body suites and the males swathed in dark red—by David Quinn. In this version the backdrop was draped entirely in black, which made the lighting by Manuel Da Silva all the more important as it put the entire focus on the dancers (Dunia Acosta, Maria Karla Araujo, Daileidys Carrazana, Osnel Delgado, Beatriz Garcia, Armondo Gomez, Abel Rojo, and Lisbeh Saad) themselves.

As in the original, the major movements of this piece consisted of high-raised leg extensions along with a spectrum of other movements including lifts and back kicks. Rereading the original (1981) review, it appears that this new production centered far more on uniform patterns than the one danced by Armitage and others. But that, in turn, gave the dance an even greater breathtaking quality, as coming together in units and twos, threes, and other formations, the dancers appeared to be participating in various communal gatherings, paring off only to rejoin larger groups, and stressing the oppositional demands of the personal and those of the larger community.
      The second piece of the evening, Oscaso (2013), choreographed by Osnel Delgado, consisted of a simple duo dancing to the music of three musical scores (Parallel Suns by Autechre, the 2nd track of Kronos Quartet of White Man Sleeps, and Sunlight by Max Richter). The costumes were by Osnel Delgado, one of the dancers as well. Here the male figure, dressed in red pants and a flowered shirt, makes a remarkable contrast with the female dressed only in a loose black miniskirt and dancer’s top.
      Here the dancers twist and turn around and through each other’s arms, often in somewhat awkward gestures that suggest both sexual love, alternated by escape and embracement, recreating a sense of the natural conflicts that embody any relationship. There are also, as in several of the pieces of the evening, moments of comic delight, as the woman drags the male across the floor in evident, if only momentary, dominance.
      Being (Ser) (2018), choreographed by Beatriz Garcia, was one of the strongest dances of the evening. With lighting again by Manual De Silva and the costume design by the choreographer, the dance (translated in English as “to be”) is similar, in parts, to the Delgado piece. With music by the Italian composer Ezio Bosso, however, this is a far more programmatic work, centered around, as dance critic Jerry Hochman described it, the building blocks of being: “independence, conflict, and resolution.”
     A bit like the earlier Cunningham piece, the first of the three movements, begins with tandem movements, which expresses the performer’s simple joyfulness for being individuals who still work within a kind of ménage à trois, who gradually breaking away, move into angry conflicts with each other, particularly regarding their heads, as they fight not only for control over one another but for intellectual dominance, while still regretting their actions.
     In the final movement the dancers come together, almost fearing to lose touch with one another as they come to realize their dependence upon their societal sharing for their very survival, including working against their sometimes violent instincts. The resolution is a beautiful dance sequence that redeems the pushes and pulls of the past two movements.
     The final piece of the evening was Ohad Naharin’s 1996 large group dance, Tabula Rasa, where once more the larger society challenges the individual relationships. The dancers all seem to be dressed in this number as if they were joining one another on the beach, with denim cut-offs, florid blouses and shirts, etc.
     But even if they might be perceived as celebrating a beach outing, here too there are tensions, as they fall in smaller dancing pairings—one threesome, two males and a female, moving in and out of their relationship by slipping above, under, and through each other’s embracements. In some senses, Naharin’s dance almost summarizes the balletic questions of this company: “can we live together despite our desires to live apart, our need to be ourselves without breaking the important link of the societal whole.” I think, given Cuba’s political concerns, this is a very crucial issue of the island’s life. How does anyone with his or her own personal demands and desires survive in a society that often insists that everyone must work together as a larger artistic and political unit?
     The Malpaso Dance Company does not attempt to directly answer these conflicts, but the art they produce about these issues is so profound that you realize they may be now be one of the most important dance companies on the planet. The issues they raise are crucial for the survival of living on this earth where we must all work together, despite our profound differences, in order to live and make meaning.

Los Angeles, March 31, 2019
Reprinted from USTheater, Opera, and Performance (March 2019).

Wednesday, March 27, 2019

Douglas Messerli | "The Music of Our Own Ears" (on the performance of the Ever Present Orchestra with Alvin Lucier)

the music of our own ears
by Douglas Messerli

Ever Present Orchestra with Alvin Lucier, at REDCAT (the Roy and Edna Disney / CalArts Theater / March 26, 2019, I saw the performance with Marjorie Perloff

Born in 1931, Alvin Lucier was one of the central composers (along with Robert Ashley, Gordon Mumma, and David Behrman) of what was called the Sonic Arts Union, comprising works that dealt with acoustical properties of music and highly structured compositions which are manipulated through computers and the relation of acoustical variances of the instruments involved, which, in last night’s REDCAT concert, consisted of electronic guitars, glockenspiel, saxophones, violins, and piano.
      Lucier’s work requires a closely knit gathering of musicians, each of whom must work in tandem and simultaneously to echo and reverberate the sounds of the others, or, in the case of the first work of the evening, Ricochet Lady (2016), where player Trevor Saint (for whom the piece was written) works with the ricocheting sounds of the wall against which the instrument is placed.
     The group, the Ever Present Orchestra, founded by Bernhard Rietbrock in 2017 (and consisting of Oren Ambarchi, Jan Thoben, Trevor Saint, Charles Ng, Valentine Michaud, Joan Oliver Arcos, Vera Weber, Christina Moser, Beatrice Harmon, Kris Rahamad, and Rebekka Thies), brilliantly brings to life a tonal tonic.

     To listen to Lucier’s music one must have patience and an ear for subtle shifts of harmonics created by the other players. For this composer no sound is pure; it lives in an environment of rooms, other players, and distortions of air, artificial machines, and our own eardrums. Somewhat like Cage—yet using almost the opposite tactics of Cage’s renowned “silence”—this composer reveals how the listener has a major role in creating the music—no matter how precisely performed—is perceived. Even a cough, a yawn, or an exiting audience member alternates what we hear. Fortunately, the mostly young and enthusiastic crowd in the filled theater sat raptly, clearly enthusiastic to hear the orchestra’s West Coast premiere.
      While Saint’s glockenspiel playing as surely an early crowd-pleaser, repeating 3 and 4 note chromatic changes along with the wall’s reverberations, my favorite piece of the evening was the third piece, Two Circles from 2012, wherein four electronic guitars span a range of 18 ascending and descending semi-tones, creating, as the program notes suggest, “audible beating at speeds determined by the closeness of the players’ tones and those of the sweeping waves.” The beats occur when the instruments differ slightly in their harmonics, and the waves are produced by unison passages which, alternating, create the title’s “two circles,” almost as if recreating a slightly oppositional and communal antiphon, the music pulling at moments apart to then return to modulate once more.
      In many respects Two Circles is related to the other two works presented here: Braid from the same year, and the more recent Semicircle (2017). In the first, the interchanges occur between the electric guitars whose tones rise and fall in a four-strand pattern, what musicians describe as a “braid.” But as in Two Circles a tension (a harmonic and rhythmic beat) arises through the introduction of three wind instruments. Once again, the further apart of the musical score, the greater the “beating,” which playing in unison quickly resolves.
     Written for this very orchestra, Semicircle, in which 12 musicians play up and down the harmonic register, presents what the composer describes as “sweeps” in unison. It is only the pianist who at one-second intervals, reveals these or, perhaps, “tracks” them by reminding us sonically of the tensions or “beats.” Perhaps it was the near unanimity of this piece, which shifts Lucier’s composition into the realm, almost, of a tone poem, that led me to feel less generous about this work.
      But, obviously, Lucier’s work is a cerebral experience, a great demand for a somewhat elderly man late at night.
      The last, one of his most famous works makes that cerebral requirement quite clear. Lucier himself performed his 1969 work, after the intermission, I Am Sitting in a Room. In this famed piece the composer speaks into a tape recorder, simply explaining his process and intentions:

            I am sitting in a room different from the one you are 
            in now. I am recording the sound of my speaking voice 
            and I am going to play it back into the room again and
            again until the resonant frequencies of the room 
            reinforce themselves so that any semblance of my 
            speech, with perhaps the exception of rhythm, is 
            destroyed. What you will hear, then, are the natural 
            resonant frequencies of the room articulated by speech. 
            I regard this activity not so much as a demonstration
            of the physical fact, but more as a way to smooth 
            (here the composer stutters the first letters 
            of smooth, s-s-s-s) out irregularities my speech 
            might have.

     Apparently Lucier sometimes stutters in his everyday life. But the lesson of this rather amazing work, once again, is how sound travels, and how we perceive it, particularly, as in the old telephone trick of information passed from one to another and another and another, when repeated again and again. By the end of this work, quite obviously, the message has been lost, the network that we all rely upon for comprehension broken simply through the process of our abilities to hear and assimilate it. Inflections, rhythms are we have left to make sense of the message.
     The simple statements spoken into a tape recorder before us become near gibberish, and we are left with the fact that meaning is simply transitory. A story told to us by a friend will never be the same story we tell to another friend or what that friend tells to another, and so on. Sound is immediate; but of course it never truly is that either.

Los Angeles, March 27, 2019
Reprinted from USTheater, Opera, and Performance (March 2019).  

Tuesday, March 5, 2019

Douglas Messerli | "Marie Gets Her Man and Her Gun" (on Domenico Gaetano Maria Donizetti 's La fille du Régiment)

marie gets her man and her gun
by Douglas Messerli

J. F. A. Bayard and J. H. Venoy de Saint-Georges (libretto), Domenico Gaetano Maria Donizetti (composer), Laurent Pelly (stage director), Gary Halvorson (director) La fille du Régiment / 2019 [The Metropolitan Opera HD-live broadcast] 

Even the often traditionalist Metropolitan Opera—although far less conservative over the past many years under the guidance of Peter Gelb—recognizes when it has an innovative comic hit, as they do in this year’s production of La fille du Régiment, directed by the wonderous “child-like” Laurent Pelly (who also did the costumes) and conducted by the performer-behind-the-baton Enrique Mazzola. The Met itself celebrated the near endless ovations at opera’s end with a convention-like confetti-spray of paper placards each saying “bravo” and “brava.”

      And then there was the absolutely glorious singing of the two leads, South Africa’s Pretty Yende (as Marie) and Javier Camarena (as Tonio), who beautifully belts out 9 high C’s in his famous aria “Ah! mes amis, quel jour de fête!" The Met has again loosened up its previous ban on encores, even encouraging the standing-up applause, while Camarena, tears flowing from his eyes in appreciation, goes through those high C’s all over again, making it almost impossible for audience to have clear eyes. Asked in an intermission discussion how he is able to achieve that, the rather modest Camarena simply explained that when you’re rehearsing such a role you sing those high C’s far more often, until your voice becomes raw.                                    
    Perhaps the great Peruvian-born singer Juan Diego Flórez (who my husband Howard saw in another production of this opera) is just as talented, but there is something about the slightly chubby Camarena’s excited possibility of marrying this obviously black woman that says so much about great theater’s ability to transform our visions. These two characters prove the term, “the willing suspension of disbelief,” as both rather handsome individuals turn themselves through their singing into the beauteous creatures represented in the libretto of J. F. A. Bayard and J. H. Venoy de Saint-Georges. 
      Yende might have been equally applauded for her “Il faut parir, mes bons compagnons d’armes” and, in Act II, her lovely lament of having to leave all she has loved behind.

      As if the joys of these two lovers were not enough, we have before us the always beloved Stephanie Blythe as the slightly selfish and oafish Marquise of Berkenfield (more of a speaking role than a singing one, which, given Blythe’s soaring voice, is a bit disappointing), Maurizio Muraro (as Sulpice)—who it was announced was suffering from a cold the day we saw the H.D. live-video transmission, but who seemed still to carry his role to near-perfection—and then, as if allowing us a spicy topping, presenting actress Kathleen Turner in the entirely-speaking role of the proud Duchess of Krakenthorp, declaring her frustrations alternately in rather American accented French and English.
     The very athletically-conceived first act, and the mockingly artificiality of Pelly’s vision of Act II with the servant’s molding themselves to the walls and furniture they are cleaning, made for great fun. And then, in Act 1 there was Yende’s sudden surprise, when, upon perceiving her confused love for Tonio, she mutters unintelligible words—in this case spoken entirely in the language of the Zulus, including the languages noted clicks. This production seemed to contain nearly everything one needed to become a kind of classic vision of the Donizetti opera.
      Yes, some of this is simply silly and, particularly in Act II, a bit over-the-top. But it’s fun always. This is the kind of opera to which anyone might bring their children or grand-children—although on the rainy day we saw it, the movie-theater audience was made-up, once more, of grey-white-purple haired women and their husbands, many of whom came armed with their walkers. We, alas, are not far from those descriptions. Although I know the Met cameras must seek them out in their before curtain coverage, there seems to be many more younger people attending the New York opera house itself. Opera desperately needs those young people!
      And then there is this strange tale about a young abandoned child adopted, evidently without any abuse, by an entire military unit of lusty young men. She grows up virtually as an indentured servant, endlessly washing and cleaning their underwear and cooking their meals. Marie might as easily be described as a kind of slave, a Cinderella who is never invited to the ball.  
      Yet being the “daughter” of an entire military unit, she is also allowed a great deal of freedom, unforced to play the proper young woman, even encouraged to be an independent-thinking tom-boy, who openly grumbles and rebels about anything she doesn’t like. If she cheerily accepts her endless washing, ironing, and potato-peeling duties, she perceives herself also as a kind of Joan of Arc, a military woman working alongside of these men to help France, singing “Salut à la France” to rile up their patriotic fervor that might see them on to war with the terrified peasants of Tyrolean Italy.
     She is a wild thing, ready at any moment to carry a gun—a kind of Annie Oakley of the day shocked suddenly into love by the equally radical Tonio, a milder Wild Bill Hitchcock who, as a Tyrolean, dares not only to enter enemy territory in search of his love, but to join up with them, later becoming a kind of French hero.

      Indeed, once the local Tyrolean Marquise, really a kind of wealthy bourgeoise, perceives Marie as being the long-lost daughter of her sister and dresses her up in a new gown while attempting to teach the girl proper French and Italian melodies and manners, Yende really does remind one a bit of Doris Day’s Oakley, all dressed up to entice her “Wild Bill” Tony. You might almost expect them to break into a chorus of “I Can Do Anything Better Than You.” One might even describe the 9 high C’s of Tonio in Act I as a kind of “I can outdo you” in reaction to Marie’s infectious singing.
      In fact, Marie’s Tonio rides in to save her, this time in a absurdly anachronistic machine-gun tank to rescue her from the dead society (which almost reminded of the audience I describe above) into which she is being forced to marry.
      We know this gutsy young girl will never be able to survive as the wife of the conveniently absent son (like Tonio, a tenor playing at the Metropolitan) of the Duchess of Krakenthorp; yet when the Marquise suddenly admits to Sulpice that she, in fact, is the mother of Marie, the girl, unwilling, agrees to sign the marriage certificate.
      Suddenly, the memory of her youthful sexual follies almost rejuvenates the Marquise, as she declares that Marie should marry the man her daughter loves instead of marrying into the dead world of her own memories of her beloved Robert.
      It is somewhat amazingly, accordingly, that a 17th century Opéra comique might speak so strongly about feminist aspirations, military incompetence, and patriarchal and matriarchal demands that speak to our own time. In a far more comic manner, this strong woman reminds us of more tragic women of opera such as Brünhilde, Carmen, Salome, Electra, Princess Turandot, and so very many others who attempted, often successfully but more often forced into death, to rebel against patriarchal domination. Marie gets her man and her gun; she can now keep her wild identity while swooning into the arms of her soldier lover.

Los Angeles, March 5, 2019
Reprinted from USTheater, Opera, and Performance (March 2019).