‘Dance’ Posts

Dance Review: Snow White by Company XIV

Wednesday, December 16th, 2009

Company XIV's latest dance dazzler may be aimed at kids, but it's a captivating show for all ages.

Taking the tale of Snow White straight from the Brothers Grimm, and borrowing a few costuming themes from Disney's classic animated version of the popular but creepy fairy tale, choreographer Austin McCormick and his multi-talented group conjure an extravagant feast for the eye and ear.

At the performance I attended, a large number of children, some quite small, remained rapt for over an hour. As it was hard to look away from the cavalcade of gorgeous dances, costumes, sets and props, I had to remind myself to glance over at the kids every few minutes to gauge their reactions.

Here, as in the troupe's adult-themed shows, McCormick uses baroque dance, ballet, and modern dance variously as the spirit calls.  A rather straightforward ballet defines Snow White herself at the start. An elegant baroque dance captivates (literally) our lovely but obtuse heroine a bit later, as the disguised Wicked Queen gussies poor Snow up in a fancy white wig bearing the lethal comb. Jerky modernistic movements jack up the monstrous creatures representing the third and final temptation of Snow White: the poisoned apple. Shadow puppets play the Dwarves to humorous effect.

Company XIV always casts a wide net to find lively and appropriate music. Here the recorded selections range from Carnival of the Animals to "Rumania Rumania," and from Tchaikovsky to Ella Fitzgerald. Making this show extra special is the presence of a baroque opera trio knows as Charites, consisting of three women who sing live numbers and play the sweetly musical Mirror, a screened entity that must be seen and heard to be appreciated.

My only complaint: the recorded music was a little too loud during the first couple of numbers, drowning out the narration. Either my ears or the sound engineer adjusted after a short while and all was well for the remainder.

It's been a great privilege to be able to experience the arc of all three recent Company XIV productions.  Le Serpent Rouge and The Judgment of Paris are in revival through mid-January, alternating performances with Snow White. Indulge yourself and see them all, or if you're taking the kids, experience this Snow White – it's a fairy story to remember.

Presented by Company XIV at 303 Bond St., Brooklyn, N.Y. Dec. 12–Jan. 17. Sat. and Sun., 3 p.m. (No performance Sun., Dec. 13, and Sat., Dec. 26.) (212) 868-4444 or www.smarttix.com. More information at the Company XIV website.

Photo by Daniel Perez.

Theater Review: heavenly BENTO

Tuesday, September 22nd, 2009

Quick, think of a play about business and businessmen. What comes to mind? The works of David Mamet? The sad career of Willy Loman? In any case, if you've thought of something, it's probably some savage American play about hard men, hard luck, or both.

Now imagine a distant, alien land, where doing business is a matter of cooperation and honor, not cutthroat competition. Where a business contract – if a contract is even deemed necessary – contains a requirement that if circumstances that might affect the terms of the contract change, the parties will sit down and politely discuss the matter.

Japan, early 1950s. With his country still reeling from the war, weapons engineer Masaru Ibuka (Alexander Schröder) dreams of founding a new consumer electronics company where he will run "the ideal factory" and help "reconstruct Japan." He will "eliminate any untoward profit-taking" and in the process "elevate the nation's culture." Doesn't sound much like the dog-eat-dog world of American business, and indeed it's not.

heavenly BENTO, a German production which just ran for three nights in English at the Japan Society, uses narration, dramatic conversations, dance, and innovative video to tell a stylized but engrossing version of the founding and success of Sony, first in Japan, then in the US. The audience sits above a raised white platform which is both stage and projection screen. The players – two actors and a dancer – interact with projected images at their feet.

One thinks of a boxing ring. One thinks also of a giant flat-screen TV. Both are appropriate. When Sony comes to New York, in the person of Akio Morita (Jun Kim), it must adjust its culture to that of 1950s America: competitive, chaotic, and big. Though a hit in Japan, Sony's pocket-size radio initially fails to impress American distributors, who insist that Americans want everything to be huge.

Initially a cautious and none-too-confident fellow, Morita squeezes himself through the sieve of American styles and ways, emerging a forceful, creative, and adaptable marketer. Ikeda, who stays in Japan struggling for years to perfect what would become Trinitron color TV technology, never fully comes to grips with what is required to expand successfully into the US market, and it is the contrast between the two men, one developing and progressing, the other sticking to the old ways, that provides the play with much of its drama.

The development of Sony's technology becomes a compelling story too. The company initially had to fight a reputation Japanese manufacturers had in America for "cheap stuff and bad imitations." But after lengthy birth pangs, the Trinitron is a technological and popular success, and when color is finally projected onto the wide, white stage floor, the change is dramatic. With it the dancer (Kazue Ikeda) appears, and the future appears bright.

It's interesting to hear of Ibuka's half-century-old dream for his radios, that "they will be smaller and more beautiful than anything built before," coupled with his desire to "build unseen things in mysterious ways…such products exists in people's dreams – we just have to follow our dreams." This is exactly the sort of language used today of (and by) Apple. The breakthrough iPod was a latter-day Sony Walkman (which was itself a latter-day Sony TR-6 portable radio). iPod and Walkman had exactly the same function. But in the interim Sony had acquired too much faith in its own infallibility, insisting too firmly on going its own way and that the public would follow. It had lost that magical ability to tap into consumers' unconscious dreams, and instead trusted its own. Apple stepped in.

The play doesn't deal with Sony's loss of the the mantle of cool. The closest it gets to Cupertino is a mention of Sony's leap into Hollywood with its 1989 acquisition of Columbia Pictures. But the story it tells has something mysterious and magical about it – as mysterious, in its way, as art itself.

heavenly BENTO played for three nights this past week at the Japan Society in New York. It returns to Berlin for a short run next month.

Photo: posttheater

Theater Review: A Time to Dance by Libby Skala

Thursday, August 20th, 2009

Libby Skala based her first solo play, Lilia!, on the life of her late grandmother, the well-known Hollywood actress Lilia Skala. In her wonderful new show, A Time to Dance, she channels her great-aunt, Lilia's younger sister Elizabeth ("Lisl") Polk, who, while attaining less renown, lived a life just as long, eventful, and interesting, if not more so. Out of the 201 productions in this year's New York Fringe Festival, it's one of the small number of must-sees.

Having experienced just about all of the 20th century – both in timespan and in all it had to offer – the half-Jewish Lisl can almost be said to embody the century itself. As Ms. Skala tells it, before becoming a dance therapy pioneer in New York, Lisl grew up in Austria, was sent to Denmark for safekeeping during World War I, contracted and beat tuberculosis, got kicked out of a modern dance studio for the sin of studying ballet, and managed a harrowing (and apparently also magical) escape from the Nazis.


Of course, many people live interesting lives, but few have a descendant as talented and ambitious as Ms. Skala to celebrate them. That she is a confident and graceful dancer is clear from the nearly constant movement she weaves through the hourlong monologue. But what makes the show such a charming entertainment, aside from the meat of the story itself, is her remarkable skill as a comic actor. Pouting, marveling, dancing, raging, worrying, dancing, beating time to the music (from recordings produced by Lisl herself for her dance therapy), mugging, miming, marrying, divorcing, dancing some more, and even finding a kind of true love (in an unexpected but soul-satisfying fashion), the character and the actor fuse until we just about believe that Lisl herself, thick Austrian accent and all, is before us, telling story after story for us to laugh and wonder at.

In a way, it's an old-fashioned biography. Take an interesting life; tell it from the start – Lisl's premature birth and surprising survival – to nearly the end; and allow the audience to marvel at its foreignness while recognizing its universality. A Time to Dance is truly uplifting without being at all saccharine, and that is perhaps the greatest miracle of all.

Top photo: Libby Skala in A Time to Dance, photo by Damon Calderwood.
Bottom photo: Elizabeth Polk in Vienna, 1930s. Public domain.

Theater/Dance Review: Le Serpent Rouge by Austin McCormick and Company XIV

Sunday, May 24th, 2009

Austin McCormick's Company XIV is back with another extravagant, sexually charged dance-theater piece of the kind only they can produce. Where last year's Judgment of Paris drew on the young choreographer's study of French baroque dance (pre-classical ballet), the dancing in Le Serpent Rouge is more modern; but again the company creates a visionary re-imagining of a classic story, this time the legend of Adam, Eve, and Lilith.

In this telling, Adam (John Beasant III) is first paired with Lilith (Yeva Glover), but although the sex is great, he rejects her because she has "no soul" and what he needs is a soulmate. Nevertheless Adam continues to desire Lilith, both before and after the Fall, and this provides the production's ongoing tension as the wonderful cast of five dances through elegant and sensual enactments of the Seven Deadly Sins.

Narrating is Gioia Marchese as a Ringmistress in an outfit worthy of Baz Luhrmann's Moulin Rouge, also functioning as the Devil, constantly proffering the infamous apple of the Tree of Knowledge to Eve (Laura Careless). Appropriately, the set is a circle, both cagelike and circusy. Coiling through is the serpent, evoked by Davon Rainey, who also delivers several interesting and illuminating (and highly crowd-pleasing) drag numbers.

But none of this factual description conveys the lurid opulence of the production. Swings, a giant chandelier hung low to the ground, a focused rain of water, a huge mirror (for Eve to lose herself in), light bondage, near-nudity, and the world's first threesome are only a few pieces of the puzzle. The choreography is continually expressive and beautifully realized by the amazing dancers; the movement is descriptive, never abstract, occasionally a little repetitious, but the spell holds for the production's full 70 minutes.

The score plays a big part in establishing and maintaining the mood. As with Judgment of Paris, it's sewn together from a variety of sources, this time from the likes of Eartha Kitt and Peggy Lee, Cecilia Bartoli and Nina Simone. The text includes a Bukowski poem and passages inspired by Thomas Mann along with elements from the Bible and the Apocrypha. While dance predominates, the cast prove themselves capable actors. Ms. Glover is both regal and slinky, Ms. Careless a package of joy and pain and anger successively, Mr. Beasant a compact, darkly human Everyman. Ms. Marchese and Mr. Rainey are pure over-the-top delight, as they were in Judgment of Paris.

Given the dark material, there's surprisingly little menace in the tale. One gets the sense that Mr. McCormick and his troupe take such pleasure in their work that real evil, even in circus guise, can find no purchase on their stage. But no matter; this is a richly woven, thoroughly rewarding entertainment, well worth the excursion to the company's beautifully converted tow-truck pound near the Gowanus Canal. Get tickets before it closes on June 6!

Photo by Steven Schreiber. (L-R): Davon Rainey and Yeva Glover