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Your Guide to Holiday Dance

A scene from ABT's Nutcracker

A scene from ABT’s Nutcracker

A preview of this season’s holiday dance offerings in New York

As you start to deck the halls, remember that it’s also a bustling season for dance events, holiday-themed and otherwise. Whether you’re a lover of seasonal tradition or looking for something off the beaten reindeer path, there’s something for you in this tour of NYC’s winter dance events.

 Trusted Holiday Dance Favorites

- The Nutcracker, American Ballet Theatre, BAM, Dec 12-21

Catch favorites like Stella Abrera, Sarah Lane, and Misty Copeland featured in ABT’s last round at BAM during their five-year residency there. Alexei Ratmansky’s choreography adds extra shimmer to the Land of Snow and character variations, and the company’s growing ranks of well-known stars (like Copeland, who recently appeared in an Under Armour campaign) continue to impress as their artistry deepens.

- George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker, New York City Ballet, , David H. Koch Theater, Nov 28-Jan 3.

George Balanchine’s version of The Nutcracker is not only a holiday tradition, but also a Big Apple staple. With touches like an enormous tree growing center stage and spicy choreography, this show can appeal to both classicists and fans of more contemporary fare. Gorgeous Sterling Hyltin and Sara Mearns are among the dancers taking center stage.

- Radio City Christmas Spectacular With the Rockettes, Radio City Music Hall, Nov 7- Dec 31.

The Rockettes, kicking for more than 85 years, show off their gams and reindeer hooves in a dazzling show. With favorites like the Wooden Soldiers number, the Rockettes’ precision dancing and never-ending smiles are the epitome of holiday cheer. Visiting the historic venue of Radio City Music Hall rounds out the experience.

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December 2, 2014   No Comments

Why Does Mummenschanz Work So Well?

A Mummenschanz scene

A Mummenschanz scene

The beloved theatre troupe returns to New York

For over 40 years, Mummenschanz has arguably been one of the most reliable sources of all-ages theatre in the world. With their unique style of mask and prop performance—which uses no speech, sound effects, or even music—they create scenes that are both charmingly abstract and recognizably human.

For instance, a creature with eyes made of blue toilet paper rolls might seem cheekily bizarre, but when it cries by pulling the paper to the ground, like a kid wasting the Charmin, it’s also weirdly familiar. The same is true for cardboard boxes that come to life and enormous gloved hands that cavort around the stage.

New Yorkers can rediscover Mummenschanz’s particular magic later this month, when the troupe plays the Skirball Center from November 20-30. The show, which is part of a U.S. tour, will feature some of the company’s greatest hits, as well as one piece that’s been crafted especially for local crowds.

And of course, audiences can expect that signature, silent style. According to Floriana Frassetto, a Mummenschanz co-founder who still performs with the group, it’s the key to the company’s work. “People are seeing something abstract that they can relate to individually, in their own way,” she says. “We give them this freedom, and it’s so beautiful to be able to give freedom in a relationship with the audience. [So often] they are told constantly what to do, what to think, how to feel. Here you’ll have four generations in the audience enjoying it in different ways. But they’re enjoying it together.” [Read more →]

November 10, 2014   No Comments

The Twyla Tharp Ballet We Nearly Lost

Sterling Baca in Bach Partita

Sterling Baca in Bach Partita

How American Ballet Theatre rescued Bach Partita

A new ballet requires weeks of intensive rehearsal in order to reach the stage, and if it’s not properly taken care of, it can become extremely difficult to revive. In fact, if it isn’t performed for a substantial period of time, and if the dancers on whom it was made start to lose their muscle memory of the choreography, then the piece can slip away altogether.

Last fall, American Ballet Theatre rescued an important piece from that oblivion. Twyla Tharp’s rigorously beautiful Bach Partita had been made for the company in 1983, performed no more than ten times through 1985, and then vanished.

Thanks to the dedication of Susan Jones, a longtime and indispensable ballet mistress with the company—who was in the studio as Tharp’s assistant as the ballet was created 30 years earlier—Bach Partita came back to the stage. It was danced with astonishing commitment and panache by a new generation of dancers.

New Yorkers now have another chance to see this nearly-lost sensation. After playing Lincoln Center’s David H. Koch Theater last year, it will return to the space for three performances next week, as part of ABT’s fall season in New York.

Back in 1981, the versatile and ever-surprising Tharp was on quite a roll with her own company. The Catherine Wheel, set to an original David Byrne score, played Broadway that year, and in 1982 she had a huge success with the sensuously elegant Nine Sinatra Songs. For her return to ABT (where she’d created the exuberant and witty Push Comes to Shove, a huge hit in 1976), Tharp chose a 30-minute Bach score and choreographed fiercely complex, purely classical choreography for a cast of 36.

New York Times critic Anna Kisselgoff’s delivered an enthusiastic review: “Miss Tharp thinks amazingly big here in every sense of the word,” she wrote. “For the first time, she has attempted a true neoclassical ballet whose movement is rooted in ballet’s academic code rather than her own modern- dance idiom with incorporation of ballet steps.” She later described the piece as “a treasure house of dance invention for those fascinated by formal intricacy and experiments with movement.”

Recalling Bach Partita, Jones says, “I think it was really Bach that drove her. She has her point of view about the music and how it should be played, how it’s meant to be. She was really challenging the dancers. I think that the hardest thing for them—aside from absorbing Twyla’s style and getting it into their bodies—was the speed she required. It was choreographed to a Heifetz recording that is just faster than the speed of light!” [The ballet is always performed with a live violinist.]

The original cast included three principal couples, seven soloist couples, and an ensemble of 16 women. “Twyla was developing her relationship with ABT and was discovering more things about the classical vocabulary,” recalls Robert La Fosse, who was the youngest of the six principals. “She was pushing the balletic partnering to new limits and challenging us with movements that changed directions constantly.”

Jones, who rehearses many Tharp dances, often staging them for various companies, is passionate about this one. “I feel it’s one of her best pieces. The fact that it’s Bach, and that it’s all of these dancers dancing their hearts out to this one violinist who’s making this incredible sound—I think it’s exhilarating. I didn’t think this ballet would ever go away.” [Read more →]

October 22, 2014   2 Comments

What Exactly Is Queens-Style Dance?

A piece by Neville Dance Theatre

A piece by Neville Dance Theatre

The Queensboro Dance Festival celebrates dance companies from across the borough

In dance reputation terms, Manhattan has made its mark with stalwart institutions like American Ballet Theatre and Lincoln Center, as well as 1960s-bred, avant-garde downtown companies. Brooklyn’s dancescape is known for Mark Morris, BAM, and even more experimental flavors. But do audiences ever think of—or even recognize—what could be called “Queens-style” dance?

Karesia Batan thought not, and she decided this was a problem she needed to address. That’s why she’s developed the Queensboro Dance Festival, where from October 20 to 26, audiences from all boroughs can enjoy 18 diverse, Queens-based dance troupes in a rotating bill at The Secret Theatre in Long Island City.

“My inspiration for creating [Queensboro Dance Festival] was the absence of a physical dance community in our borough,” says the Flushing-born and current Long Island City resident. “I knew from programs I’ve seen around Queens, and also from a ton of dancers I’ve worked with, that a lot of us live in Queens. But oddly, we don’t have a cohesive identity like Manhattan or Brooklyn.”

She continues, “In Queens, we don’t have anything that really connects us all. Queens is so, so diverse, from the culture to the food, and because it’s so large it tends to be disjointed and people stay in their own pockets. But a lot of artists live here, and it’s really an artistic hive. So this is my attempt to bring the Queens dance community together and discover: Who else is out there? What does dance from Queens look like? How can we create a platform for Queens dance?” [Read more →]

October 20, 2014   No Comments

Three Different Films in One Big Dance

Big Dance Theater's "Alan Smithee..."

Big Dance Theater’s “Alan Smithee…”

For its latest wild opus, Big Dance Theater goes to the movies

It sounds like the line-up for an especially eclectic film festival: Terms of Endearment, Dr. Zhivago, and the 1961 French thriller Le Cercle Rouge. Instead, those movies are the basis of Alan Smithee Directed This Play: Triple Feature, the latest adventure in the unexpected from Big Dance Theater.

Playing through October 4 at BAM, Alan Smithee is intriguingly difficult to categorize, and that’s long been a hallmark of BDT’s work. Founders Annie-B Parson and Paul Lazar have specialized in shows that draw on literary—and more recently, cinematic—sources, incorporating an often wild mix of elements to generate works that gleam with their own inner logic and often chaotic beauty. (New Yorkers might know Parson’s work as the choreographer of the Public Theater’s Here Lies Love, while Lazar, a busy actor who performs in Alan Smithee, is currently in rehearsals for the upcoming Theater for a New Audience production of Marlowe’s Tamburlaine.)

To that end, traditional narrative, or even specific characters, are not the focus of Alan Smithee, which was initially conceived as a theatrical triptych incorporating the film scripts. But once she, Lazar, and the performers began to work, Parson says, elements of the films “just started speaking to each other. I would say it was more an exercise in collage. This piece has taken a really long time to make. It’s sprawling.”

“Alan Smithee” is the pseudonym used by directors who are unhappy with the final outcome of a film. As Parson notes, though, she and Lazar consider a degree of creative chaos a necessity. (They’re co-directors here, and Parson is also choreographer.) For them “the title is like a wry joke,” she says. “The work starts to get out of control creatively, in a good sense. In terms of what we’re doing, we want it to do that—to have its own life. We want it to be something that we never ever imagined when we started.” [Read more →]

September 29, 2014   1 Comment