Fuse Feature: Best in Dance of 2015

Fuse dance critics pick some of the outstanding performances/events of the year.

Mysty Copeland

Misty Copeland at the American Ballet Theatre — her promotion will hopefully represent a big, overdue step forward, and not just a big — but ultimately empty — “token” gesture.

In no particular order, here are some of my favorite, local-ish, dance-related events from 2015:

* Misty Copeland was promoted to principal dancer at American Ballet Theatre!!! (June)

Yes, her publicity machine is at times a relentless and oppressive buzzkill, but she is a marvelous dancer who is deserving of her spot at the top. No, this doesn’t mean there aren’t other deserving dancers, which is a tiresome and ultimately fruitless argument that people insist on having. (There are only so many principal spots available: get over it.) Our country’s ballet companies are woefully uneven in terms of racial diversity, and while this is somewhat a byproduct of America’s longterm policies of inequality, Copeland’s story and promotion will hopefully represent a big, overdue step forward, and not just a big — but ultimately empty — “token” gesture. Time will tell!

* La Sylphide revival at New York City Ballet. (Spring season.)

Mostly, when I see this company I want to see the stuff of which this company was built on — the jewels of the twentieth century Balanchine and Robbins repertoire — as well as the newer voices (Wheeldon, Ratmansky, and Peck, and still waiting for that female choreographer to emerge/be encouraged by NYCB) who are producing choreography well-suited to the formidable, but particular, strengths of this great company. But kudos to Balanchine’s successor, Peter Martins, for adding his own background’s legacy to the mix, and for making sure that the Danish ballet master August Bournonville’s 1836 ballet was so lovingly/expertly staged and performed. Otherwise, why bother?

* Jessica Lang Dance’s The Wanderer at Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival. (July)

And look, speaking of female ballet choreographers! No, I don’t necessarily think that Lang is City Ballet’s next “frequent flyer” female dancemaker (it’s just a matter of style, and Lang’s doesn’t strike me as the kind that translates into making multiple works for that particular company) but her 2014 evening-length dance-drama, set to Schubert’s great “Die Schöne Müllerin” song cycle, is both bold and subtle, and chock-full of seamlessly-woven dance passages.

* Liz Gerring’s glacier at Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival. (August)

Well, I didn’t mean for it to be a theme, but Liz Gerring is in fact another strong American female choreographer whose work continues to capture my attention. Gerring’s compositions are both cerebral in construction and compelling in their physicality; they require one’s full concentration (seems like a reasonable thing to ask of viewers, but you’d be surprised) but usually offer great rewards for the effort. I wrote in The Boston Globe that the 2013 glacier is “a marvel of construction and deconstruction, of simplicity and complexity, of morphing dynamics.” Gerring’s cast of eight dancers was terrific.

* Gauthier Dance, at Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival. (July)

Though I usually do not like so many pieces on one program (seems a little recital-y), this German company, making its “official” U.S. debut, managed to etch, rather than blur, the evening’s seven dances in my mind’s “afterimages.” Performing a range of movement styles, the group’s charismatic dancers are well-trained in ballet and modern dance, but seem to be able to do anything, including charming the pants off viewers. After its buoyant reception at the Pillow, the company is appearing again in this summer’s Pillow season. Tickets may go fast, just sayin.’

— Janine Parker

Since 1989, Janine Parker has been writing about dance for The Boston Phoenix and The Boston Globe. A former dancer, locally she performed with Ballet Theatre of Boston, North Atlantic Ballet, Nicola Hawkins Dance Company, and Prometheus Dance. Ms. Parker has been teaching for more than 25 years, and has a long history with Boston Ballet School. She is on the Dance Department faculty of Williams College in Western Massachusetts, where she has lived since 2003. Janine Parker can be reached at parkerzab@hotmail.com.

Highlights of ’15 and a peak into the crystal ball

Instead of singling out the “best” from a year’s worth of dance, I’ll take this opportunity to mention several notable occasions and their players.

A glimpse of acclaimed choreographer Paul Taylor in the documentary “Paul Taylor: Creative Domain.”

A glimpse of acclaimed choreographer Paul Taylor in the documentary “Paul Taylor: Creative Domain.”

Paul Taylor, now the dean of modern dance choreographers, didn’t bring his company to Boston this year, but it was featured in a documentary film, Creative Domain, about the making of Taylor’s Three Dubious Memories (2010). It screened at the Museum of Fine Arts in the fall.

Strong choreography deserves to be revived, and repertory is a staple of longstanding companies, in both ballet and modern dance. Paul Taylor’s company performed his dances dating back to 1962 (Aureole) during its spring season at New York’s Koch Theater in Lincoln Center. Concurrent with the season, Taylor renamed his company Paul Taylor’s American Modern Dance, and announced he had commissioned Larry Keigwin and Doug Elkins to make new pieces next season. For 2015 Taylor invited the José Limón company to perform a modern dance classic, Doris Humphrey’s 1938 Passacaglia in C Minor.

We don’t often see vintage modern dances because the machinery that’s needed to perform them is typically focused on maintaining the work of a company director-choreographer like Taylor. So the revivals undertaken by the Institute of Contemporary Art in conjunction with it exhibit “Leap Before You Look – Black Mountain College 1933-1957” made an extraordinary contribution to a scanty archive. There were resurrected editions of Katherine Litz’s The Glyph (1951), danced by Polly Motley and directed by Richard Colton; and Merce Cunningham’s 1958 Changeling, reconstructed from an archival film and danced at the ICA by Silas Riener. Both will be reprised in January, along with a sampling of 1950s Cunningham works, staged by Riener and danced by students at Boston Conservatory.

From out of the mists of time and the Iron Curtain, Boston Ballet retrieved the 1971 Pas de Quatre and four miniatures by nearly forgotten Soviet choreographer Leonid Yakobson for BB@Home in September. Yakobson’s isolation in Soviet Russia was documented by scholar Janice Ross’s new book, Like a Bomb Going Off, and Ross was present for the studio showings. Though it was created in the ’70s, the Pas de Quatre looked more like it came from the plainer 1950s. Boston Ballet has programmed it again for its “Kaleidoscope” program in March.

I never tire of George Balanchine’s ballets. Fortunately some of them still get live-performance tuneups. Boston Ballet usually programs some Balanchine works each season, and this year we got two of them. I saw Episodes in March and Theme and Variations in May, with a cast headed by Misa Kuranaga and Jeffrey Cirio. For “Kaleidoscope” in 2016 the company will do Kammermusik No. 2. I also saw Balanchine’s own company, New York City Ballet, in July at Saratoga Performing Arts Center, keeping Symphony in C and Four Temperaments in great condition.

Dance comedy is a rarity, and Boston Ballet brought back one of the all-time best, The Concert (1956). Jerome Robbins’s spoof on an audience of devotees at a Chopin recital brought out dramatic talents in a company that doesn’t often call for them. Ashley Ellis was the aesthete who collapses in rapture onto Freda Locker’s piano, and Lasha Kozashvili was the henpecked husband who turns into a swaggering hussar.

Modern dancer Monica Bill Barnes, like Robbins and Taylor, makes funny dances about dancers. This year she and compatriot Anna Bass joined up with storyteller Ira Glass for a multi-city tour that landed at the Shubert Theater early in the year. The trio proved highly compatible, with their deadpan commentaries, spoken and danced, on performing, partnering, and growing up.

Impressive new voices belong to Pam Tanowitz (with her company at Bard College in June) and Crystal Pite, the Canadian choreographer, whose works were performed here on Cedar Lake Company’s farewell program and the Harvard Dance Program. Her mass-movement spectacle, Polaris, was on the Thomas Adès “White Night” program at New York City Center in November. The marvelous tap innovator Michelle Dorrance, whose Blues Project came to Boston via CRASHarts in March, was honored with a MacArthur “genius” award.

The year brought three ambitious evening-length dances. Reggie Wilson’s “post-African/neo-HooDoo” Moses(es), was a celebration of music, dancing, individuality and community. Jessica Lang’s The Wanderer, based on the Franz Schubert song cycle Die schöne Müllerin, at Jacob’s Pillow, evoked Schubert’s thwarted love story. And Faye Driscoll staged Thank You for Coming: Attendance, one part of a projected trilogy, at the Institute of Contemporary Art, a sustained exercise in establishing connections between the performers and the audience.

One fascinating personal dance of the year was Doug Varone’s solo The Fabulist, which he performed during his company’s programs under the auspices of CRASHarts in October at the ICA. Moving from one to another circle of light, Varone could have been confronting the inexorable process of dancing, living, aging.

Another poignant solo was performed by Karen Krolak during a program by Monkeyhouse at Cambridge Multicultural Arts Center. Krolak inched around the edge of a dance platform without occupying the dance space itself, all the while telling a family story that slid from learning and conquest to tragedy and resignation.

In addition to the rigors of ballet and modern dance techniques, dancers are incorporating pedestrian actions that represent us on stage. Choreographed everyday movement also can allow people of all ages and capacities to perform.

In the fall Peter DiMuro asserted his mission of outreach as head of the Dance Complex, with a program of works that blended older and younger dancers, paired a partly disabled actor and a flamenco dancer, and included DiMuro himself in a monologue about growing up gay with a macho father. Prometheus Dance’s Elders Ensemble celebrated its tenth anniversary at the Complex with a program of pieces for over-60 performers and young dancers.

One of my heroes of the year was David Parker, a part-time Bostonian who brought his New York-based company here to perform their zany take on the perennial Christmas ballet, Nut/Cracked to the ICA. The dance, set to Tchaikovsky jazzed and straight, grows funnier by the year. This time the Bang Group invited students from three local high schools to do a section of the piece, one on each of the three nights. The Bangs also did an evening at Oberon in Cambridge with skit-like dances by Parker, DiMuro, Courtney Peix and Deborah Lohse. Parker hopes to continue producing a series at that cabaret-style venue.

Another hero was Norton Owen, archivist at Jacob’s Pillow, who presided over an expansion of the Pillow’s research space. Owen engineered a new interactive website that features dancers of all kinds in past performances, and even a dance quiz. The Pillow staged a grand opening of the new space in June, and a gala dinner in Owen’s honor. For the occasion a 1950s gem, Antony Tudor’s Trio Con Brio, was lovingly revived by New York Theater Ballet director Diana Byer. The little ballet had its premiere at the Pillow in 1952. Nothing could be more appropriate for an archive to do than bring an unknown ballet to life again.

— Marcia B. Siegel

Internationally known writer, lecturer, and teacher Marcia B. Siegel covered dance for 16 years at The Boston Phoenix. She is a contributing editor for The Hudson Review. The fourth collection of Siegel’s reviews and essays, Mirrors and Scrims—The Life and Afterlife of Ballet, won the 2010 Selma Jeanne Cohen prize from the American Society for Aesthetics. Her other books include studies of Twyla Tharp, Doris Humphrey, and American choreography. From 1983 to 1996, Siegel was a member of the resident faculty of the Department of Performance Studies, Tisch School of the Arts, New York University.

The year was a bountiful one for dance in Boston. Many striking productions graced our local stages—whether touring or homegrown. In addition to the excellent highlights previously listed by Janine and Marcia, these three also deserve an extra round of applause:

A scene from MOMIX's "Alchemia." Photo: Max Pucciariello.

A scene from MOMIX’s “Alchemia.” Photo: Max Pucciariello.

MOMIX’s Alchemia. Presented by World Music/Crash Arts at the Emerson/Cutler Majestic Theater, Boston, MA, in May.

Too often we find ourselves attending dance productions expected to maintain an attitude of polite, silent rapture. We clap when given our cue, and worry that any sound we make might ruin the moment onstage. MOMIX has managed to challenge with expectation of ‘good’ behavior with its multimedia, multisensory work. It was a refreshing experience to sit in a production that asked for unbridled audience appreciation—from laughs to gasps to unhesitating applause. This dance company has managed to find a dynamic way to balance art and entertainment.

A scene from "JEANNE, the story of a woman. " Photo: Daniel J. van Ackere.

A scene from “JEANNE, the story of a woman. ” Photo: Daniel J. van Ackere.

JEANNE, the story of a woman. Presented by Fort Point Theater Channel, Contrapose Dance, and Ensemble Warhol at the Boston University Dance Theater in September.

JEANNE, the story of a woman, is a production that continues to develop. For this performance, three sections of the full-length opera JEANNE (by James Swindle and Mark Warhol) were remounted, featuring an innovative operatic duet. The music was an eclectic mix, while the talented performers of Contrapose Dance resembled a traditional Greek chorus.

Choreographer Junichi Fukuda’s use of the three dancers onstage was the highlight of this remount. The trio of performers took on a number of roles: at times they were a mobile part of the set, at other times they kinetically embodied the emotions of the vocalist on stage. I commend the production’s efforts thus far, and look forward to the next iteration.

Cloud Gate Dance Theatre's "RICE." Photo: Liu Chen Hsiang.

Cloud Gate Dance Theatre’s “RICE.” Photo: Liu Chen Hsiang.

Cloud Gate Dance Theatre’s RICE. Presented by the Asian Arts & Culture Program, UMass Amherst’s Fine Arts Center in September.

There were several noteworthy dance productions beyond Boston this year as well, one of which was presented at the prestigious Fine Arts Center Concert Hall at UMass Amherst. Cloud Gate Dance Theatre’s RICE presented audiences with a work that was not only visually stunning, but made a deeply powerful social statement as well. The work centered around the importance of sustainability as told through a story about the rice fields of Taiwan. The theme examined the relationship between the destructiveness of man and the resilience of nature. This production was a rare treat on all fronts, and we were lucky have it land so close to home—the company’s U.S. tour selected just two venues: the Next Wave Festival at BAM (Brooklyn Academy of Music) and the Fine Arts Center in Amherst.

Thank you, 2015, for bringing us such an inspiring array of choreographic works! Here’s to another year of dance in New England.

— Merli V. Guerra

Merli V. Guerra is a professional dancer with a background in ballet, modern, and classical Indian dance in the Odissi style, and an award-winning interdisciplinary artist with talents in choreography, filmmaking, writing, and graphic design. She is co-founder and artistic director of Luminarium Dance Company, production manager of Art New England magazine in Boston, and selects The Arts Fuse’s weekly coming attractions for dance.

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