Matisse, curious incidents & road-trip revelations

On a midwinter journey to New York, big crowds and big attractions blend with high prices and a splash of magic

In December, New York City dances. Lights sparkling night and day,  revelers dashing across streets to pause and gape at store windows, skaters swooping and sometimes staggering around the ice rink at Rockefeller Center, fat little squirrels scampering up and down trees in Washington Square,  traffic doing the slowest dance of the year.

At the Guggenheim Museum, on a Sunday afternoon, hordes of kids are ramping up the action in the main hall. At the Museum of Modern Art, Matisse’s paper cut-outs, in residence through February 10, dance off the walls, lifting the heart and brightening the soul. Some of those cut-outs were done in the 1950s, decades after the artist’s iconic paintings Dance I (1909) and Dance II (1932). The colors in his cut-outs are much, much brighter, and there are no dancers per se, but the shapes are there, and those shapes shimmy as well as shimmer. I saw these “found” dances last month on a two-week visit to my home town, much of it in the company of my grandchildren and their parents.

Henri Matisse, "The Parakeet and the Mermaid." 1952. Gouache on paper, cut and pasted, and charcoal on paper, 11' 11/16" x 25' 2 9/16" (337 x 768.5 cm). Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam. Acquired with the assistance of the Vereeniging Rembrandt and the Prince Bernhard Cultuurfond

Henri Matisse, “The Parakeet and the Mermaid.” 1952. Gouache on paper, cut and pasted, and charcoal on paper, 11′ 11/16″ x 25′ 2 9/16″ (337 x 768.5 cm). Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam. Acquired with the assistance of the Vereeniging Rembrandt and the Prince Bernhard Cultuurfond

With the family, I saw no dance or theater. Ticket prices are astronomical, which made me realize how deeply privileged I was to grow up in that city in the ’40s and ’50s, when the museums (except for MoMA) were free and the price of a second balcony seat at New York City Center was the same as for a first-run movie. Today, children do get in gratis to the Guggenheim, and, with some negotiation, to the Metropolitan Museum and the American Museum of Natural History. But small wonder that the audience for live performance is shrinking, and shrinking fast.

Having said that, every event I attended was well and truly packed, including the museums, where parents of young children (including the parents of my grandchildren) were making art part of their children’s lives.  One such child (no kin of mine) who, her mother told me, takes ballet classes in Maine, used the sculpted railing of the Guggenheim’s ramp as a barre, demonstrating for me the five positions of l’école de la danse with charming accuracy.

Tickets for The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time on Broadway are definitely prohibitively priced, yet the balcony, where I sat in the next to the last row, was full, and with quite a few young people at that. Possibly they were Juilliard students, given a student rate, there to see Alex Sharp, who graduated from the drama program last spring, and whose performance in the lead role gave me the same high as Sarita Allen did, dancing in Alvin Ailey’s Revelations the following night.

Alex Sharp as Christopher in "Curious Incident."  Joan Marcus Photographer, © Broadway.com

Alex Sharp as Christopher in “Curious Incident.” Joan Marcus
Photographer, © Broadway.com

The play, an adaptation by Simon Stephens of Mark Haddon’s eponymous novel, begins with a dead dog and ends with a gamboling puppy.  It is funny, heartbreaking, angry, frightening, and at times annoying. But Sharp, portraying Christopher, a 15-year-old autistic teenager who is a mathematical genius trapped by a neurological inability to relate to the people who love him, inhabits that character with every muscle, bone and sinew in his body. He also spoke his lines with far more clarity than more experienced cast members. I could barely understand the narrator of Christopher’s account of his brave, not quite solo journey (he takes along with him his pet rat) in search of his mother. She has abandoned him, his father, and their Swindon community for a less stressful life in London with her lover; the owner, it turns out, of the murdered dog. I have seldom seen a physical comedy shtick as funny as Sharp’s efforts to cope with using a smelly toilet on a moving train; not many gestures as tender as his fleeting acceptance of his mother’s aid. And Sharp’s full-bodied working-out of a complicated math problem in a setting of flashing lights, (post curtain-calls,) is a mind-boggling, movement tour de force. Jumping high to reach a simulated chalkboard, Sharp shows plenty of what ballet critics call ballon: the ability to seem as if you are balancing on air.

Theater critics had mixed feelings about the highly innovative lighting and set design, basically a grid on which minimalist props and video projections create a village street, a railway station, a train car, and the aforementioned railway toilet.  I thought it was brilliant, but having seen many such virtual settings for dance, not particularly startling. Bunny Christie was responsible for the scenic and costume design; Paule Constable for the lighting and Finn Ross the video projections.

The following night, New Year’s Eve, the dancing took place (theatrical dancing, that is) at a recently refurbished City Center, where the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre was saying farewell to 2014 with a program of what Balanchine called applause machines, and appearances by some of the company’s alumni in Ailey’s Revelations, which is a masterpiece as well as an audience-pleaser.

The Alvin Ailey company in "Revelations." Photo: Nan Melville

The Alvin Ailey company in “Revelations.” Photo: Nan Melville

In a pre-curtain address noteworthy for its brevity, Robert Battle, who has directed the Ailey company since Judith Jamison’s retirement in 2011, spoke of Revelations as part of the company’s past, present and future. Made in 1960, it is as much this company’s signature work as Balanchine’s Serenade is New York City Ballet’s, although it is very different.  I love Revelations for its honesty and humor, for the music—spirituals, alas, not performed live—for its choreographic blend of the modern techniques of Lester Horton and Martha Graham with Ailey’s idiosyncratic movement details: splayed fingers and lifted upper bodies come to mind,  and the sheer joy of its conclusion. I can’t think of a better way to spend New Year’s Eve, a holiday I basically loathe, than clapping out the beat of Rocka My Soul in unison with an audience dressed to the nines and led by Sarita Allen, who danced in this company from 1970 to 1990 and on this occasion succeeded in transforming her light-stepping, lean, mean body into one of Ailey’s weighted, jolly, extroverted church women. Now for the disclaimer: I know Allen: thanks to my uber-generous New York friend Lillian Kraemer, I first met her about a dozen years ago when Lillian shared with me one of the Pilates lessons she still takes from Allen.  Allen got me hooked on the blend of ballet and yoga developed by Joe Pilates, and in Portland I am tutored by another gorgeous mover, former OBT dancer Nicole Cuevas.

Allen’s contemporary, Desmond Richardson, dancing with Dwana Adiaha Smallwood, another company alum, also knocked my socks off in Wade in the Water, one of my favorite sections of Revelations, and Andre Tyson’s performance in that mind-boggling solo I Wanna Be Ready was also phenomenally good. Current company members Jermaine Terry, Yannick Lebrun (who gave an outstanding performance earlier in the evening in Battle’s African body-slapping solo Takademe) and Sean Aaron Carmon conveyed the frantic fears of the guilty in Sinner Man, dashing around the stage backed by the simulated fires of Hell, but why in the name of all that’s holy did someone at Ailey decide some years ago to make these sinners look bright green?

While it’s safe to say that Revelations was the only real masterpiece on the New Year’s Eve program, Hans van Manen’s skillfully crafted, curtain-raising Polish Pieces set the celebratory tone, the dancers’ primary-colored unitards taking me right back to  Matisse’s cut-outs at MoMA. What’s Polish about the piece is the music, an electronic score composed by Henryk-Mikolaj Gorecki, and a good match for van Manen’s choreographic blend of modern and classical technique. Polish Pieces is a series of solos, duets and trios, all of them high-energy, some of them combative. I was particularly taken by the shapely performance by Akua Noni Parker, partnered by Antonio Douthit-Boyd.

We’ve seen some of Aszure Barton’s work here in Portland; Northwest Dance Project has commissioned her a couple of times, I think, and I haven’t warmed to her rather self-conscious grittiness. Lift, made in 2013 specifically for the Ailey dancers, features a lot of bare-chested male dancers with rippling muscles and women dressed in flippy grass-like skirts, all of this suggesting African tribal dance. It made me acutely uncomfortable, although I very much liked Curtis Macdonald’s score. The audience, which was largely African American, loved it. David Parsons’ 1982 tricky solo, Caught, followed (the manipulation of strobe lights fools the audience into thinking the dancer is not only levitating but also has the ability to be in several places at once) and while Kirven Douthit-Boyd, like all this company’s male dancers, combines athleticism and artistry in spectacular ways, it didn’t quite come off. Perhaps what was startling 30 years ago, when I saw Parsons perform it himself in Lincoln Hall, has lost its energy, or maybe I’m just the wrong person to review it.  One of my seatmates loved it.

In so many ways, New York remains the city of my childhood, particularly during the holidays, where lights and color and movement, pedestrian and theatrical, give it a magical energy. But as we emerged from City Center, where I saw my first operas and ballets, onto West 55th Street, which had been blocked off because of the expected crowds to watch the ball drop at midnight in Times Square, I realized that a lot more than ticket prices had changed. The street was jammed with fire engines and emergency vehicles, cops and men in hazmat suits. Still buoyed by the invitation to “Rocka my soul”, I wished the nearest fireman a happy new year and went on my way: such is the power of art, and let’s not forget it.

One Response.

  1. Walter Jaffe says:

    Your review of Curious Dog was spot on, Martha. Paul and I saw it and I was overwhelmed by the play and Alex Sharp’s incredible performance. I’ve been telling everyone about it.

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