Above: Kerry Shea and Carlos Lopez in Lydia Johnson's NIGHT AND DREAMS; photo by Nir Arieli
Thursday June 5, 2014 - Over the past few seasons since my blog became established I've had the good fortune to be invited to a lot of dance company rehearsals. Observing the creative process has definitely enhanced my appreciation for the art form, but perhaps even more for the dedication and artistry of the dancers, without whom dance would only be an idea.
Invariably dancing thru pain, financial hardship (most of the dancers I know work 'real' jobs to pay their bills), scheduling conflicts, emotional turmoils, and plain old fatigue, they manage to rise in the end when it's performance time and deliver the choreographer's vision to the public, exposing themselves both to applause and criticism. At Lydia Johnson Dance, a particular kind of dancer-devotion develops over the course of the rehearsal period, perhaps because the dancers are given choreography and music so very worthy of their efforts.
This year, for her season at the Ailey Citigroup Theater, Lydia Johnson has created a new work to music by Mozart, brought back two contrasting works from last season (danced to Schubert and Golijov, respectively), and revived an earlier work - IN CONVERSATION - created to Philip Glass's violin concerto in 2003-2004.
In recent seasons, Lydia has created a string of masterpieces that resonate deeply with dance-lovers who set a high value on the music being danced to. THE SUMMER HOUSE (to Philip Glass) and CROSSINGS BY RIVER (to Osvaldo Golijov) each created a distinctive, palpable atmosphere thanks to the way Lydia evoked the nuances of the music thru movement - and her ability to summon up deeply moving and highly personal performances from the dancers involved.
Following in this trajectory came the dazzling, multi-hued NIGHT OF THE FLYING HORSES (using a mixture of folkish and ecstatic themes by Golijov) and then the heart-rendingly poetic NIGHT AND DREAMS, set to some of Franz Schubert's most poignant lieder. Both of these noctural works were to be seen tonight, along with the world premiere of BARRETTS MILL ROAD: A REMEMBRANCE in which Mozart's adagio from the piano sonata #14 and the Fantasia in C minor - suggested to Lydia by friends of the Company - become an elegant, salon-style ballet, yet again drawing the best from Lydia's dancers.
In this interview, Lydia speaks of how the new Mozart piece evolved into a tribute to her mother, who is suffering from the dementia of Alzheimer's Disease. The piece didn't really start out with that intention but in the course of its creation the daily effects on the choreographer of this major family issue somehow permeated the ballet, recalling the elegance and grace of a bygone era when her mother was a young woman.
BARRETTS MILL ROAD: A REMEMBRANCE opens with a solo passage danced by Katie Martin-Lohiya (above, in Nir Arieli's photo) as the other dancers remain seated in a corner of the salon. Katie's dancing perfectly caught the gentle restlessness and slight hesitancy in the movement - she would pause in relevé, arm extended as if in greeting - or farewell - before gliding on across the floor. Later, as the first half of the ballet comes to a conclusion, Katie is seen seated alone in a pensive pose. The dancer perfectly embodied Lydia's nuanced ideas of characterization: alluding to rather than actually depicting the woman's state of mind.
In the first half of the Mozart, the women wear long black tutus and corset-style tops in shades of purple, the men in dark trousers and black shirts with violet vests. The effect is both lovely and slightly mournful, since black and purple are colours of mourning. But the dancing is not shadowed by doleful premonitions, instead having a flowing, lyrical quality. Periodically the dancers of the ensemble circle the space or form into parallel lines along a diagonal as in a formal ballroom dance. A gestural language, and dancing in almost waltz-like motifs continually float on the music. In the second half of the ballet, where the movement is more animated, the women switch to short black skirts.
Kerry Shea, Anthony Bocconi, Laura Di Orio and Sarah Pon, along with Katie Martin-Lohiya, all have prominent roles in this piece and all dance with unstinting generosity and grace. In a duet passage for two men, Blake Hennessy-York and Chazz Fenner-McBride display a touching quality of mutual support. Min-Seon Kim and Lisa Borres, petite and lovely dancers, make the most of the solo phrases that Lydia has created for them, swirling across the salon with youthful assurance.
The second half of this ballet seemed a bit over-extended but the overall effect was striking and the large audience, held in silent attentiveness by the music and the movement, embraced the work and the dancing with sustained applause.
Some images by Nir Arieli from this Mozart dancework:
Anthony Bocconi, Kerry Shea, Laura DiOrio
The female ensemble
Sarah Pon (foreground) with Lisa Borres and Laura DiOrio
Anthony Bocconi and Sarah Pon
In a total change of mood (and music) the evening continued with an outstanding performance of Lydia Johnson's 2004 work IN CONVERSATION. This piece, set for a quartet of dancers, was the first work of Lydia Johnson's with which I became familiar; she revived it last summer for performances in Newport, Rhode Island, where it was a genuine hit.
I know that choreographers, like painters and composers, sometimes look back on their earlier works and find them almost unrecognizable - "Did I create this?" - but there's no reason for Lydia Johnson to have the slightest qualm about this work since it emerged from one of the 20th century's most arresting scores, the Philip Glass violin concerto. It speaks to us powerfully today, and though the movement has a rather different quality than Lydia's more recent works, it sustains a mood of great passion and turbulence, offset by moments of deep tenderness and a quest for human connection.
The ballet was danced with unbridled depth of commitment by Kerry Shea, Laura DOrio, Anthony Bocconi and Eric Williams. Not only are these dancers overwhelmingly attractive and expressive, but they let the music take them soaring. One small but striking moment in IN CONVERSATION comes when Kerry appears for the ballet's final passages with her hair down.
Nir Arieli captures the emotional power of IN CONVERSATION - both the work and the dancers - in these images:
Anthony Bocconi, Laura DiOrio, Eric Williams, Kerry Shea
Laura DiOrio in a solo phrase; Laura appeared in all four ballets tonight, displaying a perfect response to the music and a physicality that strikes a fine balance between the graceful and the angular, as the choreography demands...a beautiful shaper of movement. In the seasons since I first saw Laura dancing, she has shed a slight feeling of personal reticence (that was somehow lovely in its own way) and become an inspired - and inspiring - performer.
Anthony Bocconi and Laura DiOrio; Anthony's dancing all evening was marked by a kind of intense lyricism and a marvelous connection to his partners. Lydia's style fits him like a glove, and he communicates every move and gesture with ennobling clarity.
Kerry Shea and Eric Williams. Like Laura, Kerry danced in all four works tonight. Trained as a classical ballerina, Kerry has made Lydia's style her own; she brings the elegance of ballet and a poetic sensibility of expression to everything she dances. With a beautiful arabesque and classic sense of line, Kerry is the perfect exponent of Lydia Johnson's fusion style...
...and her hair is simply gorgeous!
In the foreground: Eric Williams and Kerry Shea. I have seen Eric dancing in a variety of choreographic settings and styles in recent seasons and he has a handsome, unaffected masculine presence and a feeling for ardor without affectation that makes him so arresting to watch. His powerful physique maintains a classic feel for centered movement, and he has a face with a thespian's range of expression.
Laura and Anthony
Kerry and Eric
The audience response to IN CONVERSATION was so gratfying to hear; the dancers, music and choreography deserved no less. Brilliant work, brilliant dancing!
During the intermission, a woman sitting next to us turned to me and said: "I've never seen anything like this! This woman [Lydia]...who is she? She has really found the bridge between ballet and contemoprary dance!" I couldn't agree more.
The heart-filling depths of Franz Schubert's lieder are incredibly visualized in Lydia's most moving work (to date): NIGHT AND DREAMS. Here we find the dancers at their most sublime, responding to the achingly beautiful melodies with dancing of quiet resonance. For me, this ballet blossomed from a single word in the opening song ('Du bist die ruh'): sehnsucht - longing - a longing for tranquility, tenderness, and the escape of dreams.
The central pas de deux couple, Kerry Shea and guest artist Carlos Lopez (above), have formed a memorable partnership based on trust, musicality, and a mutual sense of the poetic. Midway thru their poignant adagio, Kerry vanishes upstage and Carlos has an expressive solo with some fluent attitude turns. Kerry then remarkably re-enters from the opposite downstage corner to finish the duet with her handsome cavalier.
NIGHT AND DREAMS provides the dancers with wonderful possibilities of movement and expression, none more potent than a solo danced with generous spirit by Blake Hennessy-York (seen above, with Katie Martin-Lohiya). Blake's compact athleticism and complete ease onstage always play a vital part in the success of Lydia's work.
Later, Blake is borne aloft (above).
Dancing with Lydia's company for the first time this season, Daniel Pahl and Chazz Fenner-McBride - above with Sarah Pon - have taken to the style with élan. In recent years, I've often seen Danny dancing (and choreographing) with the Columbia Ballet Collaborative; and Chazz has made an outstanding impression in Robin Becker's powerful INTO SUNSET. Both Danny and Chazz are very welcome additions to Lydia's troupe and I sincerely hope they will continue to work with her in future.
Daniel Pahl and Laura DiOrio
Above: a final look at NIGHT AND DREAMS...the ensemble
Bringing the evening to a close, Lydia's 'red' ballet - NIGHT OF THE FLYING HORSES - is set to a vivid score by Osvaldo Golijov which pulsates in a variety of textures from soaring spiritualism to sensuous quietude to rambunctious bursts of sheer energy.
Blake Hennessy-York and Sarah Pon; Sarah is one of Lydia Johnson Dance's most valued dancers, a young woman with luminous features - alabaster skin, jet black hair, darkly radiant eyes - and an expansive emotional range. All her dancing is coloured by a lyrical urgency that draws the eye to her whenever she appears.
As rich in movement as in music, NIGHT OF THE FLYING HORSES summons a special energy from the dancers; if they felt fatigued near the end of a longish evening, Golijov's music surely revived them.
Anthony Bocconi and Laura DiOrio
Kerry Shea and Eric Williams
Kerry and Eric; their adagio in this ballet is danced to Golijov's haunting evocation of the tender aria "Je crois entendre encore" from Georges Bizet's THE PEARL FISHERS.
Following this truly impressive and enjoyable evening of dance, it was so nice to run into some of my favorite dancer-friends: Jessica Sand Blonde, Lisa Iannacito McBride, Attila Joey Csiki, Kurt Froman, and Reed Luplau. I couldn't help but wish they'd all been dancing.
A final word of praise to Deborah Wingert whose work as Lydia Johnson Dance's ballet mistress has made this beautiful troupe of dancers look even more beautiful.