Above: Nir Arieli's image of Dona Wiley, Sara Spangler, and Blair Reavis-Tyler in Lydia Johnson's This, and my heart beside…
Wednesday June 21st, 2017 - Lydia Johnson Dance's annual New York season opened tonight at New York Live Arts in Chelsea. Performing in two new works, as well as the revival of a Johnson classic from 2012, and the repeat of a darkish ensemble work held over from last season, the Company dancers displayed the strength, technical accomplishment, emotional commitment, and ever-appealing individuality of face and form that sets them in a unique place on the Gotham dancescape. For Lydia Johnson's work, rooted as it is classical ballet technique, is alive with dramatic nuances that paradoxically seem both contemporary and curiously evocative of ancient modes of dance.
Among current choreographers, Lydia's work bristles and blooms with a poignant sense of humanity. There's nary a trace of theatricality in her dances; rather, she uses the music as a canvas on which emotions - both the deep and the subtle - are painted. Expressions of tenderness (so lacking in our lives today), hope, remorse, uncertainty, and the frailty of the human heart well up on the music, sometimes unexpectedly. How often, watching Lydia's troupe in rehearsal, have I fought back tears or felt pangs of regret as I connect memories from my own life with things she is depicting in dance.
To Lydia's good fortune, her work has always attracted dancers with an intrinsic gift for colouring their performances with expressive hues, drawing on their own recollections and experiences to captivate the viewer with their commitment, energy, and passion.
This season, a particularly striking ensemble has gathered together to offer up Lydia's ballets: from Company mainstays Laura DiOrio, Katie Martin-Lohiya, MinSeon Kim, Brynt Beitman, and Chazz Fenner- McBride to newcomers Daniel Pigliavento, Dona Wiley, Lauren Treat, Blair Reavis-Tyler, and Hope K Ruth, everyone shone: each in his or her own way. Debuting with the Company, a marvelous ballet-duo, Mary Beth Hansohn and Peter Chusin, left me hoping that tonight marks the start of their ongoing involvement with Lydia's troupe.
Of special joy was the re-appearance at Lydia Johnson Dance of a pair of beloved dancers, Sarah Pon and Blake Hennessy-York; they had moved to the West Coast last year, and have graciously flown in to reprise their roles in Giving Way. And we also welcomed back Lisa Iannacito McBride, a key dancer during her seasons with Lydia Johnson Dance. Lisa has come back to perform a role made on her in 2012 in Crossings by River; in the intervening years, Lisa has been raising her son and dancing in her current neighborhood, up the Hudson River. This was not a sentimental return, but rather a vibrant and supremely assured performance from a dancer who always lights up the stage.
As we sat waiting for the performance to start, I was reflecting on all that has happened since the Company last danced in New York City. I felt quite certain, having seen some rehearsals, that this would be a strong program. As the evening flowed onward, I found the impact of the music, the choreography, and the dancing exceeded expectations in every regard.
Above: Lisa Iannacito McBride, Laura DiOrio, and Katie Martin-Lohiya in Crossings by River; photo by Nir Arieli
In Crossings by River, music of Osvaldo Golijov is the ideal setting for a dancework depicting the quiet rituals of a group of five women. Their flowing golden skirts and black lace bodices lend a Spanish flavour to the proceedings and, from the rooted, gestural elements at the start thru to spacious circlings laced with solo passages, and on to the consoling, rocking motifs of the sisterhood, Lydia Johnson's choreography takes the Balanchinian stance of letting us see the music.
The five women gave an exceptionally well-integrated performance; two members of the original cast for Crossings were re-visiting their roles today: Lisa Iannacito McBride and Laura DiOrio. Their confident, expressive dancing resonates from the depths of their feminine spirits. Since the creation of this ballet, both Lisa and Laura have become mothers; this added an intangible layer of richness to their portrayals.
Katie Martin-Lohiya, who has become a paragon of the Lydia Johnson style, radiated assurance and grace, and MinSeon Kim stepped into one of Lydia's most intriguing solos - the dancer subtly changes directions as she moves about the space - and made it her own. Dona Wiley, in her first performances with Lydia Johnson Dance, was an elegant presence and danced beautifully in this finely-integrated ensemble work.
Here are some of Nir Arieli's images from Crossings by River:
Dona Wiley, Min SeonKim, Katie Martin-Lohiya
Min, Lisa, Dona, Laura, Katie
Lisa Iannacito McBride
Katie, Laura, and Lisa
Katie, gently rocked by Lisa and Laura
Giving Way is being presented for the third consecutive season; I must say it seemed even more vital this year than previously, though I cannot put my finger on the reason. A sense of urgency was in full flourish among the dancers, whilst the more lyrical passages were hauntingly evocative.
Following a dynamic opening in which opposing quartets of men and women advance and retreat, Lydia Johnson brings forth an intensely personal duet for two boys: Blake Hennessy-York and Brynt Beitman. Their performance was a highlight of the evening, as Nir's images attest:
A men's quartet - swaying at first and then more animated - leads on the the heart of the ballet, set to a gorgeously mystical music for marimba and cello. A folkish cello passage for the men evolves to a memorable pas de deux danced by Laura Di Orio and Brynt Beitman:
In a unique passage, girls are lifted by pairs of men:
Spectacular solo dancing from Chazz Fenner-McBride in Giving Way brought another outstanding performance from this incredibly gifted and vividly communicative dancer. I have been following Chazz over the past few seasons, dancing first for Robin Becker and now for Lydia Johnson. He just gets better and better: fearless, powerful, but always lyrical at heart: such a perpetual pleasure to watch him.
Giving Way ends with the dancers undulating in a wave-like passage as the light fades.
Here are more of Nir images from Giving Way:
Peter Chursin, Blake Hennessy-York
Chazz Fenner-McBride & MinSeon Kim
Katie Martin-Lohiya, Peter Chursin
Brynt Beitman, Laura DiOrio
The music of Georg Friedrich Handel cries out: "Dance to me!" The contrasts between the lively allegros and the lyrical andantes set up a perfect opportunity for choreographers to show off both their dancers' technical proficiency and their emotive qualities.
In the premiere of her new Handel ballet, Trio Sonatas, Lydia Johnson shows her usual structural deftness and musicality. The dancers strike off-kilter, stylized poses (above) before things turn more animated, with small leaps in place and the girls flinging themselves dramatically into Chazz's arms.
Duet motifs, and a walking ensemble ensue: the Company's newest members have opportunities to shine. Daniel Pigliavento dances with Katie Martin-Lohiya - their long limbs and tender sense of lyricism shaping the movement persuasively:
Lydia's newest ladies - Dona Wiley, Lauren Treat, Blair Reavis-Tyler, and Hope K Ruth - are seen to advantage in the Handel work. A sprightly finale strikes up, with the dancers doing swift lay-downs before springing back to action. Chazz Fenner-McBride's daring catches of the petite and charming Hope K Ruth drew appreciative murmurs from the crowd. A female ensemble with decorative gestures, another bit of brightness from Ms. Ruth, and a duo passage for Chazz and Blair Reavis-Tyler draw Trio Sonatas to its close.
Trio Sonatas images from Nir Arieli:
Chazz fenner-McBride and MinSeon Kim
Laura DiOrio and Katie Martin-Lohiya
Chazz Fenner-McBride and MinSeon Kim
Hope K Ruth
This, and my heart beside… is Lydia Johnson's very newest work, and let's say it flat-out: it's a masterpiece. The title of the ballet is drawn from this Emily Dickinson poem:
"It’s all I have to bring today—
This, and my heart beside—
This, and my heart, and all the fields—
And all the meadows wide—
Be sure you count—should I forget
Some one the sum could tell—
This, and my heart, and all the Bees
Which in the Clover dwell."
To music by Marc Mellits and Philip Glass, the choreographer has deployed her large cast in an inspired manner; the ballet features the appearance of a young girl, Sara Spangler, and centers on three couples: Mary Beth Hansohn and Peter Chursin, MinSeon Kim and Chazz Fenner-McBride, and Katie Martin-Lohiya dancing with Daniel Pigliavento.
One aspect of this work that is most intriguing is that its narrative qualities seem to loom up along a fluid timeline; rather than linear storytelling, the dancers seem to slip from the here-and-now into memories from the past and dreams of things to come. Philip Glass's music amplifies this sense of layers of time, just as it did in Lydia Johnson's earlier work Summer House, also danced to Glass.
The Marc Mellitts segment of This, and my heart beside... has the feeling of a prologue. Sara Spangler's perfection in the role of The Child (above, with Katie Martin-Lohiya) removed the risk of any inadvertent scene-stealing on her part: she was a calm, natural, lovely presence throughout.
Sara Spangler and Katie Martin-Lohiya
Once the Philip Glass music commences, we are drawn deeper into the drama. In a dancework rife with emotion, the exact inter-relationships of the characters become a matter of what the individual viewer chooses to focus on. There is much going on; the ballet will require additional viewings before one can draw any definitive conclusions - though, on the other hand, definitive conclusions may not be possible in this case.
In a striking partnership, Mary Beth Hansohn and Peter Chursin delved into both the passion and the problems inherent in a long-time love affair. Resistance and surrender vie for the upper hand, and it is all so true-to-life. Here are some of Nir's images of this charismatic pair of dancers:
One memorable moment in the Hansohn/Chursin relationship came when they seemed to express opposing viewpoints in flashes of pirouettes.
The second couple, Katie Martin-Lohiya and Daniel Pigliavento (above), seem more steadfast in their love. It is they, in the end, who have charge of the young girl.
MinSeon Kim and Chazz Fenner-McBride (above) are a youthful couple, alternately joyous and a bit scrappy; all seems well between them until - as the ballet nears its end - Chazz becomes intrigued with Mary Beth. This sets up a brief and subtle but tension-filled encounter for Chazz and Peter. The situation remains unresolved, as does the music. As the light fades, Peter and MinSeon are on their own, with Mary Beth in Chazz's encircling arms. The child, for whom all that has gone before may be a vision of the future, is safe in the protective love of Katie and Daniel.
Others will have seen variable narratives in this complex but wonderfully absorbing work; and over time, I may change my opinion of what has happened in the course of This, and my heart beside...
But I won't change my mind about the work itself: it's something to treasure.