In “A White Man’s Guide to Rikers Island,” Another Man’s Shoes Is Uncomfortable

“The biggest deficit that we have in our society and in the world right now is an empathy deficit. We are in great need of people being able to stand in somebody else’s shoes and see the world through their eyes Barack Obama

It is oft said that until you have walked in another man’s shoes or traversed in his path, you can never understand the pain, the fear, the angst, and the life choices. In Richard L. Roy and Eric C. Webb’s “A White Man’s Guide to Rikers Island” race, class, privilege, and the criminal justice system is examined through the lens of a white man incarcerated among mostly African American and Latino inmates.

Mostly a one-man show, Richard L. Roy tells his real-life story of killing a young Hispanic man in a car accident while under the influence of alcohol and cocaine in the mid-1980s. Sentenced for involuntary manslaughter to the infamous Rikers Island, Roy must navigate the criminal justice system, as well as the particular culture of prison life at Rikers.

Roy tells an incredibly poignant tale of what it is like to be a white man imprisoned at Rikers where the inmates are overwhelming of color, poor, and uneducated. This incredible tale of self-discovery and insight gives a bird’s eye perspective on a broken criminal justice system that victimizes folks with no money, no education, and no white privilege.

Along the way, Richard L. Roy, portrayed exquisitely by Connor Chase White as the incarcerated Roy, comes up with a white man’s guide to survival at Rikers punctuated by prison lingo and slang that is key to making it behind bars. Roy not only distills incredible information about prison culture, but also examines historical and empirical evidence of race bias and class distinctions that establish who ends up doing time in the US prison industrial complex. (Note: African Americans make up roughly 12 percent of the US population, while making up 92 percent of inmates at Rikers Island.)

Though Roy’s stint at Rikers is short—only six months—his insight into white privilege, race and class is worth more than many academicians who’ve spent a lifetime of study on the subject. Perhaps, the most intriguing aspect of this show is Roy’s interaction with his fellow inmates and guards. Roy does a deep psychology plunge into the characters of the inmates he conjures up, particularly, the pre-op transsexual who is kicking a heroin habit but has the wisdom and compassion of great sages.

Images courtesy of Spin Cycle

Sadly, very little has changed at Rikers since Roy’s incarceration in the 80s. And with the recent death of transsexual Layleen Cubilette-Polanco in June of this year highlights that much needs to change at Rikers and with the criminal justice system as a whole.

“A White Man’s Guide to Rikers Island” was originally intended to run for seven weeks starting on July 17. But due to popular demand has been extended to September 26.  “A White Man’s Guide to Rikers Island” is at the Producer’s Club. For more information, go to awhitemansguidetorikersisland.com.

—William S. Gooch

Misty Copeland Triumphs in “Manon”

Image courtesy of dancetabs.com

Since 2015, Misty Copeland has been a principal ballerina with American Ballet Theatre (ABT). Since her promotion, Copeland has had success dancing leads in “Swan Lake,” “Giselle,” “Romeo and Juliet,” Kitri in “Don Quixote,” Swannilda in “Coppelia,” Lise in “La Fille Mal Gardee,”  Gamzatti in “La Bayadere, ”and many other great works from ABT’s classical ballet lexicon. Though some of these roles were bestowed on Copeland while she was still a soloist, with rave reviews in “Romeo and Juliet” and “Swan Lake,” Copeland is moving into the realm of ballerina royalty.

That said; Copeland’s performance as the main character in Kenneth McMillian’s “Manon” solidifies her ascendancy. Serving as a testament to Copeland’s expansion into dramatic roles, Copeland brought a new-found confidence to a role that could have easily eclipsed her. Instead, Copeland brought nuance, charm and a steely determination to the lead character that requires an emotional range of character that evolves from adolescent innocence to savvy manipulator to a convicted throwaway.

Modern-day ballerinas must not only excel in the great Petipa classics, as well as certain neoclassical Balanchine ballets, with a smattering of Fokine, Ashton, Robbins, DeMille, Tudor, Ailey, and Tetley thrown in for good measure, they must also prove that they are great dramatic ballerinas. All the great ballerinas were able to rise to that challenge. Cynthia Gregory was a great Lizzie Borden in DeMille’s Fall River Legend, Antoinette Sibley excelled in “Manon,” and the great Natalia Makarova brought her special brand of stagecraft to Ashton’s “A Month in the Country.”

And now Misty Copeland is on her way to being added to that hallowed constellation of ballerinas that have excelled in an extensive ballet repertoire. And no choreographer stretches a ballerina’s dramatic abilities than Kenneth MacMillan. From the dramatic heroines of his “Romeo and Juliet,” “Anastasia,” “Mayerling,” and “Winter Dreams,” Macmillan brilliantly combines technical virtuosity with stage authenticity.

Image of “Manon” rehearsal courtesy of American Ballet Theatre

That said; MacMillan’s Manon gives a ballerina the opportunity to expand her dramatic possibilities in some distinctly unique ways. First, there is the emotional complexity of the main character, Manon, who must evolve from an innocent young girl right out of a convent education to a skilled courtesan with the ability to manipulate wealthy suitors. This character evolution is beautifully demonstrated in MacMillian’s choreography. As a convent-educated, chaste young woman, MacMillan employs beautiful, creamy bourrées, small intricate parre terre, and petite allegro steps. As Manon enters the world of the demimonde, her choreography becomes sensuous, deliberately displaying her worldly charms. MacMillan aptly inserts lots sensuous ronde de jambes, sexy undulations and the ultimate come-hither, dress pulled up to show lower thigh.

For Copeland, the role of Manon opens up a wealth of possibilities. As much as Copeland is loved for her beautiful legs and feet and bringing a reverence to her Petipa roles, one of the things that she often lacks is lyrical abandon. Copeland, at times, is so careful about being correct and delivering the choreography perfectly that it seems that she might be holding back a bit. Not so, in “Manon.” Though she does use her exquisite feet and legs to stunning effect, but what stands out most for Copeland is pulling off the restraints and throwing caution to the wind.

It is also obvious that Copeland is being coached to bring her more authentic self to dramatic roles. In “Manon,” Copeland was fully invested in the character, finding all the appropriate nuances to bring more relevance and tangibility to the role. This was not a Manon that was easily manipulated or a victim to her brother Lescaut’s (Calvin Royall III) craftiness. Copeland’s Manon knew what she was doing even when she is torn between her for Des Grieux (Cory Stearns) and Monsieur GM (Roman Zhubin). Not to be judged, Copeland’s Manon makes choices and pays a heavy price for her choices.

This production also has notable performances for Cory Stearns as Manon’s lover Des Grieux.  Steans performance was on an operatic scale, exhibiting incredible ballon in his leaps and an impeccably clean technique. Yet, his portrayal of Des Grieux went beyond Stearn’s pyrotechnical acumen. Stearns’ Des Grieux was passionate, if somewhat reckless, and committed to his love for Manon, is spite of her dalliances.

Calvin Royal III’s Lescaut was full of wit, charm and technical brilliance. Royal has the potential to be a great dramatic danseur in the mold of Antony Dowell, Irek Mukhamedov, and Kevin McKenzie. Notable mention goes to Catherine Hurlin and Lescaut’s mistress and Roman Zhubin as Monsieur GM.

Image courtesy of ABT

Still, the star of “Manon” was Misty Copeland. With her conquest of Manon, let this be a signal to American Ballet Theatre that other great dramatic roles should be in her future.

William S. Gooch

“HYMN” Looks Back at the Ballets Russes

Is it possible to recreate a classic from the Ballets Russes’ repertoire and make it palatable for contemporary audiences? It is an arduous task, but on more than a few occasions ballet historians and dance archivists have aided dance companies in this endeavor and the success of their collaborations is easily measured by the box office success of these programs.

Founded in 1909 by the Russian impresario Sergei Diaghilev, the Ballets Russes presented dance works of incredible beauty and innovation, merging the worlds of dance, music, art and fashion.  Diaghilev collaborated with such great artists, musicians and designers as Chagall, Stravinsky, Ravel, Prokofiev, Rimsky-Korsakov, Coco Chanel, Pablo Picasso, Rimbaud, and many others. And the dance works that came out of these collaborations—“Petrouchka,” “Rite of Spring”, “Firebird,” “Les Biches,” “Apollon Musagete,”L’Apres Midi d’un Faune,” “Prince Igor,” and “Les Sylphide”—are legendary.

In the 1980s the Joffrey Ballet had a very successful program of works from the Ballets Russes with its resurrection of Nijinsky’s “Rite of Spring” in 1987. Earlier the Joffrey performed a series of programs with Rudolf Nureyev performing lead roles in the Ballets Russes’ “Petrouchka” and “L’Apres Midi d’un Faune.” American Ballet Theatre has kept some classic Ballets Russes ballets in its repertoire in every recent decade, namely “Les Sylphide,” “The Prodigal Son,” and “Firebird.”

In collaboration with NYU’s The Institute for the Study of the Ancient World (ISAW), Works & Process at the Guggenheim Museum presented Hymn to Apollo: The Ancient World and the Ballets Russes, the first exhibition to focus specifically on the role of ancient world and the Ballets Russes, with costume designers Reid Bartelme and Harriet Jung using original Ballets Russes costumes and designs as their point of departure for this Works & Process costume and dance commission featuring Maurice Ravel’s “Daphnis and Chloe.”

That said; this Works & Process commission is not a remounting of the Ballets Russes’ original “Daphnis and Chloe.” This “Daphnis and Chloe” is a working and re-imagining of the classic dance work, seen through the choreography of Christopher Williams and Netta Yerulshamy.

Though both choreographers use excerpts from Ravel’s original score, their approach is quite different from each other and from the original Michel Fokine choreography. Yerulshamy’s choreography is steeped in modern athleticism with occasional references to plastique motifs found in the choreographic movement style of Isadora Duncan. And though Yerulshamy’s work is an abstract interpretation of Ravel’s “Daphnis and Chloe,” you can see the references to Isadora Duncan’s influence of Michel Fokine. Additionally, Harriet Jung’s utilitarian costumes are both versatile, beautiful, as well as free flowing, perfectly aligned and relative to Yerulshamy’s interpretation of the Ravel score.

Christopher Williams chose to focus on the pirate scene from the “Daphnis and Chloe” ballet. Williams’ choreography demonstrated his deft ability to create unencumbered group choreography. Williams has the daunting tasks of creating movement for not only Chloe and the pirates, but nymphs and creatures of Pan.Perhaps, the most interesting part of Williams’ choreography is the parts he created for New York City Ballet principal Sara Mearns. For those not familiar with Mearns celebrated career with the New York City Ballet, Mearns has been given accolades for mastery of most of Balanchine repertoire, and particularly in Balanchine ballets that require virtuosic brilliance.

Christopher Williams’ choreography is a departure from what Sara Mearns gets to perform at the New York City Ballet, even from New York City Ballet’s more modern choreographers that use a hybrid of dance styles. With that in mind, Mearns triumphed in Williams’ choreography, exhibiting and understanding of William’s movement style that was both illuminating and provocative.

Images courtesy of Michelle Tabnick Communications

What stood out most about these two dance works that pay homage to the Ballets Russes’ “Daphnis and Chloe” was how choreographers of the 21st century can draw inspiration from a ballet that is over a hundred years old and rework the dance work in a way that’s palatable to modern audiences while evoking a movement style of the past. The Guggenheim’s Works & Process program should be commended for facilitating such dance scholarship.William S. Gooch

Ballet Hispanico Explores Immigrant Cultures and Female Empowerment

 

Annabelle Lopez Ochoa’s “Sombrerisimo” image courtesy of Susan Bestul

Ballet Hispanico performs movement styles based in Latin culture like no other company. But, they should. Ballet Hispanico is the premier Hispanic dance company in the US. That said; Ballet Hispanico has gone beyond brilliantly executing dance styles steeped in Latin culture with all the nuance and sensitivity required, and with the program performed on opening night Ballet Hispanico has fully transitioned into a company that can now use body stillness, as well as movement to create architecturally sculptured plastique with emotional integrity. Only a dance company of Ballet Hispanico’s caliber can sculpt movement. Most dance companies only dance and/or strings steps together well; however, when a dance troupe can take stillness and movement and combine these two seeming disparate qualities and carve out movement, that is indeed a fait accompli.Ballet Hispanico’s mixed program for the spring dance season at the Joyce Theatre contained two world premieres, Edwaard Liang’s “El Viaje” and Bennyroyce Royon’s “Homebound/Alaala,” and crowd favorite, Annabelle Lopez Ochoa “Sombrerisimo.” And though the three dance works in question were distinctly varied and demonstrated the company’s mastery of different movement styles, the cerebral nature of Liang’s and Royon’s choreography was not necessarily crowd pleasing.

Image of Edwaard Liang’s “El Viaje” courtesy of Paula Lobo

The two premieres were dance works that stretch Ballet Hispanico and what some balletomanes would deem a dancer’s choreography. Which is a good thing for the company. Still, the motivation and reference points in Liang’s and Royon’s work was lost on the audience. Perhaps, because the subtleties of the works were sometimes not well defined.Liang’s “El Viaje” drew reference from the Chinese Cuban diaspora, metaphorically reflecting Chinese immigrants leaving mainland China and melding into Cuba’s diasporic cultures. The is a dance work that employs carved, interwoven meanderings with dancers being singular at times and at other times being a part of a group. Liang expertly utilizes modern technique from the Graham lexicon of fall and release and contraction, displayed in variations of these two familiar movement principles of the Graham pedagogy. And though there was some beautiful partnering and exquisite, sustained sky-high extensions, the repetitive quality of this work caused a redundancy that half-way through made Liang’s choreography seem as though it was running out of steam.That said; Gabrielle Sprauve’s statuesque presence and intensity in “El Viaje” brought integrity and majesty to Liang’s choreography. This second season of Sprauve with Ballet Hispanico appears be a breakout season for Sprauve. She is finding her stride and standing out among the other excellent Ballet Hispanico dancers.

Image of Gabrielle Sprauve and Dandara Veiga in Bennyroyce Royon’s “Homebound/Alaala” courtesy of Paula Lobo

Bennyroyce Royon’s “Homebound/Alaala,” as detailed in the program notes, explores the intersection of Latino and Asian cultures through ideas including the spirit of communal unity (bayanihan), the resilience of women, overcoming hardship, and the quest for home. Again, Ballet Hispanico has selected a dance work that speaks to the immigrant experience.Cerebral in its own way, like Liang’s “El Viaje” Royon’s work did not have pyrotechnical feats to move the story forward. Using different colored boxes, Royon used this prop to conjure up images of Filipino community and home separation. And interesting work that centered more on female relationship, though there was interesting same-sex coupling, still fell flat in some places. The last rhythmic section of “Homebound/Alaala” did redeem this dance work.

Annabelle Lopez Ochoa’s “Sombrerisimo” image courtesy of Susan Bestul

Annabelle Lopez Ochoa “Sombrerisimo” is always a crowd pleaser, and there are reasons for this!! “Somberismo” celebrates the Ballet Hispanico female dancers. With hats as a prop, Annabelle Lopez Ochoa found a way to inject sensuality, technical bravura without those elements overshadowing the choreography. The hats were the perfect unifying element that glued everything together. And the Ballet Hispanico women ruled this great work, as they always do!!Ballet Hispanico performs at the Joyce Theater from March 26 through March 31.

—William S. Gooch

George Lewis Finds the Beauty Within through Spiritual Illumination

Image courtesy of pma.org

As climates become more temperature and we began to shed all the layers of swaddling clothes that protect us from winter’s chill, we begin to take more notice of our bodies and our skin. Many of us will spend more time in the gym to get rid of the extra winter pounds, and some others will look to make visage more vibrant, and even more youthful. Most of us don’t consider or inner spiritual journey as we consider how to present ourselves to the world, particularly as the weather warms.  George Lewis is deeply aware of how our spiritual awareness can transport us to a place of peaceful maturity, or the lack thereof places us out of balance.George Lewis has found the balance and with great joy and sensitivity he uses his creative and spiritual gifts to bring out the best in his clients and artistic subjects. And those artistic subjects have included Valentino, Tea Leoni, the Queen Mother of Bhutan, and a long list of dignitaries and celebrities.

George Lewis lovingly spoke with Fashion Reverie about his art, his healing practice and how he integrates the two.

Image courtesy of findartinfo.com

Fashion Reverie: Have you always painted?

George Lewis: I have always painted; however, I like to look at that question through the lens of one who understands many past lives and has been creative in many past lives. I started painting very early on by the age of seven or eight, and I was very good at painting.

FR: Did you study art?

George Lewis: I started painting at the different boarding schools I attended. They always had art classes available as a part of the curriculum. That said; I never formally studied art. My focus of study was politics and philosophy. I always did art and I was always very good at it. I would win exhibitions. But I never studied it formally; isn’t that bazaar?

FR: But it’s good you had some training at boarding school.

George Lewis: I wouldn’t call it training, per se. I just took art classes as a part of the school’s curriculum. I was very good at drawing and copying things and I am a very good observer. I would even attempt to copy the great masters. When you copy the masters, you begin to understand light and form. Additionally, I had very good mentors in school.

Image courtesy of pinterest.com

FR: There are a lot of portraitures in your work. How do you pick your subjects?

George Lewis: Sometimes I seek my subjects out and sometimes they seek me out. I remember one time when I painted the former president of Nigeria. I had previously met him at the United Nations. We immediately hit it off and honestly, I didn’t know who he was at first. Up to that point, I wasn’t painting a lot of portraits. When I first met him had on this beautiful bold-colored outfit and was enamored of what he was wearing and went up to him and struck up a conversation.  I told him I was a painter, and he invited me to paint him. I didn’t know who he was until much later.

I went to his hotel room and there he was with an entourage of about thirty people. He asked them to leave and I started exploring his archetypal astrology, something I do with all my subjects before I paint them. Anyway, I painted his portrait and he loved it so much, he asked me to present to him at the opening of his foundation in London in front an audience of 2000 people.

Many political leaders seek me out because they love my work. However, I usually seek out spiritual leaders to paint because I am inspired by their spiritual vision.

FR: Why merge your spiritual predilections with your art?

George Lewis: I feel there is no separation between art and spirituality. In the 20th Century we have tried to intellectually separate the two. The Cartesian view is the separation of mind and body. I don’t agree with that. I believe we are integrated human beings of mind, body, and spirit with the spirit being at the core of who we are.  We are traveling souls having a human experience.

We have many incarnations before this moment, and we will have many after this present time. The artist is the archetype of the mystic. The artist is here to shine light on the truth of the human condition.  The rebellion of the 20th Century was about the separation of the body, mind, and soul and ignoring the sacred. I don’t mean the sacredness of organized religion, but the sacredness of your soul.

FR: When you choose a subject for your art, what are you trying to capture?

George Lewis: I like to capture light which can emanate from outside of my subject or come from within. So, when I am painting, I am reveling in the beauty of the world and all of God’s creation. Light is about the beauty of the planet, especially when it hasn’t been abused my humankind. When I study light, I can get closer to beauty and the divine in all of humankind.

I believe that art is healing and can help with transformation. If we can heal what is within than we certainly heal what is on the outside.

FR: Where are your paintings currently showing and do you have any exhibitions coming up?

George Lewis: I have an exhibition in Tannersville, NY in about a month. There is a gallery there, Say What Gallery, that likes to exhibit my work. I also have an upstate studio and healing space up there in The Catskills. My water paintings can be seen at the Grenning Gallery in Sag Harbor, NY.  I will be showing in London in the fall of 2019.

Image courtesy of George Lewis

FR: You are also a healer. Which healing modalities do you use?

George Lewis: I am an astrologer and I do natal charts and I tie that in with what is going on in global events and how that can affect someone based on their natal astrology. I also practice synergistic astrology which helps people working out some challenges, identifying where the pitfalls could be and what they should focus on.

Spirituality is at the epicenter of what I do as an artist. I am currently working on a new project where I am painting a work that expresses the 12 archetypes of the zodiac. I am putting the spiritual language properly into the art. I am trying to integrate the spiritual language while I am creating the work, not inserting it in later, as I normally do. This will be a real challenge for me.

FR: Could you talk about your healing work with Tibetan bowls?

George Lewis: I have been to Bhutan five or six times. Bhutan is in the southern part of Tibet, but it is a separate country. It is high up in the Himalayas. I learned from some of the Tibetan monks in Bhutan how to use Tibetan bowls as a healing art. I am qualified as a Tibetan bowl healer through a course I took in the US.

I have integrated this healing modality into my astrology readings. This whole process is about an hour and a half. I use the bowls to help stimulate the charkras. It is a great healing tool to bring equilibrium to the mind, body, and soul.  You can work on any part of the body with this healing modality. The sounds from the bowls create very sacred vibrations which integrate and heal.

Working within the collective can help the individual self-sovereign. The individual within the vibration of the collective generates well-being and joy.

Image courtesy of Grenning Gallery

FR: Where does this interest in the healing arts come from?

George Lewis: This is my reincarnation in this time period. I have been the healing arts in many, many past lives. It is my natural soul imprint and journey. This is my soul contract.

FR: You have an office on the Upper Westside where you integrate your healing arts with conventional medicine. Could you talk about that?

George Lewis: I collaborate with several doctors who are specialist in their field. I here to remind people that if you are going to get better who must do the spiritual work as well. You cannot just use medical technology to heal. At the end of the day, medical technology is only going to work best when you have a spiritual journey.

I am not doing what the doctors are doing. They are medical practitioners who have studied at medical schools. I am very respectful of Western medicine and it can treat disease states very well. However, Western medicine is driven by market forces. That said; when you are doing with healing, market forces should not be in control.

Doctors that are work with have the medical technology and they send patients to me before they apply the technology so that spiritual side is awakened, and the medical technology works better.

FR: What is next for you?

George Lewis: I really don’t know and that is fine with me because I am guided by the spirit.

William S. Gooch

Thomas Bradshaw Causes Fevers to Rise in “Southern Promises”

It’s a huge challenge to produce and mount plays that tackle the difficult subjects of slavery and/or race relations. There is always the problem of theatrical voice, sensitivity, and racial currency. Race relations and slavery are very sensitive subjects for the theatre to take on. And even though slavery in the US ended over 150 years ago, racial discrimination and inequity continues for African Americans.

Thomas Bradshaw in his 2008 play “Southern Promises” re-examines slavery and the residual effects of such a brutal social and economic system of oppression. In this production of “Southern Promises,” The Bats, the resident acting company at the Flea, boldly revisits slavery with an interracial cast that contains people color playing both the servants and the dominant class.

“Southern Promises” centers on a promise made by the dying plantation owner that his slaves be set free after his death. Though the plantation owner wills manumission of his slaves in his will, the patriarch’s wife goes against his will, literally, and keeps the slaves in bondage, contributing her dead husband’s desire for manumission to his fevered dementia at the end of his life.

There are many things in this production that serves this incendiary subject in a great way. Though the utilitarian set is almost stark with a plantation backdrop, it is surprisingly functional and serves the production adequately.

The Bats acting company takes on all the characters and though some of the black actors play white antebellum roles, the non-traditional casting does not detract from the incendiary nature and forcefulness of the script. One wonders if Bradshaw was inspired or drew reference from Jean Genet’s iconic play “The Blacks,” where the blacks actors took on the roles of the black and white characters. Whether Bradshaw borrowed from Genet’s “The Blacks,” the non-traditional castings works in this production.

If Bradshaw’s goal in “Southern Promises” was to demonstrate the historical legacy of slavery, Bradshaw skillfully proved that the remnants of slavery are still with us. Consider the white’s description of slaves as childlike, sexually immoral, and intellectually inferior. Black folks are still described as having these character flaws. Bradshaw also brilliantly inserted biblical scripture and references in the script, demonstrating how slave owners used the Bible to justify slavery and their white privilege. Hmm, doesn’t too far removed from what some white supremicists currently do.

Where this production of “Southern Promises” did have some challenges were in the southern, antebellum accents, which unfortunately most of the cast was not able to pull off. And some of the simulated, sexually explicit scenes didn’t really move the story forward and seemed gratuitous in nature.

Standouts in the cast was Brittany Zaken as Elizabeth, mistress of the plantation, who expertly distilled the chilly, cruel nature of plantation mistresses while being aware that their power was limited by their gender. Shakur Tolliver was very good as the docile slave Benjamin. And special acknowledgement goes to Marcus Jones as David, the brother preacher of Elizabeth. Jones really knows how to conjure up the spirit of evangelical, revivalist preachers of that day.

Photos courtesy of Joan Marcus/ Spin Cycle NYC

Though “Southern Promises” is an incendiary drama with racially sensitive language and scenes, Thomas Bradshaw should be congratulated for telling it like it was, causing us to understand that though many things have changed, the memory of and the toxic shrapnel of slavery lives on. Will we ever be delivered from this scourge on our history? Well, only if we tell the truth!! “Southern Promises” runs through April 14 at the Flea Theater. For more information, go to theflea.org.

—William S. Gooch

Houston Ballet Puts a Unique Stamp on a Ballet Classic

Most ballet stories are quite simple in structure and tone. Complicated story lines don’t often lend themselves well to an art form where movement progresses the story. Consider Sleeping Beauty where a young princess plucks her finger, goes into a deep sleep and awakened by a kiss from a handsome prince. Or Raymonda where a Hungarian princess’ love is coveted by a dark Saracen, who is eventually defeated by the knight Jean de Brienne, leading to a marriage between the Hungarian princess and the heroic knight.

Of all ballet storylines, Sylvia has perhaps the most simplistic narrative. In huntress in Greek goddess Diana’s retinue falls in love with a handsome shepherd, Aminta. There love is slightly thwarted by evil hunter Orion; however, in the end Aminta and Sylvia marry in nuptials that are attended by the gods.

That simplicity of story worked very well when most of these classic ballets premiered, the mid-1860s–1890s; an era of refinement, feminine modesty, and a rigid class structure. Consider that all most classical ballets include the aristocracy, a chaste heroine, and for the most part, a grand and/or royal wedding.

Mask from “Sylvia”

But, we don’t currently live our lives in the shadows of the aristocracy and age-old social mores. Women are far more self-assured and independent, and many of us establish our own rules and morays.In the wake of this modern self-actualization, Houston Ballet’s Artistic Director Stanton Welch AM is taking a different approach to Sylvia. Scheduled to premier in Houston’s on February 21— New York audiences were given a sneak peak at the Guggenheim’s Works in Progress— Welch’s Sylvia goes beyond the traditional story narrative. Welch looks at three couples in the ballet instead of just the dynamic between Sylvia and the Shepherd. In his version of Sylvia, Welch brilliantly weaves the relationships between three couples, Sylvia and the Shepherd, Artemis and Orion, and Psyche and Eros. Welch even substitutes the Greek names for the well-known Roman names.

Houston Ballet’s “Sylvia” cast: Karina Gonzalez, Connor Walsh, and Jessica Collado. Images courtesy of Houston Ballet

There is a big diversion from the original Sylvia in Welch’s version. Beyond the addition of two principal couples, Greek names in place of Roman names, Welch approaches his version as an attempt to empower the principal women in the cast. Gone are the traditional approaches to pas de deux that ballet audiences may be familiar with. There is a lot of women partnering their male counterparts, ladies lifting the men, and in general a much more aggressive approach to the choreography for Sylvia, Artemis, and Psyche. Though there are some lovely, gentle steps for the three heroines—that aptly expresses the Leo Delibes’ score—for the most part, Welch goes beyond delicate pizzicato movement. And instead of the corps de ballet being used as merely stage decoration or the reflection of the lead ballerina, Welch employs the corps de ballet dancers to help advance the narrative.

In Welch’s Sylvia, audiences will find more fully fleshed out characters. With Sylvia having to choose between her commitment to Artemis or her love of the Shepherd. Hmm, a woman choosing between love and work; sound familiar, of course, it does!!

—William S. Gooch

 

 

 

Ballet Hispánico Gets it So Right in its First Women of Color in the Arts Panel

Are we in a post-racial era? Of course we are not. When Barack Obama was elected as the 44th President of the United States, many hoped and some cultural pundits projected that a post-racial society had arrived.

Well, we all know that was not true. Documented police killings are up, racially motivated hate crimes have escalated, and the wealth gap between whites and people of color, with African Americans disproportionately in the bottom half, has widened. And when you take a glance at the arts, though more diversity has been noted in recent years, there is still much to be done.

 Ballet Hispánico in Vicente Nebrada’s Batucada Fantastica

Ballet Hispánico, founded in 1970 by Tina Ramirez, is much more than a dance company that promotes and distills Latin culture through a variety of dance forms, Ballet Hispánico is taking on new challenges. Diálogos is Ballet Hispánico’s conversation series that explores the interconnections of the arts, social justice, and Latino cultures. Since 2016, Diálogos has given voice to issues that directly affect the Hispanic community, finding the intersectionality between the arts, culture, and politics.On January 10, Diálogos hosted the first panel discussion in its series, Women of Color in the Arts, giving voice to Afro-Latino women in the performing and curative arts experiences and struggles as women of color, available resources, and ways to bring more women of color into arts leadership positions. Hosted by Tamia Santana, founder of Brooklyn Dance Festival, and featuring panelists New York State Senator Marisol Alcantara; Ayodele Casel, Actress, Tap Dancer, Choreographer; Maria Torres, Director, Choreographer, Producer; Lauren Argentina Zelaya, Assistant Curator, Public Programs–Brooklyn Museum, the panel in the tradition of Ballet Hispanico’s passion for truth telling, bravely tackled issues of racial discrimination, sexism, funding, colorism, career stagnation, and isolation.Still, the panel discussion was not limited to the struggles of being an Afro Latina artist. The discussion also included the joys and exhilarations of celebrating the Latin experience through their work. The panelists also detailed about the importance of demonstrating that the Latin voice is not a monolithic voice, but voices that encompass many cultures and expressions. And in this ‘Year of the Woman,’ the feminine voice is an essential, nuanced voice that is primed to expand and distill Hispanic culture.

Photos courtesy of Michelle Tabnick PR

Ballet Hispánico Artistic Director Eduardo Vilaro should be commended for assembling these great artists and political leaders. And for launching the series, Women of Color in the Arts. Ballet Hispánico, a role model in and for the Latino community, is inspiring creativity and social awareness in our neighborhoods and across the country by providing access to arts education.—William S. Gooch

Gather NYC Brings New Yorkers Together

We are living in very in challenging times. Times that are dividing us because of disparate political sentiment and life challenges that are causing us to tune out because there are just too many tragedies to digest. Everything seems to be collapsing around us with many of cultural and social institutions failing to give the support and stability we need.

In these very difficult times, we need to find a way to come together, and its possible!! And if you live in New York City the possibilities expand exponentially with Gather NYC. Founded by Laura Metcalf and Rupert Boyd, Gather NYC meets most Sunday mornings at SubCulture on 45 Bleeker Street. “Gather NYC was started in the spring of 2018 as an all-exclusive way for people to get together on Sunday mornings and enjoy classical music, spoken word, and a brief celebration of silence and find a sense of a community in a way that is a non-religious equivalent of church. Every week we have brought in different musicians and storytellers. We serve coffee and pastries and before and after the performances, people strike up conversations and friendships,” explains Rupert Boyd.

GATHERNYC Founders Laura Metcalf & Rupert Boyd

Past performers at Gather NYC have been Attaca Quartet, Joshua Roman, Russian Renaissance, Banda Magda, Rupert Boyd and Friends, and Bridget Kibbey. Upcoming performers include Rachel Barton Pine on December 2 and the Claremont Trio on December 9. “We chose artists for this gathering from artists that we already know and for the most part these musicians are from New York City and they are the best of the best. And we have had 21 shows so far,” Rupert Boyd detailed.On November 18, the Grammy-nominated IMANI WINDS performed at Gather NYC, performing five works from a 20th Century repertoire. The musical choices for the November 18 were eclectic, particularly the Indian composer Reena Esmail’s work “Delight Is the Same,” Jeffrey Scott’s “Starting Something,” which is a take on a jazz shuffle, a work by Astor Piazzolla, Lalo Schrifin’s “La Nouvelle N’Orleans,” and a traditional take on the Negro spiritual “Go Tell It on the Mountain.”

Photos courtesy of Terry Doe

“IMANI WINDS started 21 years ago with African American and Latino musicians with a different take on how they would interpret classical music. We were put together as experimental fun and we morphed into a stable music ensemble that now has management, touring and residencies and many awards which was not envisioned 21 years ago when we formed the ensemble,” explains IMANI WINDS’ Jeffrey Scott. “We are all of based in New York City and for 17 years now, we have been a full-time recording and touring ensemble.”Gather NYC is giving New Yorkers the much-welcomed opportunity to come together on a Sunday morning experience some great music and enjoy each other’s company. Hopefully, this will spread to other major US cities.

Why not? If we can distance ourselves over things that divide us, why not come together and celebrate great music, conversation, and libations. And hey, the coffee and breakfast snacks are free!!

—William S. Gooch

Ballet Hispánico Scores Another Homerun

                     Image courtesy of Paula Lobo

A few years back, Ballet Hispánico hosted an audience Q&A after one of their performances, and an audience member commented that he was surprised that Ballet Hispánico did not present more ballets with a stronger Latin influence. Perhaps, this audience member thought he was only going to see flamenco dance or dance works with strong, traditional Latin rhythms from the Caribbean and South America. What that audience member may not have understood is that Latin culture is an amalgam of influences from many cultures, be it West Africa, North Africa, indigenous Native cultures, the European mainland, and even some Asian and Middle Eastern cultures. And oftentimes these cultural influences are so brilliantly melded into more recognizable Latin rhythms and influences that to the untrained eye, some theatrical works may not appear Hispanic, when in fact, the Latin presence is quite strong.

At their recent season at the Joyce Theater, Ballet Hispánico’s CEO and Artistic Director Eduardo Vilaro demonstrated the breadth and wealth of the Latin diaspora. The four programs on the opening performance—Linea Recta, Espiritus Gemelos, Waiting for Pepe, and Con Brazos Abiertos—aptly exhibit that Ballet Hispánico is commented to exploring Latin culture in all its diversity and incarnations.

Under founder Tina Ramirez, Ballet Hispánico assembled a repertoire that had a recognizable Latin influence and fit into the fold of what non-Hispanic audiences would expect from a dance company rooted in Latin culture. Ramirez’s point of view under her aegis was appropriate at that time. However, in this current incarnation of Ballet Hispánico, Vilaro is stretching the company beyond that. And that is a real good thing.

                                    “Linea Recta” image courtesy of Paula Lobo

Annabelle Lopez Ochoa’s Linea Recta approaches familiar, traditional Hispanic influences—flamenco, mantillas, lacy, ruffled dresses, and black fans—in a modern interpretation. Ochoa aptly takes familiar flamenco movement and replaces and enhances some recognizable movement with vocabulary from the modern dance lexicon. Instead of flamenco foot tapping, Ochoa employs barefoot shuffles and other barefooted flourishes. The traditional high-low ruffled skirt, traje de gitana, is replaced by a shortened version that gives the dancers more movement freedom. And the pyrotechnically brilliant choreography demonstrates Ochoa’s acumen for taking something that is deeply rooted in Andalusian culture and translates that influence into a modern interpretation for modern audiences. The company performed this seminal favorite with verve, passion, and technical prowess with standout performances by Chris Bloom, Lyvan Verdecia, and Eila Valls.

     “Waiting for Pepe” image courtesy of Paula Lobo

“Waiting for Pepe,” a Ballet Hispánico world premiere with choreography by Carlos Pons Guerra, explores Guerra’s interpretation of Federico Garcia Lorca’s play The House of Bernarda Alba. For those familiar with Lorca’s play, the dominance of the women in the household is front and center. That female forcefulness is a crucial element in Guerra’s choreography. Guerra infuses his Latin power women and family intrigue with the theatricality that can be found in Latin films and telenovelas.

Guerra also showcases in “Waiting for Pepe” his ability to meld different movement styles from the modern dance lexicon seamlessly without sacrificing dramatic relevance. And the last movement of this dance work Guerra brilliantly utilized the rhythmic, percussive music of Jacinto Guerrero, exhibiting Guerro’s expert skill at expressing modern dance movement styles juxtaposed against narrative and emotion.

Ballet Hispánico’s Joyce season placed a heavy emphasis on Federico Garcia Lorca. The company’s third work of their opening night was the second dance work that drew inspiration from Lorca. “Espiritus Gemelos,” another company world premiere, drew inspiration from the meeting between Lorca and Salvador Dali in 1923. Collected letters from that time imply that they there may have been a sexual relationship between Lorca and Dali. Gustavo Ramirez Sansano explores this relationship through movement that is subtle, thoughtful, and sensual. Again, Ballet Hispánico explores different ways of defining Latin culture through movement that expands the company’s repertoire beyond work and movement styles that is familiar and expected.

                          “Con Brazos Abiertos” image courtesy of Paula Lobo

Another favorite, Michelle Manzanales’ “Con Brazos Abiertos,” explores the immigrant experience with verbal sound tracks from Cheech and Chong, music of Julio Iglesias, and a mix of rock en epanol. Funny, bombastic, and technically brilliant, this crowd favorite always satisfies.

Ballet Hispánico’s season at the Joyce Theater is from April 10–15.

—William S. Gooch

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