How do you see motion in stillness? Raimund Hoghe, the German writer turned performer-choreographer, would like, I think, to instruct us in feeling the weight of time and help us to notice that even very minimal movements, repeated over time, change—in themselves and in our perception of them. The works of his that I’ve seen both cleanse and charge the air.
Last year at Dance Theater Workshop, he began Bolero, the first piece of his to be seen in the U.S., by carefully, and with dignity, walking around the perimeter of the performing area. This year, in his Sans-titre (part of the French Institute’s Crossing the Line festival), he defines the same space by laying sheet after sheet of white paper along three sides of the black floor. That paper boundary and a candle in a glass at the back are the only décor. But he again begins by walking. He is not alone. While quiet Bach piano music emerges from the speakers, he and his colleague, Faustin Linyekula, approach each other from opposite sides of the stage, pass, and continue. Each repetition of this moves them a little closer to the rear wall, until they meet and stand side by side, their backs to us.
The walk gives you time to think (will they meet this time?) but more importantly, to take in their differences. Hoghe is a very small, white man in his fifties, with a crooked spine and a hump; he’s wearing dark trousers and a black shirt. Linyekula—raised in Congo, the director of a dance company in Kenya—is a medium-height black man with—it turns out—a surpassingly beautiful spine; his shirt is white. It’s not unusual for Hoghe to work with younger, lither performers, but in this powerful piece—simpler and shorter than others he has made—the physical and cultural contrasts between these two men form its intense core.
Although “Sans-titre” can refer to an immigrant without papers, the no-title title is apt in another way. What could you call Sans-titre that wouldn’t be corny, or pin it down in some undesirable way? Stone Ritual is definitely out, although the ritualistically precise laying out and gathering up of stones take up a substantial amount of the piece’s duration. Another vital element is Linyekula’s dancing. He’s a master of the sinuous torso and shoulders; he takes off his shirt and you gasp. Holding him while he’s moving would be like grasping a snake. His whole body is in vibrant motion; he slips down into a squat and up again as he goes; his arms shape air. His rhythms are varied; he may pause, or draw one move out, then snap the next. He’s always watchful, even wary at times.
Linyekula is in curious sympathy with, although never exactly moving to, the recorded music Hoghe has chosen. And what music! It adds a spiritual layer and an understated poignancy to Sans-titre—hanging above it, moving through it. Janet Baker, I believe, is the mezzo-soprano who delivers Dido’s lament from Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas, but the very great English contralto, Kathleen Ferrier, who died of cancer at 41 in 1953, sings the Agnus Dei from Bach’s B-minor Mass and “He was despised. . .” from Handel’s Messiah. (At one point, Linyekula, while dancing vigorously, sings along with a recording, eerily on pitch, but slightly out of synch.) When the two men are initially standing at the back, Odetta’s voice caresses “No more auction block for me.” Through several of its sweet, sad verses, the men are still, as if to let us appraise them in a skewed parallel to long-ago slave auctions. Then Hoghe slowly raises his left arm and, with difficulty, holds it up. As Linyekula lifts his own arm, he passes it close to Hoghe’s back and head, caressing his partner without touching him.
The stones. They’re small. Linyekula can gather them in his hands and shake them. There are just enough for him to make a line from the front of the stage to the back, but after scanning along the trail and dancing a little, he walks forward in a squat, collecting them again. While Dido is singing “When I am laid in earth,” Hoghe walks to the rear center and lies supine, head toward the candle, feet toward us, and Linyekula begins another task with the stones. He outlines one of his hands with them, then the other hand and forearm, each time lifting away from the outlines to survey them or gather the stones needed to complete his task.
But his most important and difficult job is to lie face down and reach around to place the rocks one by one along his spine; then he crawls, rippling his back. Those that don’t fall he shakes off in a sudden frenzy. When Hoghe also removes his shirt and lies prone, Linyekula assumes the manner of a grave nurse, or healer. Carefully, he lays the stones along Hoghe’s spine, drawing our focus to its hills and valleys. The stone trail runs from waist to back of head, with a small cluster on Hoghe’s hump and one in each of his upturned palms.
To remove the stones one by one while still face-down, Hoghe has to snake his right arm behind him to reach them, then skidding each away across the floor. I feel the strain in my own shoulder. After more slow pacing—punctuated by small bows—the men again face the back wall. This time, they put their arms around each other and, united, traverse the space with small steps backward and forward. Now the ravishing unseen voice is singing Bach’s “Bist du bei mir”— “If thou art beside me/I go joyfully to my death. . . .” The two men stand together, while the song and the light take an eternity to fade.
Long ago, my children, the New York City Ballet had a fall season. But some time back, that was replaced by a handful of November mixed bills (perhaps even only one) followed by weeks and weeks of The Nutcracker. So it’s a cause for rejoicing that the company is performing for four weeks in September and October.
The second night program opened with a welcome 2010 revival of Balanchine’s Danses Concertantes, to Igor Stravinsky’s music of the same name. Stravinsky wrote his coruscating piece in 1941, and Balanchine snapped it up in 1944, when he was working for the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo. In 1972, programming his ballet for NYCB’s Stravinsky Festival, he claimed he’d forgotten the choreography and had to start over.
Judging by reviews of the two productions, however, the steps may have changed, but the structure and the mood remain the same, as does the scenery and the ornate, jewel-bright costumes by Eugene Berman. Balanchine introduces each of four trios (one man, two women) and a leading couple one by one; each entry has its own color scheme: green, blue, purple, and red, with the pair in yellow. A group shows off for a few seconds, bows, and exits. Since Berman’s fancy painted drop (which flaunts the date of the ballet’s premiere and his name, Stravinsky’s, and Balanchine’s) is hung downstage, the effect is that of little introductory vaudeville acts “in one.”
Like the music, the steps are jaunty and playful, a bit saucy. The three in the blue trio race-walk on, all but winking at us. The ladies in red exit strutting on pointe. In one of the trios, the women throw their legs onto their partner’s shoulders and look pleased with themselves. Their performers’ hand gestures are as flippy as the women’s fluffy, swinging little tutus. You know the gesture I mean. The dancer lifts his or her arm slightly to the side, elbow bent, and angles the wrist back to turn the palm to the ceiling; it can mean “May I present?” or “Here you have me!”
When all the performers have greeted us and departed, the painted curtain rises, and there they are, neatly and symmetrically arrayed. In Berman’s curious all-charcoal-gray set, they look like jewels on black velvet. The wings mimic the elaborate boxes of an 18th-century theater, but at the back is a painted balustrade with various painted musical instruments perched on it. The denizens of this society behave with the politesse of courtiers, but that decorum has an edge. Perhaps they’re commedia dell’arte performers or an assembly of court jesters subtly mocking the aristocracy. When the ballerina (Megan Fairchild at the performance I saw) shows off, the eight women watch and hasten to copy her. When her cavalier (Andrew Veyette) makes a statement, the four men echo his “words.”
Stravinsky’s music is dense, fast, and witty, with outspoken utterances by the brass section. The ensuing brief numbers for each trio have little surprises and smart syncopations. The man in the blue trio ends in a deep plié between his dates for the evening. The intricate interweavings of the three in purple culminate in a kind of seesaw enabled by the man: he tips one woman forward in arabesque on pointe; as she straightens up, the other, hanging onto the guy’s shoulder, lifts her leg high. They can see we like it, so they repeat it a few times. Balanchine has a lexicon of moves for Stravinsky ballets (and for others set to scores by certain acerbic or jazz-influenced 20th-century composers). Here they are: those crooked wrists, the swinging hips, the knees that flip in and out, and the pinup-girl pose (the woman stands on one leg, with the other bent, coyly turned in, and resting on a pointed toe). The dancers in red have the spiciest, jazziest bit.
But that’s not counting the pas de deux. Balanchine created the original duet for Alexandra Danilova—once his lover, and a sophisticated 40-year-old charmer—and her frequent partner, Frederick Franklin, ten years her junior. It would be unfair to expect Veyette and Fairchild to have that pair’s elegant ease with one another (even though the very well-spoken pre-curtain speech by principal dancer Tyler Angle—a new audience-wooing device—clued us in to their upcoming marriage), but they perform it engagingly. The choreography crackles with wit. Instead of rotating Fairchild by walking soberly in a circle, Veyette sort of dithers around her, stepping in when he’s needed. He watches her rapid feet admiringly; what a girl! He springs up into an entrechat from a deep plié to impress her, and when she has displayed her pirouettes, he kisses her hand.
The program that began with Danses Concertantes was an exhilarating all-Balanchine, mostly-Stravinsky evening. The two lovely, spare, practice-clothes ballets, Monumentum Pro Gesualdo (1960) and Movements for Piano and Orchestra (1963), were performed, as usual, by the same ballerina and with only a short pause between. In the first, she has an entourage of 12 in addition to a partner—appropriate for the patterned court dances of that 16th-century composer (and criminal) Don Carlo Gesualdo, whose music and formations Stravinsky and Balanchine channeled into contemporaneity. In the second, only one helpful man and six women attend her as she negotiates the asymmetrical intricacies that Balanchine matched to Stravinsky’s spiky five-section foray into 12-tone music. Movements was created to feature the 18-year-old Suzanne Farrell, and another big, limber beauty, Maria Kowroski, fills out the steps with aplomb.
The evening ended with the Balanchine’s crowd-pleasing Who Cares?, an orgy of carefree dancing and wonderful Gershwin songs, arranged for orchestra by Hershy Kay. I like just about everything, but I’m partial to the smart little duets for a savvy bunch of guys (Sean Suozzi is especially terrific in this divertissement) and the five lively red-garbed women they vie for. This is a ballet in which the principals don’t strut their stuff until the evening is almost over. One man, three beautiful women, three duets, solos all around. Some dessert! Balanchine’s ingenuity and musicality never flags. Sterling Hylton creates a tempest with her solo. Amar Ramasar has grown increasingly assured in the male role—courteous, but with a glint in his eye, bold in his jumps and easy in his jazzy sauntering. The most memorable dancing of the entire evening came from Tyler Peck, both in her duet with Ramasar to “The Man I Love” and her solo to “Fascinatin’ Rhythm.” She is indeed fascinating—embedded in the music and in the moment, alive to every nuance. It’s difficult to define great performing, but you recognize it all right. The minute you see it.