White Bird: Getting fresh and gutsy with Merce

Benjamin Millepied's new L.A. Dance Project gets new with the old in White Bird's season kickoff


Benjamin Millepied has guts. Lots of them, or he wouldn’t have put one of Merce Cunningham’s most challenging – and frightening ­– pieces alongside his own work on the debut touring program of his newly established LA Dance Project. Millepied’s company kicked off White Bird’s 16th season at the Schnitz on Wednesday night, and the football lingo is oddly appropriate to the audience’s cheers at every utterance by White Bird coaches Paul King and Walter Jaffe in their pre-curtain speech. Sports metaphors aside, they’ve earned every bit of applause for their contributions to Portland’s very active dance scene.

Millepied, who retired as a principal dancer with New York City Ballet a decade ago to concentrate on his own choreography, is scarcely a beginner.  I thought his “Years later,” a solo made for Mikhail Baryshnikov in which Baryshnikov dances a rueful commentary on film taken of himself as a very young dancer in his native Riga, the best piece on a White Bird program from 2009 that also included very good work by Alexei Ratmansky and Mats Ek.

But the two rather conventional works that bracketed Cunningham’s “Winterbranch” – the curtain-raising  “Closer” (as in getting nearer), made in 2006, and “Moving Parts,” created for this company of six dancers, which premiered in Los Angeles last week – inevitably suffered by comparison with Cunningham’s piece, which was radical and controversial when first presented in 1964. With its echoes of world events and mean streets and a sometimes literally painful score by La Monte, it still resonates nearly half a century after its premiere.

What Cunningham intended, a program note taken from David Vaughan’s wonderful Merce “Cunningham: Fifty Years” tells us, was a choreographic exploration of falling, rising, and falling again. At least that’s what he said. You can’t take anything Cunningham said, whether verbally or choreographically, literally. And it’s the visual aspects of the piece – Robert Rauschenberg’s décor, costumes and lighting design, as well as the grueling music, which alternates silence and ear-splitting noise – that give “Winterbranch” its menacing tone.  Watching it on Wednesday night in the inappropriately rococo-accented Schnitz reminded me, vividly, of walking home alone, late at night, on the cold, dark streets of the West Village, not far from Cunningham’s WestBeth studios, in the winter of 1962.  Rauschenberg’s now-you-see-them now-you-don’t lighted windows, the shadowy figures of the black-clad dancers, flashing lights, all brought back the chilled, solitary feelings of those January walks.  One section, furtively performed against a blank white wall, made me think of Osama bin Laden’s compound; in 1964 that section reminded some audiences of the Holocaust.

“Winterbranch” was reconstructed by Jennifer Goggans, who danced with the Cunningham company for a dozen years, starting in 2000, so she was not part of the original cast. I thought the LADP dancers, Frances Chiavernini, Julia Eichten, Charlie Hodges, Morgan Lugo, Nathan Makolandra and Amanda Wells, did a creditable job of replicating Cunningham’s in this instance floor-bound, vertically confined movement (there is some of what my late husband used to refer to as slithering at the beginning of this piece), and they seem to be thoroughly committed to the spirit of Cunningham’s work. They are not ballet dancers, a fact on which Millepied, who was creating a new version of “Swan Lake” as the choreographer in the infamous film “Black Swan,” prides himself.

Nevertheless, the opening duet – performed with considerable elegance by Chiavernini, who when not being physically manipulated by Lugo, deploys her highly flexible limbs with the fluidity of a sea anemone – looks a lot like a Christopher Wheeldon pas de deux, which means its orientation is classical and it could just as well have been performed in point shoes.  Danced a bit too much on the beat of Philip Glass’s “Mad Rush for Piano,” the most interesting choreography was the unison movement the dancers performed at opposite sides of the stage. Roderick Murray’s lighting design, alternating bold, bright yellow light with softer bluish tones, provided some welcome dynamics for a piece that could have done with some editing.

“Moving Parts,” created to a commissioned score by Nico Muhly for organ, clarinet and violin, with a lively visual installation by Christopher Wool that was a bit reminiscent of Fernand Leger’s sets for the Ballet Suédois in terms of its bold palette, contains some stellar performances, but is also too long. A solo by Charlie Hodges, who is a graduate of the University of Washington, had such energy I wouldn’t have minded at all if he’d repeated it on the spot.  But a duet halfway through the piece mysteriously replicated the limited vocabulary of “Closer,” and ended equally inconclusively.

“Moving Parts” contains some humor, as the cast manipulates the set pieces, the moving parts of the title, and ends the evening on a light-hearted note. The costumes – black pants and tops for the men, dresses for the women, trimmed with Mondrian-like geometric designs – add to the visual cheer of what is visually an extremely well-integrated piece. And the music was at least in part played live, always a plus,  by clarinetist Phil O’Connor and violinist Lisa Liu. (The organ parts, played by the composer, had been recorded at Disney Concert Hall at the premiere.)

It’s early days yet for the LADP, which is about to embark on an extensive tour. The company’s Disney Hall debut program did not contain “Closer,” but rather William Forsythe’s 1993 “Quintett,” in which, according to L.A. Times critic Lewis Segal, Chiavernini and Lugo “sizzled” in a duet I would have liked to have seen. Millepied is a talented man, with good taste in music and visual art, who is still finding his vocabulary, and clearly needs to expand it. He has assembled a group of dancers who are clearly able to rise to any challenge: witness their performance of “Winterbranch.” For that alone I am profoundly grateful, and eager to see Millepied’s next steps.



2 Responses.

  1. Cynthia Kirk says:

    MUW: deeply knowledgeable and literate. A pleasure to read.

  2. Robert Tyree says:

    Thank you for this! A pleasure to read such sweeping yet still nuanced considerations.

Comments are closed.

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