Jazz Age for a better age

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James writes:

The annual Jazz Age Lawn Party, a two-weekend event that now takes place each summer on New York's Governors Island, is as much about the revival of lost taste as it is about the revival of lost music. Over a recent hot summer weekend, the curious spectacle of the event, in which not only the performers but most attendees dance and picnic in period attire, presented its own genteel challenge to the cultural status quo. Not unlike the ancient Roman holiday of Saturnalia, where customary roles were temporary reversed, the Lawn Party presents a space where modern conventions get overturned. Yet in our upside-down times, the difference here is that the world inside the Jazz Age venue is the dignified, social reversal of our otherwise Saturnine culture.   

We have Michael Arenella, the Lawn Party's impresario and bandleader of its Dreamland Orchestra, to thank for growing this remarkably interesting and attractive happening from a small gathering in 2005 of "fellow torch carriers of a by gone era" into a cultural touchstone—and the late photographer Bill Cunningham for documenting its emerging manifestations each year.  

The Lawn Party's popularity speaks to the shape-shifting, skin-changing nature of our Millennial generation, who make up a majority of its attendees. Feeling understandably little allegiance to their given time and place, they look for better ones. Certainly, their broadcasted experiments in self identification may descend into narcissism. Yet as a cultural indicator, the Jazz Age Lawn Party offers a hopeful sign that they also grasp for the return of a culture of manners.

At least set to the music of Arenella's Dreamland Orchestra, along with Queen Esther, Molly Ryan, Gregory Moore & the Dreamland Follies, and Roddy Caravella & The Canarsie Wobblers, all spread over two stages, the Jazz Age Lawn Party offers an afternoon of elegant escape that, we can only hope, may again become the norm.  

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A Bushel & a Peck at City Ballet

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Justin Peck's "Paz de la Jolla" at New York City Ballet

James writes:

If this is not turning into a golden age for classical choreography, it is at least becoming a silver age or a bronze. The recurring program of “21st Century Choreographers” at the New York City Ballet gives a welcome overview of this resurgence and highlights the company’s own role in nurturing this surprising turn of events—a surprise, given the uncertain state of contemporary composition in other performing arts.

This season’s “21st Century” program offered work by two of the brightest young stars, Christopher Wheeldon and Justin Peck, but began squarely in the late 20th Century with Ash, a ballet by Peter Martins that premiered in 1991 at the New York State Theater, along with his Infernal Machine from 2002. Some might begrudge a Martins double-header as a case of royal prerogative for the NYCB’s Ballet Master-in-Chief. Yet I appreciated the inclusion for the clear line these two works draw from the NYCB’s founding choreography of George Balanchine and Jerome Robbins—and their connections to and contradictions with more contemporary work.       

Ash feels like late twentieth-century ballet, and classic Martins: cerebral, technically demanding, and spare. In its lack of narrative and its appeal to abstraction, the dance is the most Balanchine-like of the program and also the most remote in its tense counterpoint. In the late 1980s, Michael Torke, the composer for Ash, wrote a series of orchestral pieces called “Color Music.” Ash works through a similar interest in Synesthesia—the mixing of the senses—through the use of colored lighting by Mark Stanley and primary shaded costumes by Steven Rubin, which also share an unfortunate affinity to the uniforms of Star Trek. A friend commented that such a dance can be inaccessible, overly taxing on the dancers while offering little to the audience, which is perhaps true. At the same time, I found it exhilarating to watch Ashley Laracey rise above the technical demands put to her and find this ballet’s inner grace.

The story of The Infernal Machine starts out similarly obtuse. In the program, its composer, Christopher Rouse, managed to refer to a play by Jean Cocteau, a connection (or lack thereof) to the Oedipus myth, a “Perpetuum mobile,” and an orchestral tryptich—which goes a long way in saying very little. Instead, this brief, furious pas de deux of Unity Phelan and Preston Chamblee mixes robotic motion and inappropriate groping to an uncertain, uncomfortable, and uncompromising end.             

Located between the two Martins was This Bitter Earth, a pas de deux with Sara Mearns and Tyler Angle, with music by Dinah Washington and choreography by Christopher Wheeldon, which premiered in 2012. The ballet has just about everything a contemporary audience might want from dance. Wheeldon is also everything Martins is not: deeply romantic, easily accessible, employing a narrative that is clearly discernable. Here the earth tones of the lighting by Mary Louise Geiger and the dustbowl blues of Dinah Washington—interposed with a techno-beat by Max Richter—gave us a couple dancing on the edge of desperation. I am not always drawn in by the popular emotiveness of Sara Mearns, whose sense for theatricality departs from the traditional coolness of classical ballet, where emotion is conveyed through movement over physiognomy. Some have also criticized Wheeldon for the gender politics of his pairings, which admittedly at moments can become strictly ballroom. But ballet is also ready for such an infusion of red-blooded romance, for a new affection not only between the dancers but also between the stage and the audience. With Mearns perfectly cast in this role, This Bitter Earth delivered its earthly bitterness in spades.

The NYCB may have thought that by including Jeux, a dance by the London-based Danish choreographer Kim Brandstrup that premiered last year, the company was giving a nod to greater gender inclusivity in its selection of choreographers. Unfortunately, this Kim is a man, and this ballet is a manly embarrassment. Drawing on the tropes of film noir, Jeux uses blindfolds and bare bulbs to affect an arch narrative about a woman betrayed. But with business casual costumes by Marc Happel, the dance rather feels like a Bear Stearns holiday party gone wrong, with coworker Craig Hall caught cheating on Sara Mearns with Lauren Lovette, and Mearns saved by the passionate embrace of Adrian Danchig-Waring as, what, the hunky janitor? Cliché piles upon cliché in this ensemble dance that ends with a giant novelty tennis ball (the “jeux”).  On my day, Mearns, blindfolded, even inadvertently knocked her head against another dancer’s leg at one point. Clearly she wished she had stuck around on that Bitter Earth rather than head to the big city.             

Finally it was time for Paz de la Jolla, the 2013 dance by NYCB dancer and resident choreographer Justin Peck, set to music by Bohuslav Martinu. I say “finally,” because here is the dance many of us had come to see: the subject of the documentary film Ballet 422 and the product of the NYCB’s astonishing wunderkind, who has already choreographed something like twenty-eight ballets—or a number equal to his current age. Peck’s humility in the face of the tradition of Balanchine and Robbins comes across palpably in Ballet 422,—and it is on display here again in his intuitive understanding for classical movement and form. Rather than fight the tide, Peck has a remarkable ability to channel a dancer’s flow, deployed in a sunny ballet inspired by his upbringing in Southern California. What begins in beachy bliss, with splendid Esther Williams-like swimsuit costumes by Reid Bartelme and Harriet Jung, supervised by Marc Happel, transforms into a eddying, swirling tide of abstract, fluid motion. The ensemble becomes the ocean, with arms and legs forming the patterns of rolling surf. Sterling Hyltin and Amar Ramasar become engulfed in the waves, while a third dancer—a lifeguard?—swims out for the rescue. On the day of my performance, Georgina Pazcoguin replaced Tiler Peck in this role, which drew noticeable (and regrettable) disapproval from the audience. Pazcoguin’s gymnastic style gave a different, and not altogether uninteresting, shape to the part, even as we missed Peck’s sinuous forms. But it was the other Peck who was still on full display here—the choreographer in residence who, one hopes, never leaves his home at the New York City Ballet.                         


This Week: Meryl Meisler & Beat Nite Brooklyn

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Meryl Meisler, Self-Portrait, The Girl Scout Oath, North Massapequa, NY, January 1975, Vintage gelatin silver print, printed 1975, 20 x 14 1/2 in

James writes: 

My Critic's Picks this week- Meryl Meisler at Steven Kasher Gallery, opening this Thursday (February 25–April 9): For the last several years, Meryl Meisler, a retired public school teacher from Bushwick, Brooklyn, has released a treasure trove of her photographs from the 1970s that recall the oddities of Ralph Eugene Meatyard and the intimacies of Diane Arbus. Her recent books, “A Tale of Two Cities: Disco Era Bushwick” and “Purgatory & Paradise: SASSY ’70s Suburbia & The City,” document the juxtapositions she often found with her camera—of the high and lows of a city in decadence and decline. This Thursday, the esteemed Steven Kasher Gallery will open with a solo exhibition of Meisler’s earliest work, luxuriating in the patterns and characters that once filled the hair salons, Bar Mitzvah halls, and rec rooms of her suburban Long Island upbringing and standing in contrast to the grittiness of downtown New York.

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“Beat Nite,” presented by Jason Andrew in collaboration with BRIC (February 26): The fourteenth iteration of “Beat Nite” returns to Brooklyn this Friday evening from 6–8pm, with a new focus on the arts spaces of Downtown BK. Venues will range from the MoCADA Museum to UrbanGlass, with an afterparty at BRIC. Following the “collaborative” mandate of Norte Maar, the event’s nonprofit organizer, one of this season’s highlights will be the ability to see the performance group BOOMERANG in open rehearsal at the Mark Morris Dance Center. More details here.

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Photo: Mark Davis / BOOMERANG