Ariel Rivka Dance
Texture Contemporary Ballet
Ailey Citigroup Theater
New York, New York
February 28, 2014
“Kaitlyn/Caitlin”; “The Air Turned White” (Trainor Dance)
“Take…Taken…Taking…” (Texture Contemporary Ballet)
“The Book of Esther” (Ariel Rivka Dance)
-- by Jerry Hochman
Dances by three different companies comprised the program presented on February 28 at the Alvin Ailey Theater in New York. While sometimes dances by different companies on the same program can be jarringly incompatible, the four dances, two by Trainor Dance, and one each by Texture Contemporary Ballet and Ariel Rivka Dance, were sufficiently different so as not to step on another company’s toes, but similar enough in terms of interest (whether of content or choreographic ability, or both) to share the same program. I’ll discuss them in reverse performance order.
A year ago, Ariel Rivka Dance premiered “Vashti,” a dance based on biblical references to the woman who preceded the more well-known Esther as Queen of Persia. Artistic Director and choreographer Ariel Rebecca Grossman has now revised “Vashti,” coupled it with a dance based on the story of Esther, and combined them both into a ballet titled “The Book of Esther: The Journey of Queen Vashti and Queen Esther.” The coupling makes sense both thematically and choreographically.
The biblical Book of Esther forms the basis for the Jewish holiday of Purim, which is celebrated this week. References to Vashti are limited, and appear as more of a curious prequel than the biblical book’s main event. But giving the story of Vashti equal prominence with that of Esther makes sense if the prism through which the stories are presented is a feminist one. Indeed, given the biblical story, this ‘prism’ is the only way the stories can be realistically seen – Ms. Grossman has simply rescued this ‘realistic’ view of the story from interpretations that minimize Esther’s role (or consider her unworthy of praise for being in the position she was in to begin with), and that ignore Vashti entirely.
As told in varying interpretations of the biblical account, the ‘Vashti’ story relates that at the culmination of a months-long festival of drunken revelry, King Ahasuerus (determined by certain historians to be either Ataxerxes I or II), ordered his wife to dance naked before him and his drunken friends (and, depending on the source, the entire populace of the city of Shushan) to show off her beauty. [Shushan is the Hebrew name for the ancient royal city of Susa.] At great risk, Vashti elects to maintain her dignity and refuses to participate in the debauchery, and is thereupon dismissed by the king and executed. In the second story, Vashti’s replacement, Esther (in some accounts, selected from the king’s harem, in others selected following a nationwide ‘beauty pageant’), is secretly Jewish. Her uncle Mordechai (in some accounts her cousin) gains the king’s praise by saving his life, but arouses the enmity of the king’s vizier, Haman, because Mordechai refuses to bow down to him. Enraged by the perceived slight, Haman vows to destroy all the Jews in Persia, and persuades the king to consent. But at great risk, Esther (Asturya according to certain historical accounts) reveals her secret identity and Haman’s plot to the king, and the king, furious (since Esther was his favorite and since Mordechai had saved his life, and both would be killed), executes Haman in punishment, thereby saving the Jewish people in Persia from annihilation.
Ms. Grossman’s rendering of the story, applied to the music composed by her husband (and company Executive Director), David Homan, focuses on the heroic decisions made by the two women – the two interconnected stories are recounted less as discrete events than as overall passages of time (emotional ‘journeys’, as the dance’s title indicates).
The dance opens with a brief prologue which introduces what the viewer will soon see: Esther (whether already queen or pondering the possibility), pensively reflecting on the consequences of the crown on the stage floor in front of her. The dance then segues into ‘Part I: Vashti’s Choice – The Allure of the Crown’.
Although its content is essentially the same, this rendering of the story of Vashti is improved from the version I saw a year ago. The sweep of the choreography is still predominantly upstage right to downstage left, and the movement quality is still predominantly a sweeping, liquid, circular motion, but it is now balanced by greater movement variety, and has less explicit story details (e.g, there’s no ‘command’ from the king in the form of a bright light emanating from somewhere in the distance commanding Vashti to dance naked), which allows the dance to focus on Vashti’s emotional chaos. Hana Ginsburg Tirosh reprised her role as Vashti, transmitting appropriate honor, confusion and bewilderment, inner turmoil, and resolution.
‘Part II: Esther’s Dilemma – The Risk of Revealing’ is choreographically similar to Part I, but has much greater variety of movement because there are additional characters with distinct personalities and roles to play: Mordechai (modified to ‘Aunt Mordechai’), and Haman. Kristen Licata danced a knowing and compellingly persuasive Aunt Mordechai, and I particularly liked Danita Shaheen’s Haman – possibly because this character, as a consequence of the story, was able to dance to more aggressive choreography and to display more vivid emotion. Claire Cholak was an innocent, troubled, and ultimately triumphant Queen Esther. And overall, the choreography and stage action mirrors Mr. Homan’s music, a pulsing, circular composition, punctuated by increasing or decreasing tempo to match the ebb and flow of the women’s journey.
I would have preferred seeing the queens’ turmoil expressed more aggressively in the choreography, perhaps with a Graham-like cutting edge, but what’s there is sufficient, and is demonstrated in a manner consistent with the lyricism that infuses Ms. Grossman’s choreography.
But there are aspects of “The Book of Esther” that I found puzzling. Although they’re costumed as they were last year, now the women are not women of the court, or handmaidens (or harem girls), but ‘women of the village’. Moreover, these Shushan women (the ones who did not double as ‘Aunt Mordechai’ or Haman) have been given names: Ora, Orlee, and Leora (danced alluringly and compassionately by Anastassia Perfilieva, Rachel Bier, and Kyleigh Sackandy). Obviously this was done to convert anonymous characters into ‘real’ women, even though they don’t have any independent function in the piece. [I checked the common root of their names: ‘ora’ is Hebrew for ‘light’ or ‘radiance’, so it seems that these names were assigned as further evidence that these women provided guidance to the queens. Curiously, the word ‘ora’ also means ‘pray’ in Latin.] Clearly, these women are no longer just background characters/dancers – they don’t just provide support, they counsel the two queens, and are actively impacted by and responsive to the queens’ dilemmas. That is, the challenges that Vashti and Esther face are challenges for the entire community of women. But to me, broadening the focus in this way dilutes the heroism of Vashti and Esther that the piece celebrates.
And then there’s Haman. The character’s name in the program is ‘Good/Evil Haman’. But there is nothing ‘good’ about Haman in the biblical story, and I saw nothing ‘good’ about Haman the character in the dance. At best, this is puzzling – like maybe there was a fleeting ‘springtime for Haman’ mini-scene that I missed.
More serious is the artistic license taken with the story. Here, the story of Esther has been changed in a way that seems to undermine the queen’s heroism. Instead of reacting to a perceived insult by Mordechai, and consequently plotting to annihilate the entire Jewish community, including the secretly Jewish Queen Esther, as punishment, Mordechai’s ‘insult’ of Haman is not mentioned. Instead, Haman’s decision – for purposes of the dance – results from his information that Esther is Jewish. Fine – that’s artistic license. But making Esther the spark that generates Haman’s response also makes her a specific target. Consequently the risk that she takes in revealing her secret identity to the king is less significant because it’s less altruistic. She knows she’s already been compromised and is at risk: she’s acting to save herself as much as to save her community.
But I tend to over-think certain dances, and most viewers may decide that such concerns are irrelevant – and perhaps they are. Ariel Rivka Dance’s “The Book of Esther” is a portrait of women’s heroic response to difficult challenges, and the portrait it paints is both clear and sufficient.
“The Book of Esther” was preceded on the program by two dances by Trainor Dance, and one by Texture Contemporary Ballet that was sandwiched in between.
Based on its presentation on this program, Texture Contemporary Ballet, which was founded in 2011 by Artistic Director Alan Abuzor and based in Pittsburgh, is a company to add to the radar screen. “Take…Taken…Taking” choreographed by Mr. Abuzor, is an abstract ballet to typically pulsing music by Philip Glass. It is divided essentially into three discrete sections (with the opening and closing sections fluidly segmented as well). The first features compellingly staged rapid-fire movement, with a coldly aggressive edge (though not at all angular or mechanical). As this first section progresses, the focus of action shifts from one group of dancers (or pair or solo) to another and from one stage location to another. Although the action is constant, it’s never repetitious or overly busy, and the women (all of whom dance in toe shoes, and to a ballet vocabulary) execute Mr. Abuzor’s choreography skillfully. In the middle segment, Mr. Abuzor dances solo. The choreography here is complex and varied, and crisply executed, as is the piece as a whole. But here Mr. Abuzor displays emotional turmoil: he’s obviously wrestling with some matter of great significance. But seeing Mr. Abuzor so overwhelmed, by something, grows tedious. As well performed as it was, this middle segment lasted too long, and the segue into the third segment, which lightened the mood, increased the pace, and wrapped things up nicely, was most welcome. Overall, “Take…Taken…Taking…” demonstrates considerable choreographic skill, and the dancers that performed with Mr. Abuzor were highly competent. They include Associate Artistic Director and Resident Choreographer Kelsey Bartman, Amanda Bailey, Jennifer Grahnquist, and Artistic Administrator Alexandra Tiso.
Caitlin Trainor, artistic director/choreographer of Trainor Dance, has an eclectic dance background. Although this background includes ballet (she performed with the Metropolitan Opera Ballet), the thrust of her choreographic style is 'modern' as opposed to balletic. But such labels are misleading – based on the two dances on this program, I would describe Ms. Trainor’s work as hybrid and conceptual, and highly skillful.
The evening opened with Ms. Trainor’s “Kaitlyn/Caitlin,” a brief duet of sorts with Ms. Trainor and Kaitlyn Gilliland, whom I recall well from her years dancing with New York City Ballet. In this piece, Ms. Trainor explores stylistic differences between ballet and modern dance as the two dancers essentially take the same music and movement qualities and execute them differently – just as they wear the same red costumes, except they’re not quite the same. At times they look like distorted mirror images. Although this sort of thing has been done before, I don’t think Ms. Trainor’s purpose here was ‘compare and contrast’ or to argue that one form of dance is superior to another. This wasn’t a competition. Rather, to me Ms. Trainor treated that two dancers and forms of dance as fraternal twins – and I found it refreshingly simple and to the point. And I confess that I probably would have enjoyed it regardless of its quality simply for the pleasure of being able to see Ms. Gilliland on stage again.
Ms. Trainor’s second piece was also a duet…of sorts: a duet between Ms. Trainor and a filmed version of herself projected on an upstage screen. It sounds similar to a piece performed last September by American Ballet Theatre’s Roberto Bolle (in a program at City Center titled ‘Roberto Bolle and Friends’) called “Prototype” – but it’s neither as indulgently complex nor, curiously, as accessible. Ms. Trainor’s “The Air Turned White” is a tough piece to like. The music, by Mario Niro, is the kind of collection of screeches that makes my skin crawl. And the film that included images of Ms. Trainor on a white background (as if on a bed, or moving across a billowy cloud) was broken down into individual cinematic ‘screeches’ of movement. On stage, Ms. Trainor at times seemed to emulate the movement on the screen, at other times to reach out to it (as if it – she in the film – were some goal to be achieved or dream to realize). It’s slow and ponderous and in every way something that I usually can’t wait to end. And the fidgety audience appeared to feel that way too. But there was something about “The Air Turned White” that I found mesmerizing. Rather than waiting for it to mercifully end, I found myself looking forward to seeing the image that Ms. Trainor would show next.
“The Air Turned White” is not an exciting piece to watch, but it’s different, skillfully conceptualized and performed, and interesting. And being ‘interesting’ is a quality much too infrequently seen.