Bodiography and Graham 2 – Horizons
April 26-27, 2019
Reviewed by Steve Sucato
For the first-ever collaboration of its kind for both Pittsburgh-based Bodiography Contemporary Ballet and New York’s Graham 2, the joint program Horizons, on April 26 at Pittsburgh’s Byham Theater, offered up a unique look at what each company does best; the ballets of their respective company founders, Maria Caruso and Martha Graham.
Graham 2 dancer Androniki Vasili from Athens, Greece led off the mixed repertory program in Ted Shawn’s 1916 solo “Serenata Morsica”. Originally performed by Martha Graham, the solo, dubbed a sensual “serenade,” was in Shawn’s orientalist style of early American modern dance and evoked the feel of a harem girl performing for the ruler of some unknown tribe or land. Set to a lively piano score by Mario Tarenghi, the choreography was playful and alluring. Vasili was a delightful as the smiling, somewhat innocent seductress who spun, jumped and gyrated her hips about the stage.
Next, Bodiography’s dancers led by Caruso performed Graham’s “Steps in the Street,” an excerpt from her 1936 anti-fascism ballet Chronicle.
Staged by Graham 2 director Virginie Mecéné, the work began with Caruso and the rest of the all-female cast on a darkened stage stiffly stutter-step walking backwards in silence across the stage with one arm held to their chins and the other, tight to their waists. Costumed in black floor-length dresses, the look was of an eerie stylized funeral march.
When Wallingford Reigger’s military march-like music kicked in, the stage lights brightened to reveal Caruso in a clench-fisted and determined march across the stage followed by the rest of the cast who came back onstage and hopped repeatedly in place, legs flared to the side. The atmosphere evoked a frenetic military campaign played out in Graham’s signature movement style. Bodiography’s dancers were sharply focused in the powerful work’s jumps, marches and formations. They never looked better as a unit.
Caruso as the group’s general was rock solid in her technique and in relaying the turbulent emotions of Graham’s masterwork. The ballet was a milestone in Bodiography’s ongoing development as a company and an important piece in their repertory.
Continuing the succession of Graham works in first half of the 90-minute program, Graham 2 dancer Aoi Soto in a bumble bee–striped floor-length dress began 1932’s solo work “Satyric Festival Song” with her back to the audience, jumping wildly side-to-side with a child’s excitement. Danced to a spritely flute score by Imre Weisshaus, Soto flitted about the stage like the American Indian Pueblo clowns that from which the solo was inspired by. Her mischievous demeanor and humorous facial expressions brought life to the quirky solo filled with wiggles, wriggles and the whipping of her long black hair in circles and side to side.
Comprised of leftover material from a 2018 commission for a full-length ballet themed around the 1980s, “Billboards” (2019), was the first of several new Caruso ballets performed by Bodiography on the program. That leftover material looked as if it could have come from any number of her past slinky, music video-esque contemporary ballets. Danced to lively electronic music by Kansas City’s Quixotic, the ballet for three women and two men had some interesting movement phrases and formations but along with them came some uncomfortable choreographic moments that appeared forced into the work. While the cast, especially soloist Nicole Jamison, performed “Billboards” solidly, owing to the ballet’s title, the dancing it advertised was unremarkable.
After the tender “Mother’s Prism” (2019), another new Caruso ballet themed around the facets of motherhood, came perhaps the best ballet Caruso has created in her career and one of the finest this dance season, “Light By Love II” (2019). Originally created in 2015, the reconstructed duet was deftly and passionately performed by Bodiography’s Bethany Schimonsky and Josef Hartman.
An idyllic embodiment of two lovers becoming one, the sensual duet began with the pair lying on the stage floor, the petite Schimonsky draped over the taller Hartman in a slumber embrace. Slowly and delicately Hartman caressed Schimonsky shoulders and back with the fingers and palm of one hand while his other arm cradled her embrace.
Performed to zen string music by Garth Stevenson, the carefully crafted and subtle movements of the dancers in relation to one another had you believing in a Romeo and Juliet level love and appetite for one another. Spine tingling touches, breath-catching clenches and some of Carsuo’s finest partnered choreography, created a magic that one wishes could be bottled for future enjoyment. Both dancers showed a star quality beyond previously displayed with Schimonsky’s performance on pointe proving utterly mesmerizing. This masterful duet needs to be shown again and again.
After an intermission, special guest and former Martha Graham Dance Company star, Carrie Ellmore-Tallitsch performed the first of two Caruso works that brought her movement style to Graham’s dancers.
Set to music by Portland band East Forest, the 10-minute solo “Roots to Earth” (2019) reflected on Caruso and Ellmore-Tallitsch’s interest in nature. Slow to develop, the introspective solo never quite blossomed in its intent and watchable interest. For her part Ellmore-Tallitsch, still a lovely dancer, showed signs of performance rust and nervousness in Caruso’s sedate choreography.
Graham 2’s dancers then returned in an excerpt from Graham’s Canticle for Innocent Comedians entitled “Duet From A Dancer’s World” (1957). Set to music by Cameron McCosh, the”Moon” duet, performed by Vasili and dancer Harold Trent Butler, was again Graham at her Grahamiest in style. Both dancers were radiant in the choreography’s twists, bends and curves of the body. The partnering and posed positions were spot on and it would be easy to believe you could be watching future dancers of the main company perform.
The marathon program of shorter works continued with two more Caruso works for Bodiography’s dancers; the uplifting group piece “Midnight Air” (2019) and the quiet “Vespers” (2019). Then Graham 2 dancers Ty Graynor and Soto took the stage to perform another of Graham’s works, 1981’s “Conversation of Lovers” from her ballet Acts of Light. Perhaps not indicative of the full ballet, the duet felt influenced by Graham’s Greek and other mythology-related ballets in style. It had the look of a god and goddess in a reserved lover’s dance played out in images found on ancient antiquities. Both dancers acquitted themselves nicely in the duet.
After an older Caruso work from Bodiography’s repertory, 2015’s “Parabola,” Horizons concluded with the premiere of “Inside OUT (The Call of Passion)” that Caruso created on the four Graham 2 dancers on the program.
Danced to a yearning score by English composer Clint Mansell, the work was derived from the personal experiences of the dancers that Caruso used to craft a contemporary dance work that was heartfelt and wonderfully danced. The dancers, although out of their stylistic element when it comes to the type of works they usually perform, looked at home in the choreography that had them dipping and darting through brief interpersonal connections with one another. The movement mixed frenetic bursts of emotion revealed in rapid twists and turns of the head and body with slow, tender touches and gazes into one another’s eyes. In one such exchange, the two women paired off with the two men in a dance phrase that had the men briefly frozen in place while the women continued on, seeming to combatively challenge one another in a fitful exchange that saw Vasili take a swing at a ducking Soto as the two traded places to be paired off with different male partners as the work continued.
A marvelous closer to a historic evening of dance, Bodiography and Graham 2’s collaborative Horizons program was a triumph.
Steve Sucato is a former dancer turned arts writer/critic. He is Chairman Emeritus of the Dance Critics Association and Associate Editor of ExploreDance.com.