Friday, April 10, 2015

2014 New Moves: Symphony + Dance Festival

Hi everyone,

Last year, an email from The Kennedy Center caught my eye. It advertised an upcoming National Symphony Orchestra (NSO) performance that included music from Leonard Bernstein's On the Town and On the Waterfront, complete with dancers. On the Town is one of my favorite Gene Kelly movie musicals about three sailors on 24-hour leave in New York City. This performance was one of three that comprised the Kennedy Center's two-week New Moves: Symphony + Dance Festival. By the end of the night, I had decided to attend all three of the New Moves performances. Here's how they went.

NSO Concert #1. William Shuman, Marc Neikrug, and Leonard Bernstein (May 8, 2014)
For this performance, I got a cheap seat in the front row of the first tier's right-side balcony and had to lean forward to see more of the stage. I couldn't see some of the performers because of the extreme angle of my seat. Note to self: next time, pick a seat on the floor in the center for a straight-on, full view.

My first surprise of the night was that the dancers only performed during selected pieces of the choreographers' choosing. The first half of this show was music only.

William Schuman's "New England Triptych" was a collection of interesting sounds without much melody. It used lots of horns, making it seem very patriotic at times. I liked parts of it, particularly the second movement but, as a whole, it was too modern for my taste. The next piece, "Bassoon Concerto" by Marc Neikrug, had more promise from what I read in the program notes: The composer tried to steer the instrument away from its comical reputation, it explained. Soloist Sue Heineman was great at playing the bassoon, but I still couldn't take its sound very seriously. The bassoon makes me think of cartoons.

The second half included the music I came for and the dancing. The three dance episodes chosen from On The Town were randomly selected from the Broadway show. Although not the same as the movie that I know so well, I recognized and was excited by the music they played.

My second surprise was that the dancing was nothing like Gene Kelly's choreography, a revelation that disappointed, confused, and pleased me all at once. As in the musical, six dancers (from Keigwin and Company) – three girls and three boys – portrayed the sailers and their newfound girlfriends, but that's where the similarities ended. The barefoot dancers were full of New York energy and used the entire length of the 16-foot-by-80-foot extension of the stage in front of the orchestra. It was real-life Cinemascope. (This is where my skewed view became problematic.) I liked the On the Waterfront dance even better, probably because I was less familiar with the music and had no dance routines already memorized.

My third surprise came after the show ended. The performance I chose to attend was followed by a free "After Words" session, a discussion and question-and-answer opportunity moderated by NSO Director of Artistic Planning Nigel Boon with the guest conductor Tom Wilkins, composer Marc Neikrug, bassoon soloist Sue Heinman, choreographer Larry Keigwin, and Kennedy Center Director of Dance Programming Meg Booth.

Learning from choreographer Larry Keigwin (who choreographed Broadway's If/Then) that the Bernstein family and trust forbid copying of any of On the Town's original Broadway show or movie musical choreography made me appreciate his work more. "It was freeing, in a way," Mr. Keigwin said of the restriction. The biggest challenge, however, was rehearsing in a 30-foot long New York studio for a performance in an 80-foot long space. "But I had the dancers go through it five times when they got here," he shrugged. Discussions with such creative people always inspires me, so I made a point to attend the festival's next two performances, including the "After Words" for each.

NSO Concert #2: George Gershwin, Samuel Barber, James Oliverio, and Duke Ellington (May 13, 2014)
Another reason I decided to attend the remaining two performances was that the lineup of this second concert sounded even better than the first. The promise to play selections for orchestra from George Gershwin's Porgy and Bess and a few others tunes by Duke Ellington was enough to convince me. This time, I bought a pricier ticket for a better view on the ground floor in the center section, about 10 feet from the stage.

The only music I recognized at this concert was George Gershwin's, but I liked everything I heard. The excerpts from Gershwin's Porgy and Bess had me singing the songs in my head. Next, Samuel Barber's "Souvenirs" was a series of pieces that explored dance styles, including the waltz, tango, and two-step. I wanted to see dancers with it, but that's not what the choreographer chose.

The final piece of the first half of the show was Timpani Concerto No. 1, "The Olympian," featuring NSO's principal timpanist Juavon Gilliam. Through this concerto, composer James Oliverio wanted to create a piece where the timpani deserved a place in the front as virtuoso soloist. "I wanted to stretch the instrument," he said. So, those giant drums that typically stay in the back of the orchestra were now spotlighted up front. The hardest thing for the musician was finding all the drums he needed to perform the piece; some were his, some were borrowed, and some belonged to the NSO.

Perched on a swivel chair, Mr. Gilliam was surrounded by eight drums of different sizes. He maneuvered in his chair as if it were an amusement park ride, constantly hitting pedals with his feet and tuning the instruments while he banged on them, sometimes to carry the melody of the piece. It was a sight to see from 10 feet away, a great showcase for an instrument that's usually relegated to the back and only assigned a few notes during high-impact moments. Mr. Gilliam practiced this piece for months in the Kennedy Center basement. He even brought in a TV so that he could catch some basketball games while he worked, yet he downplayed how effortless his performance seemed: "I'm just trying to hit the right notes at the right time."

The second half of the show was all about Duke Ellington. "Giggling Rapids" from The River was a wonderful, fast-paced whirl of a song, after which guest conductor Tom Wilkins – who conducted all three of these concerts – turned to us to let us know when we could start clapping, "That's all we got," he nodded. (This conductor, from Nebraska, was cool! You could tell because he wore black socks with bright, wiry vertical stripes. He told us that he'd wanted to be a conductor since he was 8 years old.)

Two pieces from Three Black Kings followed, "King of the Magi" and "Martin Luther King." While unfamiliar to me, they were unmistakably Duke Ellington's. The final piece, called "Harlem," included dancers from the New Ballet Ensemble in Tennessee. The New Ballet Ensemble is a youth development program that provides arts education after school and beyond for kids who can't afford it. The nine dancers representing the company on stage were of all ages. Inspired by a New York performance she saw of Martha Graham's dance for "Appalachian Spring," choreographer Katie Smythe had the performers portray different personalities through dance styles to paint a diverse portrait of the Harlem scene. She gave the dancers some leeway to improvise at times and noted that using live music makes all the difference. "It gets in your blood and your bones and your heart and the goosebumps on the top of your head," she explained. "You can't do that with recorded music."

No one in the room could help being inspired and humbled by the New Ballet Company's mission and exhilarated by the joy and exuberance of these dancers and the music. Not only was this my favorite concert of the three, but this was my favorite performance. When planning the evening's program, conductor Tom Wilkins said that he and NSO Artistic Director Nigel Boon knew they found a combination of pieces that worked really well together: "We were walking out of the building last week going, 'We're geniuses!'"

NSO Concert #3. Michael Daugherty, George Walker, Aaron Copland, and John Adams (May 16, 2014)
This concert was the great unknown. I was unfamiliar with the composers, but I bought a ticket anyway, confident that they wouldn't let me down. This time, the Kennedy Center emailed me a coupon to access the most expensive seats in the house at a cheap-seat price. I'll take it!

Michael Daugherty's "Red Cape Tango" from Metropolis Symphony was the first and my favorite piece, capturing the comic-book death of Superman. I could see it happen thorough the dramatic sweeping sounds, complete with church-bell chimes. "Sinfonia No. 4 (Strands)" by George Walker is modern and a little frantic. "Appalachian Spring" by Aaron Copland, which is probably the most popular piece of the bunch, easily sparks the imagery its title suggests.

All three of these pieces have been paired previously, and some famously, with choreography. So, choreographer Jessica Lang chose to work with her dancers on John Adams's "Violin Concerto," which had no such familiar connections. Her modern, unique creation began in the chorister seats above the stage. The nine dancers moved among the rows, sometimes in unison and other times not, at a slow pace while violin soloist Leila Josefowicz frantically played her instrument as if it were a race to the finish. She told us later that she's played the concerto so many times now that people have started asking her why she continues to revisit it. "If we said that about Beethoven of Brahms," she countered, "we'd never have any performances." Well played.

The dancers made their way down to the stage after the first, 15-minute-long movement, continuing with random sculptural moves that only dancers can achieve. It was so impressive that many of us, mesmerized by the performers in front of us, lost track of the music.

During the "After Words" discussion, some audience members complained that the dancers, while amazing, distracted them from the music and musicians. But composer Tom Wilkins advised, "Don't cheat yourself out of a new experience just because you like one more than the other. Just treat it like dessert." One audience member had another solution, "Come back tomorrow and see it again." I was all for that idea.

The goal of the New Moves: Symphony + Dance Festival was to mix things up. While sharing the diversity of American music, it brought the performing arts of music and dance together. The festival erased categorical lines and instead embraced connection and collaboration. One audience member summed up our enthusiasm about this experiment well: "I'm excited that the Kennedy Center is fusing the communities, taking time out of your normal schedule – normal for the Kennedy Center – and painting a door for that child..."

Just inspiring one person to think outside the box would make this festival a success, but I can attest that it inspired many. Here's to the next New Moves: Symphony + Dance Festival, whenever that may be. See you there.


Credits: NSO Concert #1 dance photos © Kyle Manfredi; photo of Juavon Gilliam courtesy of Kennedy Center; NSO Concert #2 photo © Scott Suchman; NSO Concert #3 photo © Takao Komaru 

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