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Wood Company

Inspired by Asian poetry, African culture and a local artist’s furniture creations, Ellen Sinopoli forges an ambitious narrative dance

By Susan Mehalick

Will Waldron

In the presence of three dancers, carved crescents of wood are at once vessels for holding things, or babies cradled closely to their mothers’ hearts, or canoes for moving from one place to another, or chairs for sitting on when gathered together with family, friends and neighbors.

These primitively sculpted wooden shapes and a collection of others, all inspired by traditional African seats and benches, form the foundation of From the mind/of a single long vine/one hundred opening lives, a new work created by choreographer Ellen Sinopoli and wood sculptor Jim Lewis. The Ellen Sinopoli Dance Company will premiere the dance—its first evening-length stage work—on Saturday at the Egg. The eight dancers featured in the performance will be Amy Carpinello, Eve DiTaranto, Isabelle J. DiGiovanni, Kim Engel, Samantha Ball Karmel, Debra Rutledge, Yukiko Sumiya and Marc Weiss.

From the mind represents a rather marked departure for Sinopoli. First there’s the obvious: the length of the piece. Clocking in at 75 intermissionless minutes, the 11-section work presented Sinopoli with a new type of artistic challenge. “All of the dances are entities within themselves, but they also had to connect,” she explains after a recent rehearsal. “I really had to thread it together.”

That task wasn’t as daunting at it could have been thanks to Lewis’ seats and benches, which, Sinopoli says, led her to create her first truly narrative dance, one that tells a universal and timeless story of a community of people, a force that pulls them apart and the spirit that leads them back together again.

Those who’ve followed Sinopoli and her troupe throughout its decade-plus history know that this is indeed a deviation from the norm for the choreographer. More often than not, Sinopoli’s work has favored explorations of pure movement. Whether melting into one another as if in a dream, or stealing a moment to show off in a white-hot spotlight, or hanging precariously from ropes above a moveable stage platform, Sinopoli’s dancers typically tread in worlds of abstraction that are largely devoid of plot and emotional content.

But with her new work, Sinopoli uses movement to tell a decidedly human tale of love, loss and redemption. Her inspirations were twofold: the dance’s title, which is taken from a haiku written by Chiyo-ni, an 18th-century Japanese Buddhist nun, and the furniture pieces developed by Lewis.

Last spring, when Sinopoli and her troupe were in residence at Kaatsbaan International Dance Center in Tivoli for three weeks, they began working with some prototypes made by Lewis based on images from a book on traditional African seats. However, it was a long bench outside the theater that caught Sinopoli’s eye and set a course for the new dance. She asked Lewis if he could make something like it, in keeping with the primitive forms of the other African designs they had already planned.

“That became the long vine,” Lewis says.

“The dancers began experimenting with it and the others,” Sinopli adds, “to see what kind of stories could come out of these pieces of furniture.”

It’s not news to Lewis that the furniture could inspire the telling of stories and become an integral part of the dance instead of being merely stage props or set pieces. As a cofounder of the Troy-based Icarus Furniture, which specializes in the creation of furniture and objects for sacred spaces, Lewis knows that certain archetypal forms have a power all their own.

“These [furniture pieces] are based on well-developed forms, collected from all over the continent of Africa over a period of time,” Lewis explains. “They represent different tribes, different cultures, different approaches to seating. It’s a very well-developed aesthetic, and a very strong feeling comes through all of the pieces.”

In addition to the aforementioned crescent-shaped objects and the long bench, Lewis has also designed a simple block of wood with a handle; a two-seat “marriage” bench; an oddly shaped oval that doubles as a back rest and a warrior’s shield; and a five-piece throne that fits together like a puzzle, with one component that is used as a table then as a coffin.

Carved from cedar logs, the furniture pieces are commanding objects in and of themselves. They have a deceptively rough-hewn appearance, but have been sanded and smoothed to spare the dancers’ bodies and costumes. While Lewis was collaborating with Sinopoli to design the pieces, he was also working closely with the cabinetmakers at his shop—Howie Mittleman, Rich Kobernuss and Paul Cunningham—to execute the designs. But there were still others who played a part in the furniture’s creation: Sister Joan Byrne, who thought to donate the trees to Lewis when they were felled from the property of St. Vincent De Paul Catholic Church in Albany to make room for a parking lot, and logger John Crumb, who was able to transport the trees to Lewis.

“At the time,” Lewis recalls now, “I said to myself, ‘I don’t have time to think about trees, I have to come up with designs for this dance.’ Then I realized they would be perfect for it.”

In Lewis’ estimation, the massive, sensuous furniture pieces belie their origins and therefore capture something that is wholly primitive, organic and authentic. “To me, there is something about furniture that is primitive,” he says. “In America, we have so much culture, layers on layers of culture. We’re inundated by the media all the time and it’s hard to get an original thought or a clear thought. These pieces started out with a sense of clarity, which works really well with the idea of telling a universal story because the pieces are really about humanity. You find that in any simpler culture. It goes right to the root of what people are, what people do and how people use things.”

Ultimately, both Sinopoli and Lewis are striving to combine these primitive forms with the movement and stories they inspire to make a human connection with their audience. While Sinopoli settled on an African theme by selecting a range of African and African-influenced music to accompany From the mind, and the costumes by Kim Vanyo are inspired by African dress, the story told by her new work, she says, is not bound by a continent or a culture.

“There are two things going on in this dance,” she concludes. “Its themes are universal, but it’s also very personal—we’ve all experienced some loss, we’ve experienced some form of courtship, we’ve experienced being children, growing up, moving away, coming home again. That’s what this is about, and I’m hoping that the audience will relate to what they see in a very personal way.”

The Ellen Sinopoli Dance Company performs From the mind/of a single long vine/one hundred opening lives on Saturday (April 13) at 8 PM at the Egg (Empire State Plaza, Albany). Tickets are $18 adults, $15 seniors, $12 children. A talk featuring Ellen Sinopoli, Jim Lewis and Kim Vanyo takes place at 7:15 PM and is free to ticketholders. For reservations and information, call the Egg box office, 473-1845.

A Challenge Met
By Mae G. Banner

Girgorovich Ballet of Russia
Proctor’s Theatre, April 5

Tchaikovksy’s Swan Lake, first presented in 1877 at the Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow, is one of our few remaining treasures from that great age of ballet. Like Hamlet to the Shakespearean actor or Tosca to the diva, the double role of Odette/Odile represents the wished-for peak of achievement for the dancer.

The challenges are many. First, the dancer is onstage during nearly all of this four-act romantic moral tale. The dancer must embody purity, then malevolence, then doomed innocence, all in one demanding evening onstage. And the dancer will be compared with generations of her forebears as well as her contemporaries from many international companies. It’s enough to give a dancer the bends.

Alexandra Sivtsova met the challenges in the production by the Grigorovich Ballet of Russia last Friday at Proctor’s. A member of the company since 1994, she was a delicate Odette, inspiring Michail Zinoviev to invest more feeling into his rather lackluster performance as Prince Siegfried. Sivtsova really shone as the Black Swan, Odile. She seemed to relish her role as seductress, fixing her glittering eyes on the hapless prince as she reeled him in with that string of fouettes, which she performed with great flair at center stage.

The choreographer, too, is challenged by Swan Lake: The ballet trails its history. The choreographer’s job in Swan Lake is to honor tradition, yet make the story new and germane to our time. Memorable dance sequences must be kept intact, but the dancemaker also is expected to surprise the audience with new visual compositions and a singular interpretation.

Again, the Proctor’s audience got lucky. Yuri Grigorovich, for 30 years chief choreographer for the Bolshoi in Moscow, respects tradition and yet has ideas of his own. After a somewhat stilted first act, his Swan Lake drew us deeper and deeper into its magic. The choreographer filled the stage with 18 prancing, fluttering swans, deploying them in unusual, asymmetrical configurations including vertical columns and an L shape that drew the eye beyond the depth of the Proctor’s stage. In the final act, when the corps of swans became truly otherworldly, Grigorovich set them in two diagonals that opened and closed powerfully, like gigantic wings.

He used all of Tchaikovsky’s iridescent music, including a full-scale ballroom scene with its five visiting princesses performing their national dances. Dressed in wide white gowns trimmed with bits of gold and black, they were imperious and lovely. Even the demi-soloist women displayed unbelievably long leg extensions and huge turnouts, with technique to spare. Playing the Jester, Vadim Slatvitsky was charming, loveable and a touch forlorn as he spun on one foot. The Sorcerer, here called the Evil Genius, was Dmitri Kanibolotski, who gave the role a neurotic aggressiveness that evoked a Hitchcock villain.

Only the ending broke with tradition in an unsatisfying way. Odette forgives the faithless prince and is about to go to her death at the Sorcerer’s command when a rosy glow lights up the stage. The Sorcerer stops his machinations and disappears, and the lovers stand together in an uncalled-for happy ending. This, apparently, was demanded under the imposed optimism of the Soviet regime, and Grigorovich hasn’t gotten over it.


Low Flame

Burn the Floor
Proctor’s Theatre, April 3

Is ballroom dancing an Olympic sport yet? The moment it qualifies, the 17 international couples who gyrated through Burn the Floor last Wednesday at Proctor’s are ready to roll.

Shoulders shaking and fringe flying, the pairs ripped through a furiously paced overview of the waltz, jump swing and quick-step, plus a couple of faux-Latin medleys. Lighting was bright and clichéd; taped music was loud, but well-chosen; segues were smooth. There was lots of pep and color, but not much depth—just what the judges like.

The dancing was mechanized, à la Riverdance and its ever-spreading ilk. Choreographer and lead dancer Jason Gilkison, a multi-year ballroom and Latin champ from Australia, introduced his scintillating partner, Peta Roby, and an athletic lineup of couples from Poland, Italy, England, Macedonia, Russia, Spain, Germany, Sweden, Slovenia, Norway and America. The few moments it took to do the half-time intros provided the only breathers in the driving two-act show.

Unlike what you’d see in a pairs competition, everyone was onstage together pretty much all the time. Gilkison, to his credit, choreographed a few ensemble sections that looked like real dance rather than a sequence of required moves. He and Roby blended into the crowd through the first half of the show. Later, Roby took the spotlight more and more, until, in the “Passionata” medley, she stepped out in brick-red sequins, her light and agile body whipping out a set of deep dips and spins that was pure pleasure to watch. Here, artistry trumped technique and we saw some dance worthy of the show’s name.

In general, the show was strangely flat, as if Gilkison had watched a lot of MGM musicals and tried to put that high- energy surface polish into a live performance.

For the most part, the show let costuming do the work of choreography. There was more color and movement in the flippy skirts than in the dancing. Every turn of the head, every curlicued flourish of the arms was machined within a millimeter. The couples, for all the “character” imparted by biker outfits for the men or floozy looks for the women, did not relate to each other, but made sure to hit their individual marks.

The most fun for a U.S. audience were the two swing dance sections, with the wonderful riff of “Sing Sing Sing” as the requisite high point. In zoot suits or bobby socks and mid-heeled shoes, the dancers did Savoy Ballroom flips and over-the-shoulder tosses that caught the spirit of the 1940s.

Cabaret-style singer Pia Glenn, tall and voluptuous, sashayed through the show, pulling the sometimes-disjointed action together with numbers such as “Do You Want to Dance” and “Steppin’ Out With My Baby.” As it happens, Glenn is a credible movie-musical-style dancer, so her performance added life to the stage.

—M.G.B.


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