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Cherylyn Lavagnino Dance – Premiere of "Tales of Hopper"

by Robert Abrams
February 25, 2020
The DiMenna Center for Classical Music
450 West 37th Street
(between 9th & 10th avenues)
New York, NY 10018
"Tales of Hopper" was the collaborative child of Cherylyn Lavagnino as choreographer and Martin Bresnick as composer. They started from the paintings of Edward Hopper, who often depicted lives in America, from the Depression to the 1950s, that were vital, yet with a palpable melancholy loneliness.

Since I was led to the show by the music, I will start with that. (I will explain the path some other time.)

The music was composed by Martin Bresnick specifically for "Tales of "Hopper", and was performed live by pianist Lisa Moore, violinist Elly Toyoda and cellist Ashley Bathgate. The musicians were on stage, well-lit, and off to the side relative to the dancers. Ms. Bathgate played with a serene intensity. I thought the quality of the music was exceptional: melodious and intentionally discordant at the same time. I would welcome an opportunity to listen to this trio in concert again, whether accompanying dance or with the music as the headline art.

The costumes by Christopher Metzger well represented the late 1920s to late 1950s look in the paintings, and were appealing in their own right.

"Tales of Hopper" was a contemporary dance that used eight paintings by Edward Hopper as inspiration. Each of the main eight sections of the work were based on one painting, plus a prologue and a closing section. The dance vocabulary was largely based on pedestrian movements (also called gestural movements) that sometimes seemed like dance and sometimes seemed like pantomime or almost pantomime. None of this is bad. There is plenty of tradition in dance that uses pedestrian movements (i.e., motions people use to accomplish everyday activities) or pantomime to start with a functional movement in order to elevate that movement into art.

One problem, for me (and keep in mind that I am just one audience member with particular preferences, while others may have different, but equally valid preferences), was that in at least portions of six of the eight sections of the work, I spent a lot of my observational energy trying to figure out what the dancers were doing.

I liked two sections very much. In these the functional motions were clearer, so I could concentrate on how they were danced.

"Morning Sun" looked to me like a woman at a beach, in time-dilated repose (a solo danced by Sharon Milanese). Please bear with the science/science fiction reference. Britannica.com defines it as "Time dilation, in the theory of special relativity, the 'slowing down' of a clock as determined by an observer who is in relative motion with respect to that clock." In a time-dilation field, events move very slowly. (While this is a scientific idea, the reference I have in mind is from a later episode of the TV show Stargate SG-1, where the humaniform Replicators have been temporarily stopped by being trapped in a time dilation field.) So, imagine someone stretching in pleasure at a beach, but doing so very slowly with grace and control. The painting is actually of a woman sitting on a bed, looking out a sunlit window, but the concept of the dance in this section works regardless. Edward Hopper may or may not have had the full majesty of a moment in space-time in mind when he painted "Morning Sun", but, to me, Ms. Milanese managed to express the full majesty of a moment in space-time in her dancing.

I also was very taken with "NY Movie" because the motion had a similar quality as in "Morning Sun" except that this time the principal dancer was standing vertical. She (Kristen Foote) then partnered with Malcolm Miles Young, making artistic use of a thickly translucent, almost opaque glass divider. Was each dancer seeing the other through the divider, or was each dancer creating the reflection of the other? The choreography divided the two dancers, brought them together (including in a social dance grapevine), and then separated them again. Overall, this section was creative and well executed. Lovely, with a fair helping of unfulfilled longing clearly expressed by the dancers. (The flexible and creative set, with generous use of transparent structural plastic, was designed by Jesse Seegers.)

I would contend that both "Morning Sun" and "NY Movie" could stand on their own as abstract contemporary dance that artistically references real life movements. If Ms. Lavagnino needed to present a shortened version of "Tales of Hopper" for curatorial reasons to a contemporary dance audience, I believe that these two sections would work well for that purpose.

Parts of "Nighthawks" reminded me of one of the numbers in "Swango" where Robert Royston led two women in a West Coast Swing. While not the standard way of dancing in West Coast Swing, it is a common enough, if advanced, way to express the music. "Nighthawks" had similar three-person (coincidentally one man and two women) partnering that resonated with me (I'm an ex-competitive Ballroom, Westie). This part of "Nighthawks" also made me think of the "Throuple" section of the Mari Meade Dance Collective's "dialogue". Maybe one could present "Nighthawks" and "Throuple" together as a reflection on changing views of gender relations? "Swango" is essentially a West Coast Swing and Argentine Tango interpretation of "Romeo and Juliet", so make of that what you will. Expand "Nighthawks" into a full evening work? "Nighthawks" is probably the most well-known of the Hopper paintings in the show, and definitely the only one I would have recognized on sight, so that relatively higher public recognition and familiarity perhaps could be leveraged to bring in audiences for a more experimental work.

I feel that my viewing of the show would have been better and clearer if there had been a more direct linkage between the Hopper paintings and their respective sections of the dance. I was going to suggest that the program include reproductions of the paintings, but I realized after the show that the company already did this. I just hadn't arrived early enough to peruse the printed program thoroughly enough. In retrospect, I wish I had. Perhaps Ms. Lavagnino could instruct the audience to glance through the paintings in the program when she gives her start of show speech? If this approach was desired by her, it could give the audience a more uniform experience of the work compared to some reading the program before the show and some not reading it.

Even better, I think it would be worth trying to project the respective painting on a back wall prior to the start of each section, and maybe then again at the end of the section. One main point of the work, as I understand it, was to create a dance based on the Hopper paintings, so I think this suggestion would be in keeping with the work's intent.

How one might evolve "Tales of Hopper" would depend on what audience the company is trying to reach.

If the goal is to reach a contemporary dance audience, taking them a little out of their comfort zone (in the same way that Ms. Lavagnino acknowledged in her opening speech that the work took her and her dancers out of their comfort zone), then I would try to make each section stand on its own as abstract, contemporary dance based on functional, everyday movements. All that might be needed would be to just try to make the pedestrian movements a little clearer. But, if the goal was to take the dancers and the audience farther out of their comfort zones, then I might also continue to build the characters being danced, perhaps with a narrative, but still largely within the tradition of contemporary dance.

"Tales of Hopper" could also be a sort of lecture demo, where the lecture is about art history and Hopper's place in that history. The show, as it was, did educate me about Edward Hopper's paintings, helping me see a fuller picture of his work.

What I might really like to see, though, is a work that takes the company way out of their comfort zones, with acting as well as dancing, and maybe even singing. There is a large audience out there who has no interest in abstract dance. "Tales of Hopper" did a good job of capturing the mood of the Hopper paintings, often a kind of melancholy loneliness that I think resonates in our current moment. The work as is also went some good distance in creating characters the audience can relate to, each with a story to tell. If "Tales of Hopper" went further in the direction of a drama-music-dansical, done well I think it could appeal to a larger audience than just those who are already fans of contemporary dance, and in the process break relatively new ground, and grow the dance community. In this, the choreography should not be transformed into "Broadway" style dance, but should remain true to the contemporary dance that Ms. Lavagnino has already created.

I should also point out another positive element of the design of "Tales of Hopper": by having musicians on stage, the show flowed continuously even during set changes, because musical interludes, art in their own right, were played during those set changes. This is a technical strategy that other choreographers might want to consider emulating, where appropriate.

After "Tales of Hopper" and an intermission, the company presented an excerpt from "Triptych" and then "Veiled". These were both, compared to "Tales of Hopper", conventional abstract, contemporary dance works. I enjoyed both. My point here is that an evening's performance is more than the individual works. An evening needs to be curated. In this case, an audience that likely was composed mostly of contemporary dance fans was taken out of their comfort zones by a new work that was an expedition into the foothills of terra incognito for the company, but they also got two sharings of comfort dance. Whether an individual contemporary dance audience member liked "Tales of Hopper" or not, s/he also got to see dance that was likely to please, so would go home happy and with something worth talking about.
'Tales of Hopper' at APAP 2020.

"Tales of Hopper" at APAP 2020.

Photo © & courtesy of Charles Roussel

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