Sunday, September 26, 2010

Dance: Maa: A Ballet by Kaija Saariaho, Choreography by Luca Veggetti at the Guggenheim's Works and Process

I was previously unfamiliar with both Kaija Saariaho and Luca Veggetti, but bought tickets (as I generally do) to all of this season's Works and Process shows involving dance. While I enjoyed the dancing, though, Kaija Saariaho's composition absorbed me more fully, the bodies onstage merely echoing faintly the deeper sensations the music inspired in me. The evening began with a piece for four dancers and a live harpist, but the vibrations that impregnated the air were and were not the sounds of a harp. The skittish rhythms and unsettling tone progressions were not those that flow mellifluously from a typical harp. The musician's visage expressed the screwed concentration of a violinist playing something by Steve Reich, rather than the beneficent glow that typifies the classical harpist. The music was intellectual, architectural, vast, and though without what one would call "melody," extremely beautiful. How surprising, then, when the composer revealed herself for discussion, an elderly, fragile thing with orange hair and a smear of red lipstick.

Saariaho explained that what we had heard was not merely harp, but harp processed through live electronics—the source of the sound's vast "-scape."* Maa was composed in 1991, as a ballet in seven parts for choreographer Carolyn Carlson. Saariaho described her artistic differences with Carlson with the generosity that comes, in part, from age—originally imagining the piece for seven dancers, Carlson ended up casting 24; agreeing with Saariaho that the piece would be abstract, she eventually inserted narrative drama. Veggetti, on the contrary, uses seven bodies with no narrative outside of the dialogue between the shapes of the music and the shapes of their bodies. . . perhaps to such an extreme it becomes a fault.

What Veggetti said of consequence during the interluding panel discussions was the importance of casting dancers with skill, aside from the artistic and emotional openness to try something new. Skilled indeed—sometimes restrained by that skill—are his dancers, the majority of which are Julliard students or graduates (as are the musicians—what a disturbingly talented lot of young people). Frances Chiaverini, a great**, tall dancer, combining somehow the sleek, heavy musculature and subtle force of a thoroughbred and a panther, nevertheless stands out amongst the group; to her, of course, goes the solo la Terre.

Veggetti prizes ballet's long, high leg and proud, upright head. Never, not once, did a dancer drop her head into a movement, giving into the sensuous abandon I prize in the best practitioners of contact/release. That said, from modern dance he takes the liquid torso, the element of chance (his dancers danced not in shoes, and not barefoot, but in thin, slippery socks, in which they could run across the stage, sliding to a stop), and an interest in inter-body counterbalance. The more interesting moments of choreography are the architectural pauses, where one dancer uses two other bodies, firmly planted, to push herself slowly into a floating arabesque, or some other root-to-rise expression.

But after this evening, I won't look for Veggetti's work again; it is fine enough, but in a world of many dance-makers, not sufficiently compelling. Saariaho, contrarily, has completely captivated me, and I have already begun seeking recordings of her echoing, mysterious music, and wondering when I will be able to see her newest opera, Émilie (a monographic monodrama on the female mathematician and physicist Marquise Émilie du Châtelet, who also happened to be Voltaire's mistress).

*My description, not the composer's.

**as in "big"

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