Reviews


“A great performer feels this sharing,”  This line, written by the choreographer and theater visionary, Alwin Nikolais, describes the ideal relationship between dancer and audience.  Nikolais recorded this thought on a sheet of paper containing other observations and, wonderfully, this handwritten series of notes is one of the many extraordinary objects to be found in the current exhibition, “Alwin Nikolais’ Total Theater of Motion,” on display in the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts’ Vincent Astor Gallery.  The exhibition, curated by Claudia Gitelman, runs until January 15, 2011.

I have been a fan of Nikolais since seeing an utterly astounding performance of Noumenon in the late 1970s.  Although I was not well schooled in dance history and in spite of my regrettable lack of exposure to dance at that stage, I recall feeling that I was witnessing something very special and was certainly inspired.  The experience of Noumenon (along with an explosive solo piece by Murray Louis) made me want to dance.  Moreso, it made me feel as though I could dance.  Sharing, indeed.

It was, therefore, quite thrilling to encounter so much material in the NYPL exhibit that explores Nikolais’ educational endeavors, particularly his years with the Henry Street Settlement House on New York City’s Lower East Side.  Nikolais, along with Hanya Holm, directed the dance program there for many years and the exhibition celebrates this period with delightful photographs, programs, and posters.  Under the directorship of Nikolais and Holm, the profile of dance in the community was raised to fabulously high levels and great numbers of young people were engaged and turned on.  There is a particularly memorable photograph in the exhibition (from either the 1940s or 1950s) that shows a huge line of neighborhood people outside the Henry Street Playhouse, waiting to gain entry to a dance performance.  At another point in the Henry Street Settlement House section, a caption reads: “The first performing experiences of professional students at the Henry Street Playhouse were in dance dramas for neighborhood children.  Nikolais invented whimsical plots, vivid characters and outlandish costumes.”  Nikolais was bringing dance to the people in a major way.

And there is so much more. A striking photo of a beaming Alwin Nikolais with his idol and mentor, Mary Wigman, from 1958.  A series of costume sketches and television storyboards, created by Nikolais.  An LP record jacket for the Hanover Records release of the “Choreosonic Music of the New Dance Theatre of Alwin Nikolais.”  A copy of Nikolais’ Index to Puppetry, done for the WPA in 1936.  A business card dispensed by Nikolais in the earliest part of his career, advertising his position as an organist for the Fine Arts Theatre in Westport, Connecticut.  Costumes and props from such pieces as Gallery, Allegory, and Tent.  Wonderful and sometimes miraculous video and film clips of many Nikolais works, illustrating with absolute clarity the nature and extent of his “total theater of motion.”

Some date omissions are problematic.  However, the selected materials, the overall arrangement of the show, and the generally informative captions all get high marks.  The highest mark, though, goes to the simple act of creating an extensive tribute to the life and work of Alwin Nikolais.  It is a well-earned but long overdue tribute and I can say with great sincerity that it is a tribute very much appreciated.  And well worth seeing before it is taken down on January 15.

And, speaking of long overdue tributes, I just want to take another moment to praise the Museum of the City of New York (MCNY) for the current gem of an exhibition celebrating the work of Denys Wortman, cartoonist for the World Telegram and Sun from 1930-1953.  I knew nothing at all of Wortman’s work prior to seeing the exhibition and now cannot fathom his absence from notoriety for all of the years following his death in 1958.  What a wonderful observer of society and socioeconomic classes, and how important to bring such marvelous and significant work to the attention of the public once again.  The exhibition, entitled “Denys Wortman Rediscovered,” will be on display at MCNY until March 20, 2011.

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In a welcome bit of good news coming out of Arizona for a change, New York Times music critic, Edward Rothstein, reports on MIM, the new Museum of Musical Instruments, which opens to the public today in Phoenix.

You can check out a slide show here.

As part of the all-encompassing Jerome Robbins celebration in New York City, the NY Public Library for the Performing Arts is hosting an excellent exhibition devoted to Robbins’ life and work. Letters, posters, photos, paintings and drawings (many by Robbins himself), ticket stubs, programs and playbills, costumes, news articles, and a variety of video monitors featuring clips of works by Robbins. It is a tremendous array of materials and, although the maintenance of the exhibit seems to be somewhat troubling (dust may be found in display cases, some description cards are dangling from the wall, and captions are often placed far away from the exhibition pieces), the breadth and scope of the show is quite breathtaking.

The primary focal point for many exhibit-goers (especially dancers, scholars, and dance fanatics) is the bank of six tv monitors, each of which broadcasts a looping series of differing performance or rehearsal or interview clips, making for a kaleidoscope of Robbins images. I found the broadcast of NY Export: Opus Jazz from the “Ed Sullivan Show” (with dancers from Ballets: USA, including the fabulous John Jones and Patricia Dunn) to be especially exciting. And it is also extremely thought-provoking, since the exhibition also includes McCarthy-era newspaper clippings written by Ed Sullivan (in the years prior to the appearance of Ballets: USA on his tv show) that accuse Jerome Robbins of being a Communist sympathizer. Indeed, the exhibition does not shy away from presenting materials related to Robbins’ testimony before the HUAC and the controversy that followed his naming of names.

Also fascinating is the incredible collection of photos, programs, flyers, drawings, and letters that relate to Robbins’ early career with the Federal Dance Project and Gluck-Sandor, as well as his performances at Camp Tamiment. And, of course, his Broadway, Ballet Theatre, and NYC Ballet years are all generously represented (in particular, West Side Story fans will find plenty to keep them busy and happy, as will fans of such wonderful dancers as Tanaquil Le Clercq, Nora Kaye, and Patricia McBride). It is also possible to view a segment from a brand new staging for film of the aforementioned NY Export: Opus Jazz, a project being undertaken by two current NYC Ballet Soloists, Ellen Bar and Sean Suozzi (who are acting as co-producers). All-in-all, a must-see.

Finally, it is worth mentioning that the Jewish Community Center in NYC (on West 76th Street and Amsterdam Avenue) will be presenting a Jerome Robbins Celebration this coming Monday, June 23, at 7:00pm. Highlights will include a conversation with Ellen Sorrin and Jock Soto, film clips, and performances by members of the NYC Ballet.

Word to Joel Lobenthal of the New York Sun once again for his coverage of this exhibition, which opened last week, at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts. We hope to have our own report in this space sometime soon, but in the meantime, you can read the NYPL press release. Or, even better, if you’re in the New York area, check it out for yourself! You have until the end of January.

I recently had a chance to visit the NY Public Library for the Performing Arts and was delighted to have had an opportunity to view the excellent exhibit, Molly Picon, Yiddish Star, American Star. One fact that stood out immediately was the true passion of the curator, Diane Cypkin. Many of the captions and descriptive writings were executed in a very personal style, which is somewhat unusual and which has the potential to be annoying and self-aggrandizing. Happily, though, in this case, the style suited the exhibition perfectly and was, in actuality, completely charming.

The exhibition makes it clear that Picon, in some ways, was a kind of Yiddish Edith Piaf (minus the self-destructive behavior, the multiple lovers, and the reputation for being difficult to deal with). Picon’s music fills the room while one is gazing at the cases of photographs, letters, costumes, posters, show programs, etc., and it is impossible to not be struck by the power and incredible range of her voice. An exciting plus–probably the most popular section of the exhibit–is the self-controllable video monitor that plays some Picon clips, including a wonderful segment of Yidl mitn fidl (1936). Picon and her co-star riding on a donkey cart through the Polish countryside, with actual villagers waving along the way, is almost breathtaking. I certainly could not stop tears from welling up.

Also surprising to me was the section at the end that featured information about Picon’s work in the latter part of her career. I was taken aback by the number of Broadway shows and films in which she appeared. One of these films, Come Blow Your Horn (1963), co-starred Frank Sinatra (as a nice Jewish boy), and, kind of incredibly, wound up being screened on TCM on the very same night that I viewed the exhibition.

The exhibition is recommended highly and I applaud Ms. Cypkin for her excellent work. It is sad, though, that NYPL is not promoting the exhibition very well and that all of the programs connected to the exhibition took place in June, in spite of the fact that the show is actually on display until late September. Additionally, I felt that very little attention at all was being paid by NYPL staff to the show, since some captions and description plaques were falling down and some pieces in the display cases were in need of straightening or readjusting (unlike the objects in the more prominently displayed Merce Cunningham exhibit on the main floor of the library).