PERFORMING ARTS

Thursday, June 23, 2005

Pilobolus

Dancers have long sought to overcome gravity, but some have taken the desire to the extreme, leading to aerial dance's current popularity. Pilobolus, the dance collaborative known for its visual illusion-inducing partnering, boarded the aerial bandwagon Tuesday at Wolf Trap. In five works by Alison Chase, Pilobolus took to the sky, dangling from silks and harnesses as often as they hung from one another's bodies.

The world premiere of "BUGonia" produced the night's least substantial fare. Jenny Mendez and Renee Jaworski scampered about in awkward positions -- repeatedly Jaworski crouched, head up, one leg draped over her elbow, and walked on her hands. When not imitating crawling bugs, the dancers mounted hanging greenish-yellow silks like tiny bugs trying to climb a leaf. "BUGonia" is a cute piece, but the aerial dances disappoint.

Given the Pilobolus dancers' sheer physical strength and the company's tradition of fearlessly pushing boundaries, one would like to see aerial work that doesn't closely mirror work being done elsewhere. In both "Night of the Dark Moon: Orfeo and Eurydice" and "Star-Cross'd," Chase ably used aerial dance to create mood and characters. (The program also included "Monkey and the White Bone Demon" and "Ben's Admonition.") Telling the story of Orfeo's failure to rescue Eurydice from the underworld, a white silk serves as Persephone's billowing chariot onto the stage, then spirits the unconscious Eurydice away as Orfeo lies prostrate, bathed in soft, white smoke.

Six dancers twist and flip through "Star-Cross'd," ingeniously tangling and untangling six black silks. Each dancer tries to reach the others, but only in the end, when Mendez releases her silk and a dancer hanging from his feet pulls her into his arms, can anyone unite. The curtain falls as the two kiss. Fittingly, human ability and touch, the two keys to Pilobolus's success, mark the show's close.

-- Clare Croft

Suspicious Cheese Lords

The Suspicious Cheese Lords' program Tuesday night at the Franciscan Monastery was tightly integrated, although the material spanned half a millennium, two continents and a variety of folk and ecclesiastical styles.

The program, part of the Washington Early Music Festival, was titled "The Whole Enchilada: Music of Spain and the New World," and its sources ranged from the highly cultured medieval court of King Alfonso X ("the Wise") of Castile and Leon (1221-84) to the 18th-century Franciscan missions in California -- from medieval legends about the Virgin Mary to a Magnificat poised between Renaissance and baroque styles.

The Cheese Lords, the resident choir at the Northeast Washington monastery, sang with an ensemble precision and a sensitivity to the music's varied styles as impressive as their imagination in programming. It was a cappella, except for the use of drums in some of the livelier pieces.

The program opened with an example of Mozarabic chant, a form of plainsong used by Christians in Spain during the centuries of Muslim domination, and went on to sample Alfonso's "Cantigas de Santa Maria," a curious mingling of folklore and ecclesiastical piety, and a Marian hymn from the Llibre Vermell, a manuscript from the Catalan shrine of Montserrat.

Tomas Luis de Victoria was the greatest religious composer of the Spanish Renaissance, and he was represented by three selections, together with music by his contemporaries and predecessors.

After intermission, the program moved to Latin America, where Spanish musical culture had been vigorously transplanted, with selections sung in Spanish and in the Aztec language. For those who think of early music as a European phenomenon, it was a mind-expanding experience.

-- Joseph McLellan

Washington Musica Viva

A new Washington area concert venue, the Dennis and Phillip Ratner Museum, has sprung up in Bethesda. It offers a cozy chamber music space for about 100 listeners. The Washington Musica Viva, directed by Carl Banner, took the spot Tuesday, variously combining two violins, viola, cello, flute and piano in music by David Diamond (who died last week), Masatoshi Mitsumoto and Johannes Brahms. Banner set his Baldwin in the middle of the room with the other players to the right of the keyboard and the audience draped closely around them, largely facing his back. A show of local art filled the surrounding walls, with Marilyn Banner's "Ladders of Light" -- a string of chiffon-adorned wraiths -- hanging above in an opening to the second-floor exhibit. If the instruments had been grouped against a wall, the sound would perhaps been more differentiated, but the musicians did well under the circumstances.

Diamond's Quintet (flute, strings and piano) was followed by the premiere of Mitsumoto's Divertimento (flute, viola, piano). Diamond's piece speaks an "American" language he heralded in the '30s: a lustrous fusion of fresh melodies and consummate craft. Musica Viva hinted at the middle movement's primeval nostalgia, though the players couldn't rise above the monochromatic sonorities and unrelieved pulse of the Allegros. Mitsumoto's Divertimento saunters pleasantly among waltzes, tonal textures and diluted witticisms -- all underscored by a nice performance.

By far the best treat came with Brahms's Quintet, Op. 34. Despite some tendencies toward prosaic plodding, problematic intonation and stridency, the group did a quite credible job and pleased the audience.

-- Cecelia Porter


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