Monday, August 17, 2009

Martha Wainwright and Morphoses

I always forget how much I dislike Central Park SummerStage in between visits. The view is bad enough to begin with but once you factor in the number of reserved seats shows like this one have, well, the hoi polloi just isn't going to be able to see that well. And the only time bleachers are remotely comfortable is when you have lots of space around you. Definitely not the case Friday night. Still, it seems churlish to complain about the seating you get at a free show and I am glad I went.

When I first heard about this particular performance I thought it was a fairly odd combination that wouldn't show either party at their finest. Part of the appeal of Wainwright's shows is their slightly ramshackle, undisciplined feel. They tend to be warm and down to earth. And the way she changes up her songs live is another of the delights. For the most part though I think those concerns were misplaced as the show was something of a mash-up of concert and dance performance, with each getting their moment in the sun.

The first half felt mostly like filler on the dance front. There was a nice little solo to "Far Away" and "Whither Must I Wander" was one of those pieces that features the woman being partnered all over the stage and not dancing much on her own to feet, while "Bleeding All Over You" brought us a dance with Teresa Reichlen and four men that showed off her long legs but wasn't particularly interesting choreographically. "Love is a Stranger" was upbeat and fun at least. Wainwright also, to my surprise, played a number of songs without dance accompaniment. I was glad that she replaced "Tower Song" (not one of my favorites of hers) with the more upbeat "When the Day is Short" with her mother Kate McGarrigle playing piano. It's always a family affair one way or another with the Wainwrights.

The second half of the program was more rewarding. It opened with Wheeldon's "Fool's Paradise," which despite its at times excessive partnering is more interesting and innovative than any of the too-brief dances of the first half. It really sort of felt like the dance portion of the program began there. Afterward Wainwright sang a few songs without dancers, including her delightfully over-the top rendition of "Stormy Weather."

And then we got the piece of the evening, the world premiere of "Tears of St. Lawrence," choreographed by Christopher Wheeldon and Edward Liang. Here I thought the musical collaboration worked much better than in the first half of the evening--where it wasn't so much a collaboration as the choreographers setting movement to songs Wainwright has been singing for some time--as the greater length gave Wheeldon and Liang time to develop ideas in their choreography and create an arc. At the same time though, I'm left with the same impression I get from so much of the Wheeldon choreography I've seen: It's perfectly pleasant to watch, I'm interested, and then 48 hours later it has evaporated from my memory. Or at least everything but the ending tableau has (both "Fool's Paradise" and "Tears of St. Lawrence" close with scenes that stick in the mind, though in different ways). While I'd be happy to see the ballet again, I'm more interested in hearing the music again. I couldn't focus on it or get an impression of it as a whole to the extent I might have liked and it seemed on first listen to be lovely and moving.

As a side note, Alistair Macaulay complains about the program notes in his review. He actually lets them off easy; the bios on the back were shoddily written as well. Even if the program creators are operating from the assumption that well-written program copy doesn't matter, you'd think they could bother with a spot of copyediting.

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