Crossing Patterns

For several years I went contra dancing pretty regularly.  Contra is usually done in long sets, with a long line of dancers facing another, but periodically callers include dances in other sets: short sets with a definite number of couples (usually 3 or 4) , square (and interlocking grid square), and – based on my observations probably the public favorite – four-facing-four sets.  In a normal contra the lady and gentleman in each couple are in a different line and progress up or down their respective lines together: with four-facing-four, the dance occurs in a short set of four couples, but the progression of the dance is down a set of sets stacked up parallel to each other down the hall.  It’s as complicated as it sounds but not too hard to do.

At any rate the four-facing-four always provoked the thought, “Why stop there?” and thus vaguely witty remarks I would make about writing a dance six-facing-six – same concept, but each short set with six couples or a dozen people.  A friend eventually asked me why I didn’t actually write such a dance instead of just talking about it, so I finally did.  Not that I’ve ever written another dance: some definite running before walking here.

That probably has a lot to do with the final result, which is pretty involved, and maybe more complicated than it has to be: my primary considerations were the “overhead view” and figuring out how to get the progressions to work.  Four-facing-four dances usually have the couples switch sides with the other couple they progress with: to do the corresponding thing with a six-facing-six meant somehow shifting the short set each time.

Here are the complications:

  • The A1 figures are differentiated between side couples and middle couples (although it would be a simpler call for all couples to do the same figures at once this is where the “overhead” consideration came in)
  • There’s a series of quick rights and lefts that don’t all go the same direction (in fact I’m not sure I’ve seen rights and lefts on a left diagonal, though I don’t see why it wouldn’t work)
  • Although the final progression is single in line of dance, the majority of the dance works out to almost a complete reverse progression with quick double progression at the end to return.  It shouldn’t gum up the ends too badly, as they wind up involved in most of the dance, but the final double progression will necessitate a quick turn around to pull back through with the next “outs”.  Ideal might be a circle rather than a line if numbers and space allow.

Start six-facing-six.  Within the short sets, there are four “side” couples (two on each end of the short set) and two “middle” couples.

  • A1 (8) sides balance & California twirl to face a new couple while middles star right; (8) middles balance and California twirl to face while sides star right with new couple
  • A2 (8) rights and lefts on right diagonal (8) sides do-si-do while middles half hey
  • B1 (8) rights and lefts on right diagonal (8) rights and lefts on left diagonal
  • B2 (8) partner swing (8) pull by right, pull by left (in line of dance for large set)

I wrote this a couple years ago and it’s been sitting in one of my random stuff boxes, but that’s a silly thing to do with a dance so now I’m posting it on the blog.

Review: NYC Ballet – Symphonic Dances etc.

The New York City Ballet was in town this week – one hesitates to call wandering down from New York to DC a tour, exactly – with a pair of mixed repertory programs featuring 20th and 21st century choreography.  I went to see the second program, the 21st century set.

Symphonic Dances (Rachmaninoff/Martins)

The lead piece was a ballet by Peter Martins set to Rachmaninoff’s Symphonic Dances, and the main reason I chose to see this program – I am familiar with the piece but had not seen anyone dance it before although several choreographers have arranged it.  Including it on this program meant cheating a little on dates – Martins’ work was created in 1994.  It is a traditional ballet in what might be called the “abstract classical” style of pieces like Balanchine’s Jewels.

Overall it is a well-done piece and the company performed it admirably.  The only false note in the choreography is the use of the grand largo statement of the theme at the end of the first movement – a dramatically contrasting moment in the music, wasted by the choreographer on an incongruously active and unremarkably blocked set of jumps for the male principal.  Otherwise the dancing fits the music remarkably well.

Pictures at an Exhibition (Mussorgsky/Ratmansky)

Set to Mussorgsky’s famous piano piece, this ballet by Alexei Ratmansky is a less restrained, more modern work.  Premiered a mere six months ago, it is likely still a work in progress if I have learned anything at all about choreographers in the last four years.  However, in its current incarnation, it seems to be flawed.

The choreography is an odd mix of movements of purely traditional ballet, elements which seem to parody the formality of classic ballet, and movements almost entirely modern.  The piece has little unity – which might admittedly be said of the music, but even the unifying “Promenade” variations from Mussorgsky’s score are treated too differently.

It is, in short, something of a mess.  It is possible I would have enjoyed it more if I knew more about ballet or were less familiar with the music: certain movements seemed to be in homage or parody to other well-known ballets.  For instance there was, I thought the “Baba Yaga” reminiscent of some parts of Firebird, though I have only seen that once and do not have the best memory of it.  This defense-by-reference is about the only possibly redeeming factor, though it was of course danced superbly.

Also the costumes and set were designed by Vogons.

“This Bitter Earth” (Washington arr. Richter/Wheeldon)

A movement excerpted from a longer work in five movements, this was a quiet pas de deux, well done and well-danced but relating oddly to the music.  Richter took Dinah Washington’s song and recorded it – broken up and spaced out – over a quiet minimalist string lament; Washington’s strong voice sits jarringly against the accompaniment.  Wheeldon seems to have elected the go with the quiet strings and ignore the overlaid song in his choreography: the dancing is beautiful but the overall effect rather weird.  I am curious how it sits in the context of the larger work, Five Moments, Three Repeats.

Everywhere We Go (Stevens, with Atkinson/Peck)

This piece was commissioned by the company and premiered last Spring.  It features an original score by Sufjan Stevens, orchestrated in collaboration with Michael Atkinson.  I last remember hearing of Stevens when I was in college,  where I found his songs mediocre, not to say annoying, and his fandom somewhat baffling.  I was therefore prepared to be annoyed or at least long-suffering, and was hugely surprised to find this purely orchestral score absolutely delightful, a series of movements clearly modern and yet leaning heavily on the classical tradition of orchestral music, with none of the obnoxious sophomoric attempts at profundity by calling annoying noises music and deliberately avoiding melody one runs across far too often among modern “classical” composers – but I digress.  The score was, as I said, wonderful.

The choreography matches it well, largely centered in traditional ballet but incorporating a number of modern elements.  The set – or more properly backdrop and lighting – seem to suggest works of Escher or other geometrical artists; the costumes seem to invoke a vaguely ’50s aura.  The ballet is energetic and the dancing captivating, highlighted by the lead ballerina – here Sterling Hyltin, a (relatively) tall blonde (incidentally from Texas: this seems important somehow but I would not begin to have an answer why).

Of all the pieces performed on the program, this was the most exciting and I think the best; certainly the one I would most like to see again.  The program as a whole was solid, with a strong opening and fantastic conclusion, but weak in the middle.