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The Glass Etudes at Kaatsbaan Fall Festival celebrating Philip Glass' 85th birthday. Photograph by Bess Greenberg

Glass Etudes

The Glass Etudes at Kaatsbaan Celebrating Philip Glass’s 85th Birthday

Performance
New choreography by Lucinda Childs, Chanon Judson, Justin Peck, Leonardo Sandoval, and Bobbi Jene Smith/Or Schraiber
Place
Kaatsbaan Cultural Park, Tivoli, NY, September 17-18, 2022
Words
Karen Hildebrand

A three-quarter-mile stroll through grounds once devoted to horses led audience members, toting lawn chairs and picnic fare, to a broad meadow set with an outdoor stage, gleaming grand piano perched atop, purple shades of the Catskill range visible in the distance. The late summer day could not have been more perfect for the opening of Kaatsbaan Cultural Park’s Fall Festival 2022 in Tivoli, NY, where “The Glass Etudes at Kaatsbaan Celebrating Philip Glass’s 85th Birthday” was performed by five piano artists and five sets of choreographers and dancers as the sun set over an idyllic Hudson Valley.

I went for the dance. I stayed for the music. I was drawn to the project for the chance to see new work by an intriguing list of choreographers that included Lucinda Childs, who famously collaborated with Glass and Robert Wilson on the opera, “Einstein on the Beach.” As a casual listener, I don’t have the background to talk about musical compositions with any authority. And yet, I was surprised at how this coupling of piano solos and dance invited me into a richer experience of the music.  

Opening the show was Leonardo Sandoval’s work for four tap dancers (Sandoval, Ana
Tomioshi, Orlando Hernández, and Lucas Santana). The performers both clapped and tapped while Noé Kains played Etude #13 with the driving locomotion of a train. Sandoval riffed on sections set in 4/4 time by moving his quartet into a square dance configuration where pairs of dancers joined hands in an allemande left, or a right and left grande. Clad in jewel-toned tunics designed by Josie Natori, whose silky fabric glammed up all the dance works of the afternoon, the piece was visually compelling—different from a more typically auditory tap experience.

Bobbi Jene Smith and Or Schraiber perform “Etude #8.” Photograph by Bess Greenberg

Bobbi Jene Smith and Or Schraiber, veterans of Ohad Naharin’s Batsheva Dance Company, brought their Gaga movement sensibility to an unpartnered tango. All the tension of tango was present in their study of Etude #8 (played by Conor Hanick), but without the chest to chest posture and intertwined footwork. They entered the stage on opposite corners. Though separated by the distance of the full stage, they were connected energetically as if by a live electrical wire. When the pair eventually came together they held each other at arms length, and as a couple couldn’t seem to agree on a common direction. Their partnering was angular and full of push and pull. Schraiber’s black shirt, pants and dress shoes called to mind a Spanish dancer as he writhed in a fit of temper. Smith’s flowing waist length hair backlit by the sun was a character unto its own. At the end, each retreated once again to opposite corners of the stage, but this time, trading places. Perhaps they now had a new understanding of the other’s perspective, yet the distance remained.  

Each of five sections followed the same pattern of three etudes each, with the dance etude sandwiched between two piano solos. After each dance etude, the ghosts of movement images lingered in my head, even as the third piano solo worked to cleanse my palate for the next set.

Each etude is different, even as they all reside within a recognizable Glass wheelhouse of minimalist repetition. He made a total of 20 studies over two decades. The dances too seemed like studies, or sketches. I found it easier somehow to listen to the music after watching a dance sketch.

Patricia Delgado performs in “The Glass Etudes,” work by Justin Peck. Photograph by Bess Greenberg

Justin Peck made a piece for his wife, Patricia Delgado, a principal dancer with Miami City Ballet for 20 years. In black coverall and white tennis shoes, Delgado sprawled in a chair, arms folded. As she began to move, I got a sense of both Graham inspired contractions  and the fluidity of Twyla Tharp. At one point Delgado’s moves seemed that of a boxer, limbs hugging her core, shrugging one shoulder then another. Balletic arms were in evidence—not decorative, instead held high as a counterbalance to her quick feet. It’s a vocabulary New York City Ballet audiences have seen from Peck as resident choreographer since 2014. In this sketch, Delgado repeated the movement series, each time returning to the chair to begin again. The final starting over was different—mirroring a Glass compositional hallmark. Rather than move away from the chair, this time she tipped it over and drew it down to cover her like a shelter. She remained in stillness until pianist Timo Andres began the third etude, during which she quietly exited the stage.

As part of the Judson Dance Theater, Lucinda Childs helped usher in postmodern dance. Yet because of her two major multi-media collaborations, “Einstein on the Beach” (1976) and “Dance” (1979), with the art of Sol LeWitt, I anticipated movement defined by complex counts that propelled dancers in precise patterns. “Dance” featured dizzying layers of dancers in overlapping actions and back and forth repetition. Instead, for Etude #18 (played by Anton Batagov), Childs chose to pair Lucinda Childs Dance Company member Caitlin Scranton with Kyle Gerry in a rather stiff duet of classical partnering. She seemed to be emphasizing the shapes of the pairing, more than its motion. Just as Glass composed these studies to inform his performance, Childs’ contribution could also be considered a study snipped from the moving tableau of “Dance” and slowed down so we could see its underpinning.

“Etude #11” danced by Chanon Judson. Photograph by Bess Greenberg

The high point of the show was Etude #11, danced by Chanon Judson, co-director of Urban Bush Women. Her West African inflected movement peppered with splayed knees, angled elbows, fluid hips, bare feet kneading the floor, expressed pure joy. Dressed in slinky aqua floor length silk, she gathered up the skirt to show a flexed foot, bent knee leg lift. At the end she simply turned her back and sauntered off stage, swaying her hips. To match her brilliance was Maki Namekawa who played Etudes #7, #11 and #20 with power and exuberance. She was a vision at the piano in a flowing oversized linen kimono, putting full weight into notes that mirrored the twilight: a four note melody; a string of notes that trilled up, then back down; resounding chords separated by ever broadening octaves. By the end, the sun had fallen and appeared now as a glowing orange jaguar eye through the trees. Perfect backdrop to this final ferocious duo of artists.