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Glass Pieces

This week at the Joyce, the Van Cleef & Arpels Dance Reflections Festival presented its starriest program yet: “Dancing with Glass: The Piano Etudes.” The show brought together dance world luminaries in five different styles, united by the pensive etudes of Philip Glass and the silken costumes of Josie Natori. (The silk was a fabulous choice to bring out the wateriness of the piano pieces.) Eleven of Glass’s twenty etudes were used, and ten were played by the renowned Glass interpreter Maki Namekawa (Glass composed a piano sonata just for her in 2019). Five etudes were used to accompany dances, the other six spotlighted Namekawa’s solo playing in the front corner of the house. If it was often hard for the dancing to compete with Namekawa’s dazzling virtuosity, there was no harm done in the trying. And the overall conceit of the show was a good one. Etudes are quite literally studies, and Glass created his over two decades as practice tools to enhance and inform his own playing. Taken together, the five disparate dance works had the feel of exploratory sketches. I could see the project morphing and continuing with other dancers, choreographers, or pianists. 


“Dancing with Glass: The Piano Etudes” with choreography by Lucinda Childs, Chanon Judson, Justin Peck, Leonardo Sandoval, and Bobbi Jene Smith and Or Schraiber


Dance Reflections festival at the Joyce Theater, New York, NY, November 28, 2023


Faye Arthurs

Chanon Judson dancing to Philip Glass's 11th Etude. Photograph by Steven Pisano

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Brazilian choreographer Leonardo Sandoval used Etude #13 to kick off the evening’s dance offerings. His tap number for himself and Ana Tomioshi, Orlando Hernández, and Lucas Santana made the most radical use of Glass’s music. The piece began without piano accompaniment at all. The quintet onstage clapped and snapped and tapped out a rhythm that melded into the 13th etude when pianist Noé Kains jumped off the stage and sat at the instrument to play. Group tapping is not the first thing that comes to mind in relation to introspective and solitary piano compositions, but the unconventional fusion was interesting. Piano oscillations can evoke raindrops, and the tapping here sounded like rain too—rain that was hitting a hard roof. Also, the cyclicality of Glass’s music lends itself well to turning, but tap isn’t big on turns. However, Sandoval created some; he incorporated rotations into a group shuffle toe tap sequence that worked nicely with the score. I also liked when he had dancers make solo passages across the stage during a series of musical scales. Sandoval wrapped up this dance by sliding splat off the tap platform, which was clever. Glass’s endings can be jarring. Sandoval is right: all that monotonous repetition abruptly ceasing is akin to falling off a treadmill.      

Chanon Judson, Co-Artistic Director of the Urban Bush Women, also presented a style not typically matched to piano etudes. She choreographed and performed a solo to the 11th etude that refreshingly departed from the standard minimalist dance tropes. Glass’s music often inspires clockwork moves that are compact, technical and locomotive: bourrées, chaîné turns, lunges, sautés, chassés en tournant. Judson, towering and cool in her rippling turquoise gown, kicked expansively while standing on one spot. She harnessed the tension inherent in the etude to fight against her own willowy limbs and flowing dress with squats and fists and flexed feet and occasionally, stillness. Excitingly, she approximated Glass’s busyness with her articulate shoulders, hunched over, blades jutting like vulture wings. 

Orlando Hernández, Leonardo Sandval, Lucas Santana, and Ana Tomioshi dancing to Philip Glass's Etude #13, choreographed by Sandval. Photograph by Steven Pisano

Bobbi Jene Smith and Or Schraiber also danced their own choreography to Etude #8, which toggles back and forth between Jaws-like foreboding and hopeful cresting. Lucinda Childs’s piece to the 18th etude also focused on a relationship, and was danced by Caitlin Scranton and Kyle Gerry. These two numbers had the feel of an updated “In the Night,” Jerome Robbins’s study of romantic couples set to piano nocturnes by Chopin. But though they employed a similar framework, Smith/Schraiber and Childs took opposite approaches. Smith and Schraiber fervently moved through myriad positions in an emotive dance-acting duet in a smoky shaft of light (the dark lighting throughout was by John Torres). They employed rapid-fire, tweaky hand gestures to tremolos and massive backbends to accentuated chords. They argued in ardent semaphore. Smith wore a charcoal silk negligee with her Rapunzel hair flying free. Sometimes Schraiber jump-clicked his heels like a leprechaun to the piano’s deep reverberations, which was neatly counterintuitive. Otherwise, they gushed cathartically to emphasize Glass’s turbulence. 

Caitlin Scranton and Kyle Gerry perform Lucinda Childs' duet to Philip Glass's Etudes. Photograph by Steven Pisano

In contrast, Childs’s couple had almost no affect while performing more traditional partnering moves and romantic holds. With clasped hands, they stepped towards each other and turned away from each other again and again, expressionlessly. They sported matching white silk pyjamas and Scranton’s hair was slicked back in a tight bun. They were in the mold of Childs herself: beautiful, chilly, ostrich-models doing common steps plainly. Where Smith and Schraiber ran headlong into Glass’s storm while flying kites, Childs’s pair floated above the cloudline. Childs’s iconic 1979 piece “Dance,” also set to Glass, opened the Dance Reflections Festival. She has a long history with the composer, including making dances to his operas “Einstein on the Beach” and “Akhnaten.” Where in “Dance” she followed his every note with near-robotic precision, here she played at matching his moodiness but resisted his sentiment. Childs’s entry wasn’t my favorite to watch, but it did beg a fabulous question: how are Glass’s minimalist Etudes, which are so technical and repetitive, also so stirring?    

Patricia Delgado performs to Philip Glass's Etude #6, choreographed by Justin Peck. Photograph by Steven Pisano

Like Childs, Justin Peck has had a fruitful history with Glass. His early hit “In Creases” was set to the composer; and he also danced the important role of the first man onstage in the third movement of Robbins’s “Glass Pieces” for a long time at the New York City Ballet. Peck’s treatment of the 6th etude, danced by former Miami City Ballet Principal Patricia Delgado, was a highpoint of the night. Largely, this was due to how well Peck’s signature vocabulary paired with Glass’s waffling notes. Peck loves to pit a body against itself: turns double back, and jumps that begin in contained positions explode open at the last second—or switch directions midair. Like Glass’s teetering themes—so full of turmoil—Peck’s style often broadcasts existential anxiety or indecision. And both choreographer and composer beautifully convey intellectual restlessness. But the success of this dance was also due to the dancer. It was a pleasure to see the exquisite Delgado onstage again. If you’ve ever seen her dance Balanchine’s “Allegro Brillante,” you know the wonders she can work with a piano rumble. Her musicality was magical here in more pedestrian steps. In sneakers and a jumpsuit, she imbued log rolls, basketball staggers, and mountain climbers with the same profound sensitivity she used to demonstrate in pointe shoes and tutus. 

Maki Namekawa plays Philip Glass's Etudes. Photograph by Steven Pisano

But the most spellbinding moves of the night were performed by the demonstrative Namekawa. She furrowed her brow, mouthed notes, grinned and rocked blissfully. She shook her head in furious rubato to match her keystrokes. But it was her intimate connection to the piano in the quietest moments that made me hold my breath. She hovered over the keys like a cat ready to pounce before gently picking out a few spare notes. In this manner, she got a wealth of colors out of the maddeningly repetitive ba-dum-ba-dums of the 5th etude. Throughout the night, she and her instrument were engaged in an intense pas de deux. When she called Glass out to take a momentous bow, it was almost as if she was summoning another choreographer as well as a composer. 

Faye Arthurs

Faye Arthurs is a former ballet dancer with New York City Ballet. She chronicled her time as a professional dancer in her blog Thoughts from the Paint. She graduated summa cum laude with a B.A. in English from Fordham University. She lives in Brooklyn with her partner and their sons.



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