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IMPRESSIONS: Christopher Williams Presents "Jeux" and "A Child’s Tale" at Baryshnikov Arts

IMPRESSIONS: Christopher Williams Presents "Jeux"  and "A Child’s Tale" at Baryshnikov Arts
Sarah Cecilia Bukowski

By Sarah Cecilia Bukowski
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Published on October 26, 2023
"A Child's Tale." Photo by Maria Baranova

Jeux (World Premiere)

The Players: Christiana Axelsen, Kyle Gerry, Dominica Greene, Paul Singh, Caitlin Scranton, Carlo Antonio Villanueva

Passersby: Mariah Anton Arters & Mac Twining

Choreography: Christopher Williams -- With brief quotes from Millicent Hodson’s 1996 reconstruction of Vaslav Nijinsky’s original 1913 ballet (used with her permission)

Music: Claude Debussy (1862-1918) Jeux, poème dansé for orchestra recorded by the New York Philharmonic conducted by Leonard Bernstein

Sound Design: Tei Blow //  Lighting Design: Joe Levasseur //Costume Designs: Reid & Harriet Design and Andrew Jordan  //Makeup assistant: Ray Dondero //Props by Christopher Williams and courtesy of Douglas Dunn and Andrew Jordan // Stage Manager: Stacey-Jo Marine

A Child’s Tale (World Premiere)

Baba Yaga (a sorceress of the woods): Christiana Axelsen, Janet Charleston, and Carol Teitelbaum

Baba Yaga’s Hut (a magical roaming hovel): Elise Knudson

The Kikimora (a lonesome house spirit): Caitlin Scranton

The Child (a foundling): Mac Twining

The Newlyweds: Mariah Anton Arters and Cemiyon Barber

Villagers: Kyle Gerry, Dominica Greene, Paul Singh, and Carlo Antonio Villanueva

Understudies: Deniz Erkan Sancak and Logan Pedon

Choreography: Christopher Williams //  Music: Anatoly Lyadov (1855-1914) // Sound Design: Tei Blow

Lighting Design: Joe Levasseur // Costume Designs: Reid & Harriet Design and Andrew Jordan

Additional Costume/Puppet Fabrication: Monkey Boys Productions (with lead fabricator Theresa Aluise and Stefanie Barszowski)   //  Props by Christopher Williams and the late Stuart Williams

Stage Manager: Stacey-Jo Marine

Christopher Williams is a world-maker: an artist known for combining dance, theatre, music, and design into total artworks steeped in folklore, mythology, and radical queer imagination. It’s no wonder then that he takes a particular interest in the lineage of the Ballets Russes, a venture that likewise merged creative disciplines to tell stories in strikingly modern—and often subversively queer—ways. Williams reaches back over 100 years to mine the source material for his double bill at Baryshnikov Arts as he reimagines Jeux, after Vaslav Nijinksy’s 1913 original, and A Child’s Tale, based on Leonide Massine’s 1917 Contes Russes. Williams’s capacity for reimagination is vast, and he approaches the task with care, style, and verve to create works that are fresh in their strangeness and manage to carry their homage lightly.

Chirping crickets, white-on-black tennis court tape lines, and a ball lobbed in a long arc across the stage set the scene for Jeux. Debussy’s original score balances mystery and levity with playful rhythms that nip seductively at the Players and press them toward the edges of possibility. Paul Singh, Kyle Gerry, and Carlo Antonio Villanueva cavort stylishly through chaotic love triangles, occasionally wielding vintage tennis rackets to complete the look. In a nod to the original tennis whites, provocative costumes by Reid & Harriet Design reveal and conceal the body with daring cuts and chic applications of white mesh and black edging.

dancers dressed in gauzy modern versions of tennis outfits some in white some in black cavort on a stage decorated by neat strips of white tape.

(L to R) Dominica Greene, Caitlin Scranton, Kyle Gerry and Paul Singh in "Jeux." Photo by Maria Baranova

The dance’s movement language, style, and composition also echo Nijinsky’s — Williams referenced Millicent Hodson’s 1996 reconstruction of the original — with peculiar isolations, open-angled limbs, flattened positions, tangled interweavings, and sculptural tableaux. But Williams takes a decidedly queer tack that deftly transforms the work from a recognizable reiteration into something entirely new. Stormy interludes and an added cast of interlopers and doppelgängers expand the geometries of the simple love triangle, and a more fluid kinetic sensibility invites the dancers to be equal parts ridiculous, rigorous, languid, campy, and gentle without being too polite. Their gazes very nearly pierce the fourth wall in a flirtation that implicates the spectator as a potential player in their game, though theirs remains a world contained within itself.

the dancers in modern highly designed fanciful tennis outfits pose on the floor .They hit angular positions reminicisent of Nijiinsky.

(L to R) Caitlin Scranton, Carlo Antonio Villanueva, Kyle Gerry, Christiana Axelsen and Dominica Green in "Jeux." Photo by Maria Baranova

Desire flies in all directions in games of seduction, chase, and keep-away: a little orgasmic touch here, a knowing look there, a shared intimacy where even the aggression is playful. The dancers are rarely still, remaining confidently in character as they move with candor through technical and musical feats of coordination and collaboration. A thunderclap — accompanied by flashes of theatrical lightning and hail in the form of white tennis balls dropped from on high — signals a dramatic demise and a break from reality. Shocked into light, plunged into darkness, and buzzing in radio static, tiny red and yellow emergency lights flash on one by one, building to a manic twinkling before being equally inexplicably extinguished. The dance has fully dissociated.

a trio of dancers in variations of white tennis outfits form a triangular tableau...the point is a woman sitting on the ground an above her two other women pose leaning to the right

(L to R) Christiana Axelsen, Caitlin Scranton, Dominica Greene in "Jeux." Photo by Maria Baranova

The tension of the stage space is casually restored in a solo for the capaciously precise Dominica Greene, clad in fresh tennis whites and joined shortly by two fellow Players in white, Christiana Axelsen and Caitlin Scranton, and the original trio, now seemingly zombified into black garb. The tone here is even more dreamlike, treading through self-consciously parallel worlds that invert, mirror, and intertwine with each other. The triangle, naturally, acts as the keystone of the dance, and Williams deploys the shape masterfully in a sextet that manages to be both devilishly intricate and blessedly easy to watch. Technical and structural themes and devices arise and dissolve dynamically, enough to fulfill their choreographic and compositional functions to ground the senses without boring them, often with some queer outlier positioned to disrupt the arrangement. By its close, the dance has descended into utter chaos, but not without first transcending into unexpected terrains of beauty.

all the tennis players of Jeux in various stage of activity... jumping, kneeling, interacting with one another or themselves. a curious group

(L to R)  Paul Singh, Christiana Axelsen, Carlo Antonio Villanueva, Caitlin Scranton, Dominica Greene and Kyle Gerry in "Jeux." Photo by Maria Baranova

After a brief pause to peel off the tennis court tape—a choreography of its own—our Ballets Russes-ian evening returns to its roots with A Child’s Tale, which features an assemblage of characters and narratives from Russian folklore. Here Williams leans into his penchant for the whimsical, with lovingly rendered costumes, props, and human set pieces brought to life by the intrepid cast. Williams likewise revels in his music, an assortment of orchestrated Russian folk songs that hearken a rich spectrum of moods and an abundance of rhythms which the choreographer exploits to their fullest with intricate phrasing, folk dance vernacular, and densely detailed, highly legible gestural languages for each character. The cast delights in this multidimensional rigor: the music seems to spring from their bodies just as they build and enliven the world around them.

Kyle Gerry, Cemiyon Barber, Mariah Anton Arters, Dominica Greene, Paul Singh and Carlo Antonio Villanueva in "A Child's Tale." Photo by Maria Baranova

Though the storyline is a bit muddied, the clarity of its visual and musical narratives, characterizations, and emotive arcs serve to both transcend its mysteries and amplify its humanistic values. Mariah Anton Arters is the luminous center of the story, a fresh-faced newlywed who is as strong as she is sweet; her steely sensitivity keeps the motley crew of villagers and supernatural beings in tune. Mac Twining enchants as the spritely Foundling Child who is killed by fear and resurrected by love. He dances with uncanny spontaneity and purity, light as the flute that is his musical twin. The villagers are marvelously fleet-footed in their folk dances—their neon red shoes a beguiling touch—which Williams pointedly composes to weave a web of social relations without the need for exposition. It is a simple world, one in which men defend and provide while women perform the work of care, yet they come together in reckoning and mourning as a community.

(L - R) Carol Teitelbaum, Christiana Axelsen and Janet Charleston in "A Child's Tale." Photo by Maria Baranova

On the supernatural side, a trio of witchy women collectively embody the sorceress Baba Yaga, complete with long prosthetic fingers and noses, and together their sweeping gestures, percussive footfalls, and outlandish gibberish cast spells over the space to open and close the dance. The wolf-like Kikimora trickster spirit’s shapeshifting presence pervades the dance, menacing in its power to elicit fearful veneration and awe from the humble villagers. In Williams’s telling, as in Russian folkloric traditions, these magical figures are neither good nor evil as their actions bring violence, tragedy, healing, and sacrifice in equal measures—a quality all too recognizably human.

(L to R) Carlo Antonio Villanueva, Kyle Gerry, Paul Singh and Caitlin Scranton in "A Child's Tale." Photo by Maria Baranova

Williams’s revocalization of the Ballets Russes’s avant garde aesthetic is simultaneously reverent and fresh, with a keen attention to the totality of theatrical production of which Serge Diaghlev would surely approve. Armed with an overabundance of imagination and craftsmanship, both Jeux and A Child’s Tale exemplify the queer potentialities of looking back through history to press forward with courage and curiosity.


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