by Asian poetry, African culture and a local artist’s furniture
creations, Ellen Sinopoli forges an ambitious narrative dance
the presence of three dancers, carved crescents of wood are
at once vessels for holding things, or babies cradled closely
to their mothers’ hearts, or canoes for moving from one place
to another, or chairs for sitting on when gathered together
with family, friends and neighbors.
These primitively sculpted wooden shapes and a collection
of others, all inspired by traditional African seats and benches,
form the foundation of From the mind/of a single long vine/one
hundred opening lives, a new work created by choreographer
Ellen Sinopoli and wood sculptor Jim Lewis. The Ellen Sinopoli
Dance Company will premiere the dance—its first evening-length
stage work—on Saturday at the Egg. The eight dancers featured
in the performance will be Amy Carpinello, Eve DiTaranto,
Isabelle J. DiGiovanni, Kim Engel, Samantha Ball Karmel, Debra
Rutledge, Yukiko Sumiya and Marc Weiss.
the mind represents a rather marked departure for Sinopoli.
First there’s the obvious: the length of the piece. Clocking
in at 75 intermissionless minutes, the 11-section work presented
Sinopoli with a new type of artistic challenge. “All of the
dances are entities within themselves, but they also had to
connect,” she explains after a recent rehearsal. “I really
had to thread it together.”
That task wasn’t as daunting at it could have been thanks
to Lewis’ seats and benches, which, Sinopoli says, led her
to create her first truly narrative dance, one that tells
a universal and timeless story of a community of people, a
force that pulls them apart and the spirit that leads them
back together again.
Those who’ve followed Sinopoli and her troupe throughout its
decade-plus history know that this is indeed a deviation from
the norm for the choreographer. More often than not, Sinopoli’s
work has favored explorations of pure movement. Whether melting
into one another as if in a dream, or stealing a moment to
show off in a white-hot spotlight, or hanging precariously
from ropes above a moveable stage platform, Sinopoli’s dancers
typically tread in worlds of abstraction that are largely
devoid of plot and emotional content.
But with her new work, Sinopoli uses movement to tell a decidedly
human tale of love, loss and redemption. Her inspirations
were twofold: the dance’s title, which is taken from a haiku
written by Chiyo-ni, an 18th-century Japanese Buddhist nun,
and the furniture pieces developed by Lewis.
Last spring, when Sinopoli and her troupe were in residence
at Kaatsbaan International Dance Center in Tivoli for three
weeks, they began working with some prototypes made by Lewis
based on images from a book on traditional African seats.
However, it was a long bench outside the theater that caught
Sinopoli’s eye and set a course for the new dance. She asked
Lewis if he could make something like it, in keeping with
the primitive forms of the other African designs they had
became the long vine,” Lewis says.
dancers began experimenting with it and the others,” Sinopli
adds, “to see what kind of stories could come out of these
pieces of furniture.”
It’s not news to Lewis that the furniture could inspire the
telling of stories and become an integral part of the dance
instead of being merely stage props or set pieces. As a cofounder
of the Troy-based Icarus Furniture, which specializes in the
creation of furniture and objects for sacred spaces, Lewis
knows that certain archetypal forms have a power all their
[furniture pieces] are based on well-developed forms, collected
from all over the continent of Africa over a period of time,”
Lewis explains. “They represent different tribes, different
cultures, different approaches to seating. It’s a very well-developed
aesthetic, and a very strong feeling comes through all of
In addition to the aforementioned crescent-shaped objects
and the long bench, Lewis has also designed a simple block
of wood with a handle; a two-seat “marriage” bench; an oddly
shaped oval that doubles as a back rest and a warrior’s shield;
and a five-piece throne that fits together like a puzzle,
with one component that is used as a table then as a coffin.
Carved from cedar logs, the furniture pieces are commanding
objects in and of themselves. They have a deceptively rough-hewn
appearance, but have been sanded and smoothed to spare the
dancers’ bodies and costumes. While Lewis was collaborating
with Sinopoli to design the pieces, he was also working closely
with the cabinetmakers at his shop—Howie Mittleman, Rich Kobernuss
and Paul Cunningham—to execute the designs. But there were
still others who played a part in the furniture’s creation:
Sister Joan Byrne, who thought to donate the trees to Lewis
when they were felled from the property of St. Vincent De
Paul Catholic Church in Albany to make room for a parking
lot, and logger John Crumb, who was able to transport the
trees to Lewis.
the time,” Lewis recalls now, “I said to myself, ‘I don’t
have time to think about trees, I have to come up with designs
for this dance.’ Then I realized they would be perfect for
In Lewis’ estimation, the massive, sensuous furniture pieces
belie their origins and therefore capture something that is
wholly primitive, organic and authentic. “To me, there is
something about furniture that is primitive,” he says. “In
America, we have so much culture, layers on layers of culture.
We’re inundated by the media all the time and it’s hard to
get an original thought or a clear thought. These pieces started
out with a sense of clarity, which works really well with
the idea of telling a universal story because the pieces are
really about humanity. You find that in any simpler culture.
It goes right to the root of what people are, what people
do and how people use things.”
Ultimately, both Sinopoli and Lewis are striving to combine
these primitive forms with the movement and stories they inspire
to make a human connection with their audience. While Sinopoli
settled on an African theme by selecting a range of African
and African-influenced music to accompany From the mind,
and the costumes by Kim Vanyo are inspired by African dress,
the story told by her new work, she says, is not bound by
a continent or a culture.
are two things going on in this dance,” she concludes. “Its
themes are universal, but it’s also very personal—we’ve all
experienced some loss, we’ve experienced some form of courtship,
we’ve experienced being children, growing up, moving away,
coming home again. That’s what this is about, and I’m hoping
that the audience will relate to what they see in a very personal
The Ellen Sinopoli Dance Company performs From the
mind/of a single long vine/one hundred opening lives on
Saturday (April 13) at 8 PM at the Egg (Empire State Plaza,
Albany). Tickets are $18 adults, $15 seniors, $12 children.
A talk featuring Ellen Sinopoli, Jim Lewis and Kim Vanyo takes
place at 7:15 PM and is free to ticketholders. For reservations
and information, call the Egg box office, 473-1845.
Mae G. Banner
Ballet of Russia
Theatre, April 5
Swan Lake, first presented in 1877 at the Bolshoi Theatre
in Moscow, is one of our few remaining treasures from that
great age of ballet. Like Hamlet to the Shakespearean
actor or Tosca to the diva, the double role of Odette/Odile
represents the wished-for peak of achievement for the dancer.
are many. First, the dancer is onstage during nearly all of
this four-act romantic moral tale. The dancer must embody
purity, then malevolence, then doomed innocence, all in one
demanding evening onstage. And the dancer will be compared
with generations of her forebears as well as her contemporaries
from many international companies. It’s enough to give a dancer
Sivtsova met the challenges in the production by the Grigorovich
Ballet of Russia last Friday at Proctor’s. A member of the
company since 1994, she was a delicate Odette, inspiring Michail
Zinoviev to invest more feeling into his rather lackluster
performance as Prince Siegfried. Sivtsova really shone as
the Black Swan, Odile. She seemed to relish her role as seductress,
fixing her glittering eyes on the hapless prince as she reeled
him in with that string of fouettes, which she performed with
great flair at center stage.
too, is challenged by Swan Lake: The ballet trails
its history. The choreographer’s job in Swan Lake is
to honor tradition, yet make the story new and germane to
our time. Memorable dance sequences must be kept intact, but
the dancemaker also is expected to surprise the audience with
new visual compositions and a singular interpretation.
the Proctor’s audience got lucky. Yuri Grigorovich, for 30
years chief choreographer for the Bolshoi in Moscow, respects
tradition and yet has ideas of his own. After a somewhat stilted
first act, his Swan Lake drew us deeper and deeper
into its magic. The choreographer filled the stage with 18
prancing, fluttering swans, deploying them in unusual, asymmetrical
configurations including vertical columns and an L shape that
drew the eye beyond the depth of the Proctor’s stage. In the
final act, when the corps of swans became truly otherworldly,
Grigorovich set them in two diagonals that opened and closed
powerfully, like gigantic wings.
all of Tchaikovsky’s iridescent music, including a full-scale
ballroom scene with its five visiting princesses performing
their national dances. Dressed in wide white gowns trimmed
with bits of gold and black, they were imperious and lovely.
Even the demi-soloist women displayed unbelievably long leg
extensions and huge turnouts, with technique to spare. Playing
the Jester, Vadim Slatvitsky was charming, loveable and a
touch forlorn as he spun on one foot. The Sorcerer, here called
the Evil Genius, was Dmitri Kanibolotski, who gave the role
a neurotic aggressiveness that evoked a Hitchcock villain.
the ending broke with tradition in an unsatisfying way. Odette
forgives the faithless prince and is about to go to her death
at the Sorcerer’s command when a rosy glow lights up the stage.
The Sorcerer stops his machinations and disappears, and the
lovers stand together in an uncalled-for happy ending. This,
apparently, was demanded under the imposed optimism of the
Soviet regime, and Grigorovich hasn’t gotten over it.
Theatre, April 3
Is ballroom dancing an Olympic sport yet? The moment it qualifies,
the 17 international couples who gyrated through Burn the
Floor last Wednesday at Proctor’s are ready to roll.
Shoulders shaking and fringe flying, the pairs ripped through
a furiously paced overview of the waltz, jump swing and quick-step,
plus a couple of faux-Latin medleys. Lighting was bright and
clichéd; taped music was loud, but well-chosen; segues were
smooth. There was lots of pep and color, but not much depth—just
what the judges like.
The dancing was mechanized, à la Riverdance and its
ever-spreading ilk. Choreographer and lead dancer Jason Gilkison,
a multi-year ballroom and Latin champ from Australia, introduced
his scintillating partner, Peta Roby, and an athletic lineup
of couples from Poland, Italy, England, Macedonia, Russia,
Spain, Germany, Sweden, Slovenia, Norway and America. The
few moments it took to do the half-time intros provided the
only breathers in the driving two-act show.
Unlike what you’d see in a pairs competition, everyone was
onstage together pretty much all the time. Gilkison, to his
credit, choreographed a few ensemble sections that looked
like real dance rather than a sequence of required moves.
He and Roby blended into the crowd through the first half
of the show. Later, Roby took the spotlight more and more,
until, in the “Passionata” medley, she stepped out in brick-red
sequins, her light and agile body whipping out a set of deep
dips and spins that was pure pleasure to watch. Here, artistry
trumped technique and we saw some dance worthy of the show’s
In general, the show was strangely flat, as if Gilkison had
watched a lot of MGM musicals and tried to put that high-
energy surface polish into a live performance.
For the most part, the show let costuming do the work of choreography.
There was more color and movement in the flippy skirts than
in the dancing. Every turn of the head, every curlicued flourish
of the arms was machined within a millimeter. The couples,
for all the “character” imparted by biker outfits for the
men or floozy looks for the women, did not relate to each
other, but made sure to hit their individual marks.
The most fun for a U.S. audience were the two swing dance
sections, with the wonderful riff of “Sing Sing Sing” as the
requisite high point. In zoot suits or bobby socks and mid-heeled
shoes, the dancers did Savoy Ballroom flips and over-the-shoulder
tosses that caught the spirit of the 1940s.
Cabaret-style singer Pia Glenn, tall and voluptuous, sashayed
through the show, pulling the sometimes-disjointed action
together with numbers such as “Do You Want to Dance” and “Steppin’
Out With My Baby.” As it happens, Glenn is a credible movie-musical-style
dancer, so her performance added life to the stage.