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December 14, 2006

Youth Being Served

New Dances at Juilliard, Edition 2006 / Peter Jay Sharp Theater, Lincoln Center, NYC / December 14 - 17

What the Juilliard School is to music, it is to modern dance as well: an academy that attracts some of the most gifted and proficient pre-professionals in the rising generation and hones them for their careers. As part of their training, the school's artists-in-the-making give concerts that offer high-caliber performance along with the irresistible opportunity to spot tomorrow's stars.

This week, Juilliard's Dance Division offers its New Dances at Juilliard, which has become an annual event. Here's how it works: Four experienced choreographers are commissioned to create new pieces. Each of them is assigned one of the four classes in the undergraduate program and must use all of its roughly 25 members--a sizeable challenge in itself.

Lawrence Rhodes, who heads the Dance Division, says, "In the spring we have our yearly repertory concert. It gives our dancers the experience of stepping into someone else's shoes. New Dances involves them in the actual creation of the piece they're performing."

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This is most evident in Doug Varone's The Constant Shift of Pulse, choreographed for the Third Year students. The dance is not simply for them, but at the same time about them. Surging energy, sensuousness, vulnerability, peer bonding, optimism operating hand in hand with doubt--Varone, a subtle and emotionally eloquent postmodernist, captures these aspects of youth without a trace of sentimentality.

Azure Barton, a Canadian choreographer whose work has snagged Mikhail Baryshnikov's interest, engages the Fourth Years in a dreamy, mysterious dance, full of eerie, disconcerting gestures. Its performers might be a sub-species of humanity whose anatomical parts aren't joined in the usual ways or a crowd of emotional cripples. Like much contemporary work, Still declines to reveal its intentions, putting its faith in the power of suggestion.

The most frankly balletic of the four pieces is Matthew Neenan's Otono, for the Second Years. The dancers move with facility, grace, and a playful air, as if recalling their not-so-long-ago childhood when life was simpler. Being a well-made dance--Juilliard dances are inevitably well-made; the academy is not the place to look for the cutting edge--the idyll is balanced by hints of impending darkness.

David Parker's About 15 Minutes has the First Years blithely mapping out rapid, complex rhythms that suggest playground games. It's clever, light, occasionally amusing--an antidote to high art. The choreography provides its own body-percussion score, the dancers clapping their hands and slapping their thighs as they move.

The other three pieces enjoy live accompaniment of the highest caliber. That, along with the use of the most enviable small theater in town, is one of the perks of being part of the Juilliard community.

Photo credit: Rosalie O'Connor: Doug Varone, working with Juilliard dancers on The Constant Shift of Pulse

© 2006 Tobi Tobias

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December 11, 2006

Pina Bausch Trades Wounded Willows for Sunny Maidens in `Nefes'

This article originally appeared in the Culture section of Bloomberg News on December 11, 2006.

Dec. 11 (Bloomberg) -- What could be prettier? Women who look like flowers in floor-skimming dresses of sun-kissed hues, tossing their long, unbound hair. Their manner is flirtatious and welcoming to the men -- some stalwart, some poignant, some endearing clowns - who, apart from some duly allotted solo turns, serve as their admirers and cavaliers.

These charming, often amusing, people populate Pina Bausch's ``Nefes'' (Turkish for breath). Created in 2003 as a result of a residency in Istanbul for the choreographer's Tanztheater Wuppertal, it's at the Brooklyn Academy of Music through Dec. 16.

Pretty? Charming? A travelogue extolling romance? Pina Bausch? Beginning in the late 1970s, the German choreographer made her reputation by venturing deep into the wounded psyches inhabiting our postmodern world. Her dances presented eccentric, often hallucinatory acts of cruelty and absurdity, carried out in a prevailing weather of anomie. Animated (indeed, rescued) by singular personalities, her shows nevertheless were too long, too disjunctive, depressing without offering catharsis and only rarely witty.

Maybe Bausch got tired of being down so long. Maybe time mellowed her. Whatever the reason, by the end of the 1990s her dances began to feature large measures of sweetness and light. Somehow they don't seem as honest as the earlier work; they certainly don't pack its wallop.

Mutual Seduction

Like most of Bausch's extravaganzas, ``Nefes'' proceeds as a series of events -- often very brief ones -- lacking narrative, set characters (except those implied by the temperament of each dancer) and a clear message. Presumably the connective tissue is a large, elastic theme: how men and women engage in mutual seduction (and, Bausch adds, slyly contradicting herself, are compromised by it).

Solos, duets, and vignettes for small clusters of people are central in ``Nefes.'' They're offset with a few passages for the full cast that, at their most attractive, reveal the pleasures of a wider camaraderie. In all of these configurations, the memorable element is a visual image that combines loveliness with a touch of magic.

Acts of chivalry abound, beautiful and absurd. Single women walk along, languid and serene, each attended by a pair of crouched men who make the hems of their gowns ripple like petals in a spring breeze.

Sometimes the attention is raunchier, as when a man repeatedly humps a bored woman who leans over her wash bucket, hoping to get on with her other chores. But what water bearer -- balancing on her head a long pole with an inflated translucent plastic bag suspended from each end -- would not be grateful for two worshippers who support her willowy, erect body on the palms of their hands?

Playthings

Now and then, the women don't fare too well. The men toy with the most petite of them as if she were a child or a plaything, easily held and cuddled, easily flung any which way. On the whole, she seems pleased with her situation, full of kittenish smiles. But in one such scene, she -- or is it her look-alike sister? -- clearly is being abused and is granted a little solo of distress to drive the point home. For the most part, though, Bausch ignores Turkey's social problems, like the mistreatment of women, and its political ones as well. She has called ``Nefes'' a respite from such matters.

The piece is much too long and many of its incidents unnecessary, redeemed only by the excellence of the performers. The music, an eclectic collage by Matthias Burkert and Andreas Eisenschneider, can best be described as complementary.

Messy Stage

Decor is far more important to Bausch. She has always favored a messy stage, to underscore primal human functions and impulses. In ``Nefes'' she chastely restricts herself to water, referring to the Bosporus Strait, which runs through Istanbul. Designer Peter Pabst has engineered falling rain, varying from drizzle to torrent, which accumulates to form a little lake center stage. The dancers splash through it lustily on occasion, but more often --this is the new Bausch, after all -- leave it becalmed, and picnic by its shores.

Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch is at BAM's Howard Gilman Opera House, 30 Lafayette Avenue, Brooklyn, through Dec. 16. Information: +1-718-636-4100 or http://www.bam.org.

© 2006 Bloomberg L.P. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.

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December 4, 2006

PARSONS DANCERS TAKE IT OFF (AND PUT IT BACK ON): NYC DANCE

This article originally appeared in the Culture section of Bloomberg News on December 4, 2006.

Dec. 4 (Bloomberg) -- David Parsons's 10 dancers, each a bundle of energy and verve, are getting undressed, down to their skivvies. And dressed. And undressed again. All at top speed, turning their reversible baggy tops and bottoms inside out in the process and simultaneously tearing through space.

This is the theme of the popular choreographer's new ``Peel,'' which will have its New York premiere tomorrow at the Joyce Theater.

After a decade as an unforgettable performer with Paul Taylor, Parsons began creating his own enormously successful repertory of easy-watching dances. His company, now almost 20 years old, aims at entertaining the general public rather than appealing to the dance connoisseur.

Nothing too complicated or enigmatic happens in a typical Parsons dance. The choreography goes in for simple fun, delivering infusions of it's-great-to-be-alive vigor.

Accordingly, Parsons's dancers rarely look arty. They're robust bodies doing robust dancing. Their bravura feats, which require power, daring and precise judgment -- are brought off with an air of unfettered athletic exuberance. Watching them, a civilian might feel he could do that stuff too, if only he went to the gym more often.

Gotta Get a Gimmick

``Peel'' is based on a gimmick: the presto, change-o! wardrobe maneuvers on which many a change is hung. It also quotes from Parsons's signature work, ``Caught,'' in which a jumping dancer on a pitch-black stage is captured in flashes of strobe light so that she seems suspended in space and time.

But then, in the adagio section of Michael Gordon's score, Parsons reveals more poetic leanings. Abby Silva, an ethereal blonde with great personal charm, plays goddess to a quintet of strongmen who toss and catch her, supporting her exalted flights and swooning falls. Midway through the segment, she tires of the dependent-female role and tries to escape, but, like most worshippers, these guys refuse to let their idol go.

Parsons Dance performs at the Joyce Theater, 175 Eighth Avenue at 19th Street, from Dec. 5-17. Information: +1-212-242- 0800 or http://www.joyce.org.

© 2006 Bloomberg L.P. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.

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FREED FROM CONVENTIONS, AILEY COMPANY DANCES THARP, ARMITAGE

This article originally appeared in the Culture section of Bloomberg News on December 4, 2006.

Dec. 4 (Bloomberg) -- Is Judith Jamison, the dynamic, savvy leader of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, trying to give the company a new look?

Two additions to the repertory unveiled in the first week of the Ailey's monthlong season at the City Center are by celebrated choreographers -- both female, both white, both renegades -- who operate far from the themes of black experience, the humanistic outlook, and the conventional sentiments typical of Ailey's own work. True, the company has gone postmodern before, but never with dance-makers as singular as Karole Armitage and Twyla Tharp.

Ironically, ``Gamelan Gardens,'' the piece commissioned from Armitage, known for exploding tradition and for brainy obfuscation, turned out to be as tame as the pictures of a Sunday watercolorist. Set to Lou Harrison's Double Concerto for Violin, Cello and Javanese Gamelan, the choreography mirrors the music's evocation of Southeast Asian culture. A pair of lovers (Dwana Adiaha Smallwood and Clifton Brown) and their 10-member community have an air of languid serenity. Movement ripples through their bodies, emanating from miraculously flexible spines to finish in delicate gestures of the hands.

Time seems to stand still in this peaceable kingdom. Occasionally conflict intrudes -- a lovers' quarrel? social unrest? Some punchy fighting motifs are introduced, a few combat poses that recall Asian martial arts, and a sudden surging of the crowd. These, kept formal and subdued, are not forceful enough to lend the piece the drama it lacks. And then the troubles, vague from the start, resolve themselves magically, allowing the dance to flow gently on, a travelogue about the land of eternal bliss.

Peter Speliopoulos has dressed the performers in variations on a theme of ivory underclothes, with gleaming ornaments on their heels and ankles. They look camera-ready for an ad promoting a girlish perfume.

Tharp's `Golden' Oldie

The Tharp acquisition, called ``The Golden Section,'' proved to be a better vehicle for the Ailey dancers, given their ability to couple daredevil movement with intense personal projection.

Set to a rock score by David Byrne, the piece originally was the 15-minute abstract, athletically extravagant finale to ``The Catherine Wheel,'' a rage-fueled, high-decibel tale of family dysfunction that Tharp presented on Broadway in 1981. She salvaged ``The Golden Section'' for her troupe's touring repertory.

Since then, other companies, from London's Ballet Rambert to the Miami City Ballet, have taken it on. Now the Ailey is giving it an unusual interpretation.

The choreography, for a baker's dozen fearless movers, is an ingeniously organized compendium of slashing leaps, tumbling falls, pyrotechnical variations on the theme of turning, and partnering that looks utterly reckless. As is typical of Tharp, the movement vocabulary is eclectic, drawing on classical ballet, jazz, gymnastics, African dance and boxing.

Softer, Sweeter

When Tharp's dancers performed it, ``The Golden Section'' seemed as frenetic as the melodrama that preceded it. Its ever- escalating challenges proposed an ultimate rendezvous with ecstasy. The Ailey treats it differently, presumably with the blessing of Shelley Washington, the former Tharp star who set the current production.

The physical feats are softened so that they look more like fun, not invitations to catastrophe. The dancing is lush, not tough. The emotional climate is sweet-tempered. Tharp's own dancers never deigned to play directly to the audience, but the Ailey's performers always do. With ``The Golden Section,'' they seem simply aiming to please.

The Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater is at the New York City Center, West 55th Street, between Sixth and Seventh avenues, through Dec. 31. Information: +1-212-581-1212 or http://www.alvinailey.org.

© 2006 Bloomberg L.P. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.

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November 29, 2006

STRAVINSKY, CAGE RECONSIDERED IN FRENCH; ART VS. TV: NYC DANCE

This article originally appeared in the Culture section of Bloomberg News on November 28, 2006.

Nov. 28 (Bloomberg) -- Like moths to the flame, choreographers are drawn to Stravinsky's ``Les Noces.'' Composed in 1923, the vibrant score, evoking peasant wedding rituals, was first choreographed by Bronislava Nijinska (and not equaled since).

Angelin Preljocaj's 1989 version -- called simply ``Noces'' by his Aix-en-Provence, France-based company -- recasts the action as a postmodern mating dance that is a communal battle of the sexes. It begins performances tonight at Manhattan's Joyce Theater.

Five women, in those chic little nothing dresses that are a staple of the European woman's wardrobe, face off with an equal number of men costumed for corporate culture. The supporting cast includes a handful of life-size rag dolls dressed as veiled brides and some stark long benches wielded as props.

The women are feisty, to be sure, as today's liberated women are expected to be. Still, the men are the aggressors, their sexual advances essentially rapes.

If occasionally the women appear to control the men, it's because the men are like automatons, devoid of feeling, equally satisfied coupling with the floppy dolls in tattered gauze as with their human partners.

The piece builds to a violent climax. Then, unexpectedly -- perhaps recalling the result of the arranged marriage in the original -- it resolves into the happy ending awaiting couples who can reach a mutual understanding.

John Cage

Preljocaj's 2004 ``Empty Moves (Part 1)'' is set to John Cage's ``Empty Words,'' which uses aleatory tactics to deconstruct language into pure sound, shorn of intellectual meaning: Cage is heard reciting his text in 1977 to an audience in Milan that offered spontaneous unfriendly backtalk.

To this accompaniment, which provides misunderstood-artist associations, Preljocaj has two men and two women perform long strings of more or less abstract movement. His choreography, however, is far more conventionally coherent than the Cage. It is strictly arranged and deeply rooted in classical ballet technique, one of the most law-and-order modes in Western dance.

Preljocaj studied for a while with Merce Cunningham, who frequently joined forces with Cage. Here Preljocaj may be after the miracles of randomness that Cunningham achieves with such regularity and aplomb. But Cunningham's intelligence and imagination are not easily duplicated, and his methods are not a gimmick for a single piece but the work of a lifetime.

Ballet Preljocaj is at the Joyce Theater, 175 Eighth Ave. at 19th Street, through Dec. 3. Information: +1-212-242-0800 or http://www.joyce.org.

Johannes Wieland

``I feel violent about TV,'' Johannes Wieland declares, in the softest voice imaginable. At a rehearsal of his new ``Progressive Coma,'' which riffs on the theme of souls ``stolen'' by the media, the choreographer tells a visitor, ``TV worms its way into our lives. It presents these unreal, perfect images and makes us want to look -- to be -- like that. And it seduces us into experiencing feelings secondhand.''

Dance is usually a poor conduit for argument. This piece, a chunk of which was unveiled last season, will make its mark by virtue of the elements that have gotten Wieland noticed on the postmodern dance circuit in the past several years: Swift, strong dancers who are expert at the slithery movement he devises for them. Sexual encounters rendered as picturesque wrestling matches. Barely mobile bodies being dressed and undressed for both visual and erotic effect. An eerie element expressed in the props -- here, ice cubes (used singly or in glacial quantities), surgical instruments and an ax.

The completed dance will have a strong video component, Wieland adds, an anthology of beautiful and violent images drawn from TV and projected onto the backdrop. He makes no mention of the irony involved.

Johannes Wieland is at the Ailey Citigroup Theater, 405 W. 55th St., at Ninth Avenue, Nov. 30 through Dec. 3. Information: +1-212-868-4444 or http://www.johanneswieland.org.

© 2006 Bloomberg L.P. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.

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November 27, 2006

`NUTCRACKER' CHARMS IN ITS HOLIDAY OUTING AT LINCOLN CENTER

This article originally appeared in the Culture section of Bloomberg News on November 27, 2006.

Nov. 27 (Bloomberg) -- The New York City Ballet has been performing George Balanchine's ``Nutcracker'' for over half a century. Balletomanes and tourists alike return to it year after year as a part of their holiday rituals. It serves the company as well as the audience, being at once an infallible money-maker and an occasion for dancers to test their mettle.

Unfurling its vision of civilized social behavior and the fear-tinged delight of a child's dreams, ``The Nutcracker'' provides over a dozen featured roles, and all of them are multiply cast. Opening night on Nov. 24th featured senior ballerina Wendy Whelan, delicate and playful as the Sugar Plum Fairy who rules over the Land of the Sweets. In the pas de deux that climaxes the second act, she was gloriously partnered by another veteran, Nikolaj Hubbe.

Other standouts were Sofiane Sylve, as the Dewdrop who adds sparkle and flash to the pink prettiness of the Waltz of the Flowers, and Teresa Reichlen as the soloist representing Coffee. Reichlen is duly sinuous and sultry as the bare-legged, bare- midriffed harem girl. But she adds an element of pathos, even despair, to the familiar interpretation, making the exotic stock character deeply human.

Chance to Shine

As usual, in the course of the five-week run, the ballet will also become a try-out zone for promising dancers who are plucked out of the corps and given a chance to shine as individuals.

Continuing Balanchine's tradition of discouraging star turns, the company announces casting only about a week in advance. ``Nutcracker'' being a hot ticket, most spectators reserve their seats well before then, so witnessing a noteworthy debut is sheer serendipity. It's a fairly sure bet that Kathryn Morgan, merely an apprentice but already a megawatt performer, will move into a role that's a step or two up from her opening night assignment to the Hot Chocolate ensemble.

A major attraction of Balanchine's ``Nutcracker'' is its cast of 41 youngsters from the School of American Ballet, the company's celebrated academy. These children are undeniably adorable -- for their physical beauty, their extraordinary accomplishment, and their evident joy in performing.

Classical-Dance Tradition

Balanchine didn't use children just for their cuteness factor, though. To him, they were a symbol of the classical-dance tradition in which very young aspirants embark upon a rigorous course of training from which a chosen few will emerge as artists. The vivid pantomime monologue that the pre-pubescent prince delivers in the City Ballet's ``Nutcracker'' is rendered verbatim as Balanchine himself performed it at the Maryinsky Theater in St. Petersburg almost a century ago.

The New York City Ballet performs ``The Nutcracker'' at the New York State Theater, Lincoln Center, through Dec. 30. Information +1-212-721-6500 or http://www.nycballet.com.

© 2006 Bloomberg L.P. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.

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November 20, 2006

SNOWBOUND

New York City Ballet: George Balanchine's The Nutcracker / New York State Theater, Lincoln Center, NYC / November 24 - December 30

Part of the charm of the New York City Ballet's production of George Balanchine's The Nutcracker, now in its 52nd year, is the bevy of exquisitely proportioned, preternaturally accomplished children in the cast. Most of these youngsters start their Nutcracker careers at eight or nine, in their second year at the company's highly selective academy, the School of American Ballet.

In the course of four winter seasons, they work their way up through the roles of diminutive well-bred guests at the nineteenth-century Christmas Eve party that opens the ballet, toy soldiers and marauding mice in the thrilling dream sequence, and the inhabitants of the Sugar Plum Fairy's kingdom -- from miniature gliding angels to the just-pubescent Candy Canes who are soon to outgrow the ballet's children's roles entirely.

Rachel Piskin, however, a petite brunette of 19 who is now a very promising member of the company's corps de ballet, started at the top. At 8 ½ she was chosen to dance the role of Marie, the little girl -- all wonder and spunk -- who is the heroine of the story.

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Looking back, Piskin thinks she was chosen for her size - "I was so tiny," she recalls -- and her expressiveness. "I guess they could see how much I loved dancing," she says. "And performing. I loved to express myself. I was a child with a huge fantasy life."

After two years, Piskin explains, "I got too tall and too old for Marie. But I didn't mind, because I went on to the roles for bigger girls that call for more actual dancing. Marie is really mostly acting."

When the NYCB accepted Piskin as an apprentice in 2004, she began her progress through The Nutcracker's adult assignments, among them the obligatory stint for newcomers: dancing one of 16 snowflakes in the human snowstorm that climaxes the ballet's first act.

This season she's the very first Snowflake out -- slicing the air with her leap. She has also accumulated a cache of small solo roles, appearing as a wind-up doll, a Spanish senorita, and an utterly un-pc Chinese girl. She's learning the Dresden-figurine role of the main Marzipan Shepherdess as well.

Given her precocious start and her rapid advancement, Piskin might be destined for the ballet's chief women's roles: the dulcet Sugar Plum Fairy or the sparkling Dewdrop, who darts and spins through the Waltz of the Flowers. She refuses to discriminate between them, saying modestly, "I think getting to dance either part would be an amazing accomplishment."

For all her reticence on the subject of her future, Piskin is quick to reply when asked what advice she might offer a little girl playing Marie today. "Enjoy it as much as you can, and remember everything," she says. "No matter if you become a dancer or do something else when you grow up, it's a moment you'll never forget."

Photo: Paul Kolnik: Rachel Piskin as Marie in the New York City Ballet's production of George Balanchine's The Nutcracker (TM)

© 2006 Tobi Tobias

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November 15, 2006

LIMON DANCE COMPANY SHOWS OFF TWO CLASSICS, LUBOVITCH PREMIERE

This article originally appeared in the Culture section of Bloomberg News on November 15, 2006.

Nov. 15 (Bloomberg) -- Last night's opening of the Limon Dance Company -- at the Joyce Theater through Nov. 26 -- unwittingly emphasized the influence on its founder of two women, both far more gifted than he.

As a dancer, Jose Limon (1908-72) was a figure of commanding power and dignity. His talents as a choreographer were more modest. He was undeniably theatrical, but fatally given to melodrama, even bombast.

For this season, though, the Limon company revived a masterwork, ``Day on Earth,'' created in 1947 by Limon's mentor, modern-dance pioneer Doris Humphrey. Set to Aaron Copland's Piano Sonata, it tells a story of life and death, love and loss, and the making of America. All this with only four characters: a farming man, his first love (frivolous perhaps but never forgotten), the strong wife he succeeds to, and their child, a little girl who dies.

Architectural in structure, stern and spare, the choreography hasn't got one false move. It has the quiet power of Shaker furniture.

Isadora Duncan's connection to Limon was more metaphoric. Known as the mother of modern dance, Duncan left behind an autobiography that, Limon claimed, brought about his birth as a dancer. ``When I read it,'' he declared, ``I became incandescent with the desire to dance. She was my dance mother, the Dionysian, the drunken spirit of the soul.''

`Dances for Isadora'

In the year before his death, Limon choreographed ``Dances for Isadora'' to Chopin piano studies. The piece is not a major or even particularly inventive work. Its usefulness today lies in how simply and beautifully it presents the company's female dancers.

Five linked solos -- some referring to aspects of Duncan's dancing and choreography, others to her personal life -- evoke successively a young woman in her spring burgeoning, the iconoclast who brought vehement passions to dance, the mourning mother whose two little children were drowned in an accident, the political crusader, and the aging wreck of a woman born for glory and disaster.

All of the opening-night soloists, from the seniors -- Carla Maxwell, who directs the company, and the incomparable Roxane D'Orleans Juste -- to the lyrical Kristen Foote, the lush Ryoko Kudo, and Kathryn Alter, who seems more spirit than flesh, offered dancing that was full of subtle modulations.

Lubovitch Premiere

The news of the season was the New York premiere of Lar Lubovitch's ``Recordare'' (Remember), commissioned to celebrate the company's 60th anniversary. Set to vivid music by Elliot Goldenthal, ``Recordare'' was meant to pay homage to Limon's Mexican origins and his visit to the country of his birth in the 1950s, where he collaborated with native artists and musicians.

What Lubovitch ended up producing was a kind of Day of the Dead revue, in which a rakish, skeletal Death figure haunts the living and taunts them with his antics. Somehow he got the tone all wrong.

Amorphous faux-folkloric group dances alternate with crude skits more related to rowdy American comic books than to the ironic and touching Dia de los Muertos customs that unite the quick with the dead, serving deliciously self-contradictory refreshments like sugar skulls.

The Limon Dance Company is at the Joyce Theater, 175 Eighth Ave., at 19th Street, through Nov. 26. Information: +1- 212-242-0800 or http://www.joyce.org.

© 2006 Bloomberg L.P. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.

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