New York's Top Talent Shines at Abrons Arts Center for Star-Studded UPTOWN DOWNTOWN Benefit
Juggling, dancing, comedy, singing, contact improvisation and more from some of New York City's top talent garnered great laughter and applause at UPTOWN DOWNTOWN, a one-night-only benefit for the Abrons Arts Center on Monday evening.
As the resident visual and performing arts program at Henry Street Settlement, a social service agency on the Lower East Side, Abrons has offered classes, performances, residencies and exhibitions for almost 100 years. Led by Honorary Chairman and international ballet star Mikhail Baryshnikov, a world-class cast of performers representing Manhattan's uptown and downtown performance scenes shared the stage for this special event. As Henry Street Settlement Executive Director David Garza joked, the government may be shut down, but Abrons Arts Center is most definitely still open.
Juxtaposing sinuous steps with lightning-quick isolations, Jacob's Pillow Dance Award and MacArthur Foundation "Genius Grant" winner Kyle Abraham opened the show with a powerful solo blending ballet, modern and hip hop dance styles. Slicing his arms and wheeling his legs sharply and quickly through the space, he would intermittently pause to effortlessly raise and lower himself onto one knee, or simply extend one arm, as if to remind us of the intermediary movements necessary to make the intricate choreography look so easy.
After a brief welcome from David Garza, drag artist Joey Arias sang George Michael's "You've Changed," using a break in the lyrics to begin the bawdy repartee with the audience that would define his role as the evening's co-host. "Oh yeah, just keep doing that - all night long," he cooed as musical director Lance Horne tickled the ivories, sparking laughter from the audience and subverting the otherwise serious tone of the tune.
Occasional laughter also peppered the presentation of singer Claron McFadden, who performed famed composer John Cage's "Aria." Sliding in and out of different voices, from a breathtaking opera falsetto to a robot's mechanical speech, punctuated by sudden screeches, sneezes and other noises, McFadden displayed not only a mesmerizing voice, but a masterful stage presence. Like Abraham's seamless transitions from one movement to the next, her continual shifts in accent and tone every few seconds, without missing a beat, were remarkable.
Arias then joined McFadden for a duet to the Porgy and Bess classic "Summertime," McFadden displaying the full power of her soprano voice and Arias' baritone providing a comic counterpart. Their playful chemistry culminated in an effort to see who could hit a higher note at the end of the song, and the audience clearly enjoyed the duo's
Philippe Petit, perhaps best known for his 1974 high-wire walk between Manhattan's Twin Towers, entertained mime with hat tricks and juggling. The latter was particularly delightful as Petit executed many humorous optical illusions, blending visual comedy with impressive dexterity, the audience rapt even if there was no fear of him falling.
If the guffaws until then had been generous, they were overwhelming when performance artist Jack Ferver commanded the microphone with sidekick James Whiteside, recently promoted to principal dancer with American Ballet Theatre. As Ferver delivered a hilarious monologue about what was about to happen, the dapper duo stripped down to their underwear and donned gaudy dancewear - a striped green unitard for Ferver and a leopard print leotard for Whiteside. ("I'm a teacher, and when my students ask me why I have such a snatched body, I always tell them: anxiety and depression," he quipped.) In appearance alone, the two men - short, dark-haired Ferver and lanky, blond Whiteside - seemed fit for comedy. Accompanied by a vocalist, the two men performed a contact improvisation piece in which their hands had to remain touching. The audience roared as they moved around the stage, even under the piano and directly in front of the vocalist's face, Ferver at times barely able to reach Whiteside's hands or creating suggestive positions. Garza later summed it all up to great laughter and applause with one word: "Whoa!"
Returning to more conventional performance standards, Brooklyn-born Ellen Greene took the stage for her first New York performance in five years. Having originated the role of Audrey in Little Shop of Horrors, though likely more recognizable for her roles in the recent TV series Pushing Daisies and Bunheads, she sang a medley of tunes, including "Everything Old is New Again," in which she lay on the piano like a cabaret star. Her passionate gesticulations and honest delivery made her an enthralling presence onstage.
Echoing Isadora Duncan, renowned ballet dancer and choreographer Robert La Fosse performed in a flowing white gown and blond wig, waving about a long white scarf, underneath which he lay to begin the piece. To a suite of songs played live on piano, he danced a range of emotions, from joy to melancholy, playfully parodying the role of a maiden. The scarf became a comic prop with which he eventually pretended to strangle himself amidst scattered flower petals, faintly calling to mind Hamlet's Ophelia.
The inimitable Bebe Neuwirth, star of stage, television and screen, closed the show in style with two musical theater numbers: White Christmas' "I Love a Piano" and "The Bilbao Song" from, appropriately enough, Happy End. The latter, she explained, was a song about integrity, for which the Abrons Arts Center and its near century of programming should be congratulated. If the talent that graced their stage for "Uptown Downtown" is any indication, she is certainly right.