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New Ballet Choreographers

by Natalie Bostick

September 13, 2006 -- Miller Theatre at Columbia University, New York

Miller Theatre celebrated its opening night last night with a concert of new ballet works: four world premieres by choreographers Edwaard Liang, Brian Reeder and Tom Gold.  George Steel, executive director of the Miller Theatre welcomed the audience and explained that the goal of the program was to feature “new ballet, recent music, played lived.”  The Miller is known for its new music programming.  Mr. Steel is a composer and conductor.  His goal is to make the 688 seat theatre an important venue for dance.

If last night’s presentation is an accurate indication of the future of ballet, the future looks pretty dull.  The concert was, with one exception, more of the same “contemporary” ballet that we have been seeing in New York for years.  Edwaard Liang’s pas de deux “Softly as I speak” for New York City Ballet principals Maria Kowroski and Albert Evans opened the show.  The music, performed by the Chiara String Quartet, was the fifth movement of Philip Glass’ String Quartet no. 5.  The dance begins with Ms. Kowroski, in black tights and ruffled shirt, walking towards the audience and away from Mr. Evans.  He pulls her around his body and deposits her to approach the audience once more.  This back and forth continues with some whiplash partnering.  She dives through his arms; he spins her around and drives her across stage on her pointe shoes.  It is a little busy, and what should have been a quiet final moment is overworked. 

“Softly as I speak” uses the amazing range of Ms. Kowroski’s extensions and exquisite pointe work to make some pretty lovely pas de deux shapes.  But Ms. Kowroski and Mr. Evans have no chemistry together.  It’s not until Mr. Evans steps away from his partner halfway through the dance that anything interesting happens.  Evans is a rare dancer these days: he inhabits himself with more humility than most.  He was easily the most engaging dancer on the program. 

The second piece was “Them,” a group dance by Brian Reeder. Mr. Reeder used dancers from the American Ballet Theatre Studio Company.  Their frighteningly accurate technique came off as cold.  The women wore black leotards and tights with pink tank tops; the men, black tights and green shirts.  

The social anxiety underlying most contemporary ballet was here made explicit by the dance’s structure and tone.  The music (again, played by the Chiara String Quartet) was Jefferson Friedman’s String Quartet Number 2.  A male soloist (the clean-lined Joseph Gorak) danced in confrontation and counterpoint to a group composed of three male-female couples.  Gorak enters and points at the group accusingly.  He tries to join their embraces, but is ultimately rejected first by the group, then each couple individually, then the group of girls and lastly the group of boys.  It gets a little tedious. The dance’s message is confused by Reeder’s use of gesture.  There is a lot of stylish embracing (ladies with legs pointed and arms draped just so), pointing at each other and caressing of their own bodies.  Sometimes the women run with their heads in their arms; sometimes with their arms crossed.  Are they angry? Frightened? Bored?  We know the dancers don’t want Gorak, but why not?  He seems nice enough.  The dance was too long, and I was relieved when it ended. 

After intermission, Mr. Liang’s second pas de deux, “Für Alina,” was performed.  Wendy Whelan and Craig Hall danced, and Marilyn Nonken played the music, by Arvo Pärt.  Ms. Whelan, in a dark brown mini dress, kneels downstage left.  Under a spotlight, she looks distressed and accordingly moves her arms in agitation.  Her partner, Mr. Hall, watches from a distance.  With some tricky blackout work, he reappears closer to her.  She does not recognize his advance and repeats her arm motions.  Another blackout, lights up, and Mr. Hall is back where he started. 

They do eventually find each other.  The partnering is fluid and shows off Ms. Whelan’s unique physical abilities.  Their dancing moves through the music, and the effect is altogether haunting.  It should be noted that this dance was the shortest on the program.

The first three dances stuck to the playbook of contemporary ballet: some minimalist mood music, black tights, and dancers writhing beautifully in relational anxiety.  When all ballets look and feel this way, deciding which one is best is simply a matter of determining which one sticks to the formula best.  Last night, the clear winner was Liang’s “Für Alina.”  Mr. Liang’s style can be described as “ballet meets popping and locking at a very slow tempo.” A typical sequence starts with a pose, proceeds to a slow ripple of movement through the body, slaps a foot with a hand which takes us on another ripple through the body, and ends with a pose.  There are some creative sequences, but I would like to see him use less material in the future. 

I would be remiss not to mention the closing ballet, Mr. Gold’s “Masada” (set to four selections from John Zorn’s Masada songbook), for in some ways it was the most interesting.  Using dancers from the New York City Ballet, Mr. Gold made a dance with real ballet steps; difficult steps, in fact.  The energy of the dance was a welcome departure from the introspection of the others. Against a bright orange backdrop, four women in panties and India-inspired tunics alternately strutted, pirouetted, and antagonized the one male dancer in the cast.  “Masada” had its moments, but the overall choreography was too much Arabian dance from the “Nutcracker” and Golden Idol dance from “La Bayadere” meet Bollywood.  Sitting in Miller Theatre last night, I had to wonder what the late professor Edward Said would have seen in it.

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