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American Repertory Ballet

'Viva Vivaldi', 'Caress', 'Rite of Spring'

by Jerry Hochman

April 5, 2013 -- South Orange Peforming Arts Center, South Orange, NJ

When the curtain came down on American Repertory Ballet’s April 5 performance of three ballets under the rubric “Viva Spring” at the relatively new and comfortably intimate South Orange Performing Arts Center (“SOPAC”), I remained in my seat for a few minutes, not quite knowing what hit me. You attend ballet performances primarily in New York and other major venues, and whether with the ‘home’ companies or major visiting companies passing through, you know that you’re seeing the best companies and dancers in the world, and you feel superior and entitled. Regardless of the degree of criticism, it’s all done within the parameters of ‘the highest possible level’ of artistic accomplishment. Nothing else could be on the same level. And nothing else is.

And then you sit, prepared to watch what you’re convinced will be amateur night at SOPAC and wonder how you’ll possibly be able to be both appropriately critical and generously kind to a company you knew existed, but isn’t even on the radar screen of eminent ‘regional’ companies. That is, until, as the evening progresses, you realize you’re seeing a very strong performance by a very strong group of dancers of very strong choreographic efforts in a well-balanced program that was both a stretch for the dancers and that showed them off at their best, concluded by a new non-traditional version of Rite of Spring that left me bewildered that anything with a concept so tortured and predictable could yet be so exciting to watch unfold. Choreographed by ARB’s Artistic Director Douglas Martin, Rite of Spring was the highlight of what turned out to be a very good evening.

ARB has been around for a long time. Formerly known as the Princeton Ballet Company (it is located in Princeton, NJ), it has roots back to 1963, and became a professional company in 1978. It has long been known for the quality of its affiliated Princeton Ballet School, the antecedent of which was established in 1954, and for its ambitious repertoire under a series of different artistic directors. While its proximity to major companies and venues has facilitated attracting nationally known faculty to its school as well as choreographic efforts by former dancers with national reputations, it has always appeared to operate in the shadows of its more famous cousins. Based on the program I saw, it deserves some sunlight.

The pedigree of the company’s current roster of dancers, while including many Princeton Ballet School graduates (and current faculty members), includes those with training and performing experiences ranging from the West Coast to Canada to Europe to North Carolina to New Jersey, and, in a nutshell, exemplifies the extensive talent pool among dancers who either are not selected for the ‘major’ companies for whatever reason, or who choose to perform in small companies closer to family and/or with greater performing opportunities. Companies like ARB are known not only for providing such opportunities, but also for having the flexibility to experiment choreographically without being subject to the critical glare or financial requirements of ‘major’ companies. To consider them on the same level as the major companies would be wrong – but to ignore them would be to ignore a fundamental factor in contemporary ballet.

The evening began with the company’s performance of Gerald Arpino’s Viva Vivaldi. Since I’d seen the piece previously and recalled enjoying it, I expected it to be the evening’s highlight. Choreographed in 1965 for the Joffrey Ballet for which Arpino was its resident choreographer and with which Mr. Martin danced for many years (as well as his wife, Mary Barton, who is ARB’s Ballet Master and Resident Choreographer and a teacher at the school), the piece was staged by Trinette Singleton, whom I remember well from The Joffrey’s New York City Center performances. The piece is a typically pleasant, ebullient Arpino work, lyrical and airy and a visual breath of Spring, with an eclectic agglomeration of steps ranging from ‘straight’ ballet to contemporary dance (I saw stereotypical Paul Taylor movement, which either mined Taylor’s style or emanated from the same movement root), with shifting visual focal points and echoing movements that foreshadow more contemporary pieces.

The company did a good job with it, but it looked like a stretch for them. The women showed greater facility than the men, which is not unexpected in a ‘regional’ company, and the partnering was unsteady, but they executed the piece admirably in a confined space (the SOPAC stage appears roughly half the width of the City Center stage, which is where I originally saw it). The piece needed more room to breathe. Samantha Gullace and Edward Urwin; Euphrosyne Avery and Joshua Kurtzberg, and Alexander Dutko and Stephen Companella led three of the four sections of the piece, and were joined by Cameron Auble-Branigan, Mattia Pallozzi, Alice Cao, Andrea D’Annunzio, Shaye Firer, Monica Giragosian, Talin Kenar, Kelsey McFalls, Karen Leslie Moscato, Claire van Bever, and Tulio Cata.

I figured it would be downhill from there. I figured wrong.

It’s easy (or, at least easy to think that it’s easy) to choreograph a sweet little ballet about love that’s pretty to look at and then quickly forgettable. The better ones go beyond the breath of Spring sexual urges and remembrances of youth past to say something more. Patrick Corbin’s Caress is one of the better ones. Being nice to look at (simple costumes by Michelle Ferranti, including gently sensuous pale pastel chiffon (or chiffon-like) skirts for the women; complemented by lighting by Lauren Parrish that bathed the stage in Spring) was just the beginning. Mr. Corbin, a former leading dancer with Paul Taylor Dance Company from 1989 until his retirement from performing in 2005, with roots in the School of American Ballet, ABT II (American Ballet Theatre’s ‘second’ company), and the Joffrey, has here merged a little of everything into a delightful piece that uses different types of facial ‘caresses’ as an intriguing and recurring visual motif.

Caress is choreographed to “8 Movements” by Kate Jewel, a collection of short pieces of gentle lyricism on which Mr. Corbin grafts his equally gentle and lyrical movement (even when the movement becomes angular, it’s never forced or mechanical). Ms. Jewel’s music is not familiar to me, and she was not biographied in the program. So I googled her. She is an artist who spent her first years on a Native American reservation and her music demonstrates melodic simplicity, as well as genuine warmth and sensitivity representative of someone who listens and sees.

In Caress, which combines two of Ms. Jewel’s short pieces into one, creating seven ‘songs’, Mr. Corbin also listens and sees, and choreographs without judgment – but in doing so speaks volumes. This wasn’t multiple snapshots of the same image: Each of the segments had its particular choreographic and emotional virtues, and I found Mr. Corbin’s choreography to be vibrant, inventive, and multi-faceted. I particularly liked the lovely duet with Ms. Kenar and Mr. Urwin that closed the opening two-part song (‘Transformation Song’); the playful reflection of love’s intoxication (a rite of Spring of its own) danced by Ms. Cao and Mr. Auble-Branigan (‘Meditation’); the delicious dexterity displayed by Ms. Moscato, partnered by Mr. Pattiozzi; and the special emphasis given by Ms. Avery and Mr. Kurtzberg to their respective solos (‘Storm’ and ‘Amabile’), although these solos’ connection with the overall theme appeared more tenuous (representative of a sort of self-love, perhaps?). The strongest of the movements, to me, was to the penultimate song titled ‘Dance with me,’ in which Mr. Corbin separates the two featured couples into two same sex pairs, with each pair, at times, dancing a close, but not quite, mirror image of the steps danced moments before by the other couple: the same, but different. Exquisitely danced by Ms. Firer and Ms. van Bever, and by Mr. Campanella and Mr. Dutko, it is both tender and joyous, and as natural looking as everything else in the piece.

And then there was Mr. Martin’s Rite of Spring.

There is no reason that this dance should have worked. Mr. Martin’s program notes make it sound like a sophomoric application of the TV series "Mad Men" to Stravinsky’s epic music of tribal sacrifice. According to Mr. Martin, he “wanted to take this concept [the original production: Stravinsky’s score, the libretto by Nicholas Roerich, as originally choreographed by Nijinsky] to show just how much (or how little) society has changed from these pagan ancestral times…The selection of the Chosen One and the sacrificial dance represent the idea that, while societal limits are challenged all the time, great change takes great sacrifice. Usually the individual who takes the great risk is the one who helps to create the greatest progress.”

That’s fine, but the ‘great risk’ taken by the individual as described is, at most, ‘self-sacrifice’ that results in a greater good, not the destruction of an individual for the theoretical good of the tribe, and in the conception here, it's not even that – it’s an initial push through the glass ceiling that’s self-motivated. The 'Chosen One' is not the ‘office society’s' sacrificial lamb, she’s a volunteer who is rejected because she’s outside the accepted norm. That she may have paved the way for others to follow doesn’t make it sacrificial. And the libretto made it all sound silly: For example: “Act I: Office Arrivals – Meet the Ad Men, Personal Secretaries and Office Girls. Another day at the office, and each to his own…or her own. Sudden Arrival of the Boss – Everybody panic and get it together!. Office Rounds – Ad Men size up the competition in the papers with Office Girls at their beck and call. Meanwhile…the Boss needs another new Personal Secretary…..Act II: Mystery of the Opposite Sex – Promotions and an illicit interest in an impossibility…or is it?....Sacrifice of the Trailblazer – She has fallen, but a door has opened!”

If Mr. Martin’s Rite of Spring is performed again, and I hope it will be, the ballet is much better than the verbal description. Mr. Martin’s ‘story’ is that of the structured, male-dominated office society, with women stuck in subservient roles of “Personal Secretaries” (the top of the bottom) and Office Girls (the bottom of the bottom); each of whom probably has more business sense than the Ad Men who are driven to succeed because the only alternative is failure. Simplistic though it may be, and inconsistent with the original concepts (which is not necessarily a bad thing, and Mr. Martin did apparently attempt to distinguish his take on the original from the original - he titled the piece Rite of Spring, not "The Rite of Spring," the title of the original), it succeeds as a work of performance art both because Mr. Martin is much better at choreographing than he appears to be at writing a libretto, and because the ARB dancers did such a fine job with it. About three minutes into the piece, and despite fighting it tooth and nail, I was hooked.

There are some things I would recommend be changed: most importantly, the selection of the Chosen One – a girl from the pool of Office Girls suddenly selected to join the Personal Secretaries, and then to replace one of the failed Ad Men – was, to this viewer, done so subtly that I missed it. On the other hand, the Chosen One’s costume change from frumpy office girl attire to a dress (the Personal Secretaries wore dresses rather than skirts and blouses), but an all-white dress, was like hitting the audience over the head with an anvil – she looked like a victim before she became a victim. Also, the way Mr. Martin displays the Chosen One’s rejection makes it appear (perhaps intentionally) that she’s rejected more by her rival women than by the men. And having the dancers scream during the frenzied action is both distracting and superfluous, given the explosiveness of the score.

Regardless of these and other minor criticisms, however, it all somehow works. Mr. Martin’s choreography fills the stage. Initially, there’s segregated ‘tribal’ activity, with each office segment population operating separately from the other, with minimal interaction, which gradually grows to full office hysteria. The steps, from the Office Girls typing in tandem with the Stravinsky score, to the preening Personal Secretaries and clownish Ad Men, to the diabolical Boss, are to this viewer an indescribable potpourri that work together because they fit both Mr. Martin’s concept and the Stravinsky score. That the hodgepodge is not a mess is a miracle, and a tribute to Mr. Martin’s choreographic ability.

But the ARB dancers were at least equal partners in making the performance work as well as it did. Led by Mr. Kurtzberg as the driven Boss, Mr. Campanella as the failed Ad Man, and Ms. Firer as the Office Girl/Chosen One, the cast was not only competent, but believable. Ms. Firer, who was particularly impressive to me in this piece as well as others on the program, was obligated to dance and act with the greatest range, and not only pulled it off, but did so convincingly and thrillingly. The balance of the fine portrayals were danced by Ms. Cao, Ms. D’Annunzio, Ms. Kenar, and Ms. van Bever (Office Girls); Ms. Avery, Ms. Gullace, Ms. Giragosian, Ms. McFalls, and Ms. Moscato (Personal Secretaries), and Mr. Able-Branigan, Mr. Dutko, Mr. Pallozzi, and Mr. Urwin (Ad Men).

Both Caress and Rite of Spring had their premieres a couple of weeks earlier at Raritan Valley Community College, whose performing space is, as I recall, considerably larger than that of SOPAC. It would have been interesting to compare the impact of these two pieces based on the size of the performance space, since I suspect that the more intimate SOPAC stage and theater helped make the performance of these two pieces (as opposed to Viva Vivaldi) appear as good as they did. But unfortunately, I know of no intent to repeat the program. ARB will have other programs scheduled in the near future, which, based on this one, I recommend attending. Other than that – the next time that "Mad Men" is on hiatus, the AMC network should consider broadcasting Mr. Martin’s Rite of Spring to maintain the mood. Seriously.

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