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New York Theatre Ballet

Signatures 12 Performance

by Jerry Hochman

March 10, 2012-- Florence Gould Hall Theater, New York, NY

The New York Theatre Ballet, a local dance company that performs regularly in New York and at a variety of national and international venues, has built a reputation over the years for the well-trained quality of its small group of dancers, but even more for the eclectic selection of dances that it presents in its “Signatures” series. This was my first experience with the company, and based on this viewing I’ll look forward to seeing them again.

Over the past few seasons, under the leadership of founder and artistic director Diana Byer, the company (which accurately describes itself as a ‘chamber ballet company’) has presented infrequently seen masterworks coupled with contemporary pieces and ballets by emerging choreographers. This season’s presentation was no exception: it opened with a piece by Merce Cunningham (“Septet”), ended with Richard Alston’s splendid “A Rugged Flourish,” both of which NYTB performed last year, and included the New York premiere of Antonia Francheschi’s “City Scenes”; the world premiere of Gemma Bond’s “Run Loose;” “An Eccentric Beauty Revisited,” a solo piece by James Waring that was choreographed in 1972; and Jose Limon’s “The Moor’s Pavane,” which was first performed in 1949.

When this concept of mixing classics with pieces by emerging artists is presented, more often than not the ‘new’ creations suffer by comparison with the older classics. But in this NYTB presentation, the new pieces by Ms. Francheschi, a former New York City Ballet dancer, and Ms. Bond, a current dancer with American Ballet Theatre, stand on their own as modest, but successful early works. But before I get to them in a bit more detail, I must address the “The Moore’s Pavane” and “An Eccentric Beauty Revisited.”

I was extraordinarily fortunate to have seen a remarkable program of dance the first time I ever saw a ballet performance. The reviews I’d read by Clive Barnes, then dance critic for the New York Times, made ballet seem so interesting and accessible (not at all what I’d concluded from seeing bits and pieces on the old Ed Sullivan Show), that I decided to give it a shot, and got a student rush seat to an ABT performance at City Center in early…Stone Age. The program opened with Ashton’s “Les Patineurs” (during which I first noticed a young soloist named Marianna Tcherkassky), closed with Agnes DeMille’s “Rodeo” (with Christine Sarry), and in between were a pas de deux with the recently-defected Natalia Makarova, and “The Moor’s Pavane.” Is it any wonder that I became a ballet addict?

“The Moor’s Pavane” blew me away then, and it still does. It can be described as a highly compressed version of “Othello,”, but that’s a little like saying that a diamond is highly compressed carbon.

A pavane is a slow-paced, sedate, courtly dance that originated in 16th Century Italy (apparently, ‘pavane’ is a shortened form of ‘padovana’ - of Padua), with considerable Spanish influences. It could not have been an accident that Limon selected an Italian renaissance dance with Spanish – and likely Moorish – influences as the framework for his choreographic distillation of “Othello.” [There appears to be an effort from the beginning to ‘generalize’ this story from “Othello” to some sort of ‘everyman,’ based on Limon’s identifying his characters as ‘The Moor’ instead of Othello, ‘His Friend’ instead of Iago, ‘His Friend’s Wife’ instead of Emilia, and ‘The Moor’s Wife’ instead of Desdemona. Nonsense. It’s “Othello” – with all its themes intact and universally applicable.]

Onto this highly mannered form, Limon choreographically, and unmistakably, paints the essence of the story – Iago’s treachery, Othello’s initial disbelief, but growing distrust of his wife, Desdemona’s innocence and loyalty, Emilia’s compliance, the multiple betrayals (of Emilia, of Desdemona, and of Othello), the murder, the tragedy. The four dancers are positioned on four corners at center stage encircling a beam of light streaming down on them, from which they break off into various pairings, and return to the quadrangle, then break off again, changing the focus of the action and concurrently moving it forward. The fierce movement punctuation points, the backward thrusts of the leg and upward thrust of the arm, for example, all translate the story to movement: you can see the green-eyed monster as it transforms from an implanted idea to the perdition that caught Othello’s soul. It is both strikingly simple and extraordinarily complex, and as concise a merger of dance and drama as can be imagined. It is a flawless choreographic diamond.

The four NYTB dancers (Steven Melendez, Philip King, Rie Ogura, and Elena Zahlmann (the Moor, His Friend, His Friend’s Wife, and The Moor’s Wife, respectively) generally did an excellent job with both the movement and the dramatic emotion required. Ms. Zahlmann acted and danced the innocent victim perfectly, and Ms. Ogura, as His Friend’s Wife, made the multiple dimensions of the role clear. [There is a connection between NYTB and “The Moor’s Pavane” beyond Ms. Byer simply selecting it – the company’s former ballet mistress, the late Sallie Wilson, danced with ABT, and His Friend’s Wife was one of her many magnificently-danced roles.] Mr. King in particular came close to duplicating memories I still have of Dennis Nahat crawling up and hanging on to the Moor’s back like a rabid monkey. My lone concern was Mr. Melendez as The Moor – although there was nothing wrong with his performance (on the contrary, for someone so young it was quite remarkable), he came across as too boyish overall, and too young to have been a seasoned war hero. Perhaps as a result, to this viewer, his portrayal lacked the power and torment to fully convey the chaos that enveloped him.

James Waring has been called the quintessential Greenwich Village choreographer of the 1950s and 1960s, a pre-post-modernist. I missed his work, and was aware of his name only. Based on “An Eccentric Beauty Revisited,” this was my loss.

Following the piece, Velda Setterfield, who danced with Waring (as well as Cunningham and others), described Mr. Waring’s work as being ‘collage’ dance. I’ve seen that descriptive term before, and it is an apt one. From the costumes to the choreographic style(s), everything is a collage. It shouldn’t make any sense, but it does.

“An Eccentric Beauty Revisited” is a brief serious, comic, and witty solo for a female dancer, who shares the stage with a piano. Costumed in an outfit consisting of multiple layers of materials (a fabric collage), wearing a mask and headdress of non-specific Asian/African/Native-American/Other origin, and performing to music composed in 1920 by Eric Satie (“La Belle Excentrique” – played live by pianists Michael Scales and Mun-Tzung Wong), the lone dancer tries to entertain her audience, but doesn’t seem to know what will work. In the process, she stitches together a variety of performing styles (a choreographic collage). The piece is a send-off and a celebration of everything-that-went-before, from Nijinksy and Ballets Russes to vaudeville and dance halls, including art deco, orientalism, and ballet. [The piece was purportedly inspired by Fokine’s 1912 “Le Dieu Bleu” (a Hindu-inspired Blue God) which was performed by Nijinsky, but the inspiration to me seems limited to the costume, which was designed by Sylvia Taalsohn Nolan based on designs by Leon Bakst.] But whatever Mr. Waring’s intentions, it’s great fun to watch Ms. Zahlmann move from one style to another, from serious demeanor to comic, all the while looking like a French postcard of an Egyptian or Indian dancer (or of French dancer costumed like an Egyptian or Indian dancer) from the 1920s come to life.

If you blink you might miss Ms. Bond’s “Run Loose,” a three minute piece to Franz List’s “Im Sturm” the 12th movement from “Bunte Reihe.” It is a light, playful, effervescent little piece reflecting the joy of being in love, but it doesn’t come across as trite as that description. It’s well crafted, says what it wants to say quickly and efficiently, and then ends on a high. Engagingly performed by Amanda Garrett and Mr. Melendez, it stands on its own as a brief sketch, but may be intended at some future point to be part of a larger piece.

More complex a work is Ms. Franceschi’s “City Scenes,” first performed in 2009 in London, where Ms. Franceschi now lives. I remember Ms. Franceschi well from her years with NYCB, and of course from “Fame,” but she’s come a long way. Based on her program biography, she’s been a major force in the British dance community for many years.

“City Scenes” is a buoyant, likeable piece for six dancers (Carmella Imrie, Mitchell Kilby, Amanda Lynch, Ms. Ogura, Mr. King and Mr. Melendez) that is supposed to be representative of relationships as they develop in a city, but could have taken place anywhere. The piece is balletic in style, but to this viewer represents and reflects accumulated knowledge from Ms. Franceschi’s vast experience, from having danced for Balanchine and Robbins to having taught for the Richard Alston Dance Company and Wayne McGregor’s Random Dance Company, among others.

Richard Alston's “A Rugged Flourish” (which Ms. Franceschi helped stage) is a delightful piece by an established choreographer who’s work, unfortunately, is more familiar to European than American audiences. The piece is plotless, but nevertheless conveys the veneer of a simple story: boy meets nymphs and selects one, and decides that social networking is more fun than being alone. Described by Mr. Alston (in the program notes) as a portrayal “of a young hero’s courage and determination – strong enough to be alone, yet all the stronger for eventually accepting company,” the piece is nothing like that pretentious-sounding description.

Mr. Melendez was pitch perfect as the faun-like boy; Ms. Ogura the more sophisticated nymph. Tanya Churnak, Danielle Shupe, Ms. Garrett, Ms. Imrie, and Ms. Lynch completed the sylph entourage. [And although the piece sounds like a cross between a scaled-down, mythology-cleansed “Sylvia” and “L’Apres Midi D’Un Faune” without the stylized movement or overt sensuality, it bears no relationship choreographically to either (except perhaps for the parade of irresistible nymphs who lure the boy away from solitude).]

For this viewer, “Septet” was the least enjoyable piece on the program. Based on Mr. Cunningham’s program note, the subject of “Septet” is Eros, “whose occurrence [Eros] is at the intersection of joy and sorrow.” I saw none of that subject demonstrated on stage. Rather, I saw various bodies posing or moving mechanically, occasionally coming in contact with each other but not communicating emotionally with each other. Although well-danced by Joshua Andino-Nieto and Ms. Garrett, Mr. Kilby, Mr. King, Ms. Imrie, and Ms. Zahlmann, and with somewhat of a sense of humor, the movement quality to this viewer is uncomfortable to watch, contrived, and academic.

But even though it wasn’t to my taste, from the perspective of the performance as a whole and the company’s mission to present classic chamber ballets and new contemporary pieces in a context of dance development, “Septet” was not an inappropriate piece to include in a program that spanned more than sixty years of creativity – with roots back further than that. It was a delightfully varied evening which, despite the number of pieces presented, ended too soon.

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