The Joyce Theater
New York, New York
March 25, 2015
“The Sixth Beauty“; “Presto“; “’ “Games”; “The Lottery”
-- by Jerry Hochman
Ballet West, the Salt Lake City-based company founded in 1963 by William Christenson, opened its first full New York season Wednesday evening with a program of four contemporary ballets that were appropriate for the intimate setting that the Joyce Theater provides. The choreography, overall, was interesting but unexceptional, but what was clearly on display was the strength of Ballet West’s dancers.
The program’s highlight was the world premiere of Helen Pickett’s “Games.” The piece is easy to dismiss – its presentation of casual sex is somewhat repellant, as if the dancers were being used to promote a toned down dance version of polyamory. But there’s more here than meets the eye.
“Games” is choreographed to "Jeux" by Claude Debussy, which was commissioned by Serge Diaghilev for a ballet to be choreographed by Vaslav Nijinsky and presented by Ballet Russes. Reportedly, Debussy balked at completing the assignment when he came to understand the theme of the piece, but was mollified by a doubling of his fee. The composition was completed in 1912, and the dance premiered the following year.
As Diaghilev originally conceived it, “Jeux” was to relate to a sexual encounter among three men. As finally presented in Nijinksy’s dance, it described a sexually charged relationship in the context of a tennis game in which a tennis ball gets lost and the search for it becomes the ‘cover’ for ensuing relationship games between the one man and each of the two women, and the two women for each other. The piece apparently did not cause a major uproar, as did Nijinksy’s “Le Sacre du Printempts” which premiered two weeks later, but suffered a worse fate - it was ignored.
The choreography for Nijinsky’s original has been lost, but “Jeux” has been presented in several different incarnations in recent years, including a noteworthy reconstruction choreographed by Millicent Hodson, supposedly based on existing snippets of contemporaneous information, which was first produced in 1996 in Italy, and was presented by the Joffrey Ballet in 2002. A performance of it from 2003 (which includes Carla Fracci as one of the two women), is available on YouTube. I don’t know how accurate this version is (or could be) choreographically to the Nijinsky original, but I found it fascinating, as if it was a love match (love…tennis) between Nijinsky’s ''L'Après-Midi d'un Faune'' and Balanchine’s “Apollo.” Before becoming Ballet West’s Artistic Director in 2007, Adam Sklute was affiliated with the Joffrey Ballet for 23 years, first as a dancer who rose through the ranks, and then as Associate Director. I don’t know if Sklute had any involvement with the Joffrey’s presentation of “Jeux,” but I suspect that the connection between the Joffrey’s presentation of “Jeux” and Ballet West’s commissioning of “Games” is more than coincidental.
Although Pickett pays homage to Nijinsky in the program notes, “Games” isn't a reconstruction of Nijinksy’s ballet, nor is it a reinterpretation (as I understand was Wayne Eagling’s 2012 version for the English National Ballet), and it’s more than a simple temporal update. The sexual attraction goes far beyond, and is much more clearly described, than in the Hodson reconstruction. And there is no need for a ‘tennis game’ as metaphor for the games people play – although, to a degree, cell phones are used as catalysts just as the errant tennis ball was in the original. “Games” doesn’t comment on the sexual behavior as much as exposes it as both a given and as a norm, and creates around it. This is not casual, serial lust – the behavior that Susan Strohman captured so well with “Frankie and Johnnie and Rose,” nor is it particularly prurient, as was Demis Volpi’s “Private Light” for American Ballet Theatre. It’s just the way things are.
Beyond that, the ballet is not particularly choreographically complex or unusual, but it works. That is, the style doesn’t dominate the action – it both reflects and propels it. Pickett salutes New York in her program notes – making it appear that it’s a very New York-ish, cosmopolitan, and informal-looking piece – not necessarily what one might expect from a company based in Salt Lake City (but then, I haven’t been to Salt Lake City in a very long time). As the dance begins, two women are seen hanging out with each other amorously. A man, who to me looks somewhat intentionally dangerous (as in the kind of ‘dangerous’ that some women supposedly find attractive) leers from an opposite barrier. One of the women subsequently pairs off with the man; the other woman then pairs off with the man; the women pair off again with each other; the three of them together; and the cycle keeps repeating. And it may not be as spontaneously casual as it appears: “Games” can be seen as portraying a threesome who have been bedmates prior to the ‘initial’ encounter, just as in those automobile commercials where a woman and man flirt and they drive off for a romantic encounter, except in a subsequent scene the viewer finds that they’re just game-playing and are really married to each other. Regardless, the action is seen as both casual and no big deal. The stage set, designed by Michael Andrew Currey, though not particularly complex, is much more than merely utilitarian – it’s multi-use morphing from building front to office interior to apartment is cleverly done, and the costumes and lighting (by Sandra Woodall and Nicholas Cavallaro) help set the mood.
But mostly “Games” is a fun piece to watch because the three dancers did such a fine job making it look emotionally real. Christopher Rudd, a company principal, was annoyingly right as the lucky man who wasn't so much torn between two lovers as enjoying them both. Allison DeBona played the taller girl, the one slightly less aggressive, and Arolyn Williams the more feisty, shorter girl. All were very good, bit Williams, whose role had somewhat more emotional and physical depth, was super. Williams was assigned the lead role at the premiere of Sklute’s version of “Giselle” last fall.
The program began with “The Sixth Beauty” by Matthew Neenan, which had its world premiere with Ballet West less than a year ago. I’ve admired Mr. Neenan’s work previously, but this was an agglomeration of styles that lacked coherence, with a theme (reflections of one’s past) visualized in lengthy episodes that showed little connection between one and another. There were moments of brilliance (leg fluttering to indicate pleasure as women were carried across stage being one example), but overall it didn’t mesh.
The Ballet West dancers, however, executed the choreography superbly, led by Tyler Gum’s rapid-fire execution in the opening segment, Christiana Bennett and Rex Tilton’s handling of the more subdued duet, and, most markedly, by Beckannne Sisk in the exuberant closing segment. Part of this is the roles the dancers were assigned to do – there’s an intentional aura of chaos and dysfunctionality that permeates the initial segments and requires the dancers to incorporate that aura into their performances To the contrary, the last segment is intended to be exhilarating, and it was. But Ms. Sisk’s performance went beyond that; her presence lit up the stage. I didn’t recognize her at first, but remembered her when I saw her name – she appeared in last year’s Youth America Grand Prix Gala in a pas de deux excerpt from Gerald Arpino’s “Light Rain,” and I recognized her elegance and fluidity then. Here she added technical pizazz and an engaging, magnetic stage persona. A company soloist who, according to the company web site has already assayed the roles of Giselle and Odette/Odile, Sisk is a dancer to watch.
“Presto,” by company resident choreographer Nicolo Fonte, followed. Presto is also the brand name of a pressure cooker. Although the piece takes its name from its music (Quartet No. 5, XI, Presto, by Ezio Bosso), its controlled but simmering emotions portrayed by the two couples are analogous to the controlled forces within the appliance. The dance is abstract, sculptural, and intense, and well-crafted, with slow, deliberate choreographic punctuations that match the emotional slow boil. But although there’s lots of balletic angst, and body contortions, “Presto” doesn’t go anywhere. Adrian Fry, Katherine Lawrence, Alexander MacFarlan, and Jacqueline Straughan executed Fonte’s choreography magnificently.
The evening closed with Val Caniparoli’s 2012 piece, "The Lottery". It begins with an expansive view of a little fenced-in field on the prairie, looking vaguely de Mille-like (“Rodeo”). But this is no backyard rodeo. Couples initially enter the area somewhat gloomily, and pick up 'stones' that were strewn all around the field. They then celebrate something, or just dance happily. Then a man enters the fenced area, looking solemn and apprehensive, carrying a box with ominous but unknown (to the audience) contents.
At that point, I realized that I’d seen his, or something close to it, before. In its 2013 season, the Paul Taylor Dance Company presented a dance titled "To Make Crops Grow." In that piece, venued in the frontier west, the same scenario takes place, with the shaman/cult leader/head villager holding a box from which the residents would pick a number, a lottery ticket of sorts. The villager who selected the short straw, the condemning lottery ticket, is subsequently stoned to death by the others as a sacrificial offering so that crops will grow. It’s similar to the ‘story’ behind “The Rite of Spring,” but with less emotional build-up – as a result, the ending is more startling, with the villagers executing one of their own to satisfy some superstitious rationale.
Both pieces premiered in 2012, close enough to each other to make it unlikely that one had any impact on the other. And although the story is the same, my recollection is that the Taylor piece was choreographed to a different score, did not reference Shirley Jackson’s story “The Lottery” as its source (as the Caniparoli piece does), and is darker looking. Regardless, on its own merits, Caniparoli’s work, which is pleasant enough to watch, loses something by isolating the lottery and its consequences to three basic scenes, with everything in between being a similar degree of happiness, perhaps festiveness. And even though the choreography (dispersed among seven town couples who dance separate, and at times overlapping, duets) doesn’t look repetitious, it still has an overall feeling of sameness.
In the final scene, according to the program notes, the selection of the losing lottery ticket is done randomly – the dancers don’t know who will be the one to die. On Wednesday night, Sayaka Ohtaki drew the short straw, and danced the blazing dance of death with a remarkable combination of fear and fearlessness, hopelessness and courage, that was breathtaking to watch. Her brief dance was a highlight of the evening.
Under Skulte’s leadership, and apparently in an effort to attract a wider audience, Ballet West has considerably broadened its classically-based repertoire to include a trove contemporary pieces. That’s well and good – and economical – but for this, its first full New York season, it would have been enlightening to see what these dancers can do with classical ballet roles. On the other hand – the opportunity to see these dancers assay classical roles is a good excuse to bring Ballet West back.