New York Theater Ballet
New York, New York
January 9, 2015
“Short Memory,” “Romeo and Juliet Pas de Deux,” “A Rugged Flourish,” “Rondo,” “Game Two”
-- by Jerry Hochman
Things have been difficult for New York Theater Ballet in the past year (the company lost its long-time home, and for whatever reason is performing this year in unaccustomed venues), but you wouldn’t know it from its presentation Friday night at the 92nd St. Y’s intimate Buttenweiser Hall, the first this year in the company’s annual series: ‘Legends and Visionaries’. The first half of the program (Pam Tanowitz’s “Short Memory,” Sallie Wilson’s “Pas de Deux from Romeo and Juliet,” and Richard Alston’s “A Rugged Flourish”) was ‘serious’, the second half (Jerome Robbins’s “Rondo,” and Mathew Neenan’s “Game Two”) was fun – but that’s not to say that either emotional trajectory distracted from the generally superb choreography and execution by the NYTB dancers. Even though the evening lacked any premieres, it was a smashing program, and another feather in the cap of company Founder and Artistic Director, Diana Byer.
The most eagerly awaited piece on the program – at least to me – was the revival of Robbins’s “Rondo.” I must admit that the piece, which premiered with New York City Ballet in 1980, is one I had not previously seen. It’s a gem.
A ‘rondo’, in musical terms, may be a particular form, as well as music of a particular character – usually both. I don’t pretend to be a music scholar, but my understanding is that in terms of form, a rondo involves a repetition of a recurring elements, sometimes referenced as couplets, within a broader theme, which itself may or may not repeat. In terms of ‘character’, a rondo is often fast-paced, allegro. An example of a rondo that captures both form and character is Mozart’s “Rondo in A Minor,” K. 511, the composition to which Robbins created his piece.
In many ways, “Rondo” bears a visual resemblance to Robbins’s “Other Dances” because it features a pair of dancers performing for each other as well as the audience (although here the pair consists of two women rather than a woman and a man), it communicates a similar sense of intimacy, and, well, it’s danced to piano music.
But the resemblance is superficial: Chopin’s music is a different form and considerably more introspective than Mozart’s exquisite playfulness, and instead of a suite of dances to various pieces of music, this is a suite of echoing couplets within overall themes. Perhaps most significantly, instead of encouraging the audience to visually eavesdrop on private moments, “Rondo” invites the audiences to, figuratively, join the fun. The lightness of mood almost, but not quite, camouflages the complexity of Robbins’s choreography, which requires not only quicksilver movement but impeccable timing. The result is a magical conversion of the devilish choreographic details into a vision of what might be a pair of angels dancing on a cloud.
Staged by former NYCB Principal Dancer Kyra Nichols, no stranger to stage magic, “Rondo” was executed brilliantly, in both form and character, by NYTB dancers Amanda Treibor and Mayu Oguri. They danced to the Mozart and Robbins excruciatingly explicit but irregular counterpoint, like fractured mirror images, with a combination of finesse and exuberance that perfectly reflected the music and the choreography. Ms. Treibor appeared somewhat more effusive, Ms. Oguri more subtle, but even this difference complemented the differences in musical and choreographic phrasing. I thought at one point that one of the dancers was slightly off the other, but they danced so skillfully that either I was mistaken, or they compensated such that the minor error, if there was one, quickly evaporated. Amid the split-second timing, these two looked like they were having a blast – but not nearly as much as the highly appreciative audience seemed to be. Remembering it still makes me smile.
I have had occasion to see only one of Matthew Neenan’s pieces previously. Last summer, The Pennsylvania Ballet presented a program in which one of his dances was performed immediately following Robbins’s “In the Night,” and Mr. Neenan’s piece suffered by comparison, even though the problem was less with his choreography than inattentive scheduling. I feared the same result for “Game Two,” which followed “Rondo” and concluded the program. Here, however, there was nothing at all similar between the two pieces except for the thoroughly engaging quality that permeated both dances. Indeed, the two complemented each other.
Following his performing career with PA Ballet, Mr. Neenan became the company’s Choreographer in Residence. He later branched out by forming his own Philadelphia-based company (which he founded together with Christine Cox), BalletX, which has a sterling reputation although I confess I have not had an opportunity to see them. I don’t know if “Game Two” is typical of Mr. Neenan’s work, but it’s wonderful.
“Game Two” is an abstract, contemporary ballet with no choreographic focal point. Nor is there an overall implicit thematic sense – other than what’s provided by the unidentified music by Georges Bizet to which it’s choreographed. But it doesn’t need either – “Game Two” is stimulating and different to watch, and it’s fun.
It’s tempting to refer to Mr. Neenan’s style, at least based on this piece, as ‘******* sink choreography’. [Note that this site has a block on the word beginning with 'k' and ending with 'n' - it's a room in which food is prepared.] Every movement quality, it seems, is mixed in. At one moment it looks light and airy, at other times weighted; and dancers move individually, collectively, in the air, on the floor, and over, under, around, or atop each other. Hands and legs appear to be thrust all over the place and out of control. Movement is backwards as well as forward, and changes of movement direction occur in a heartbeat. Solos of different character are skillfully blended with segments involving pairs, trios, and the cast as a whole. This is not a comedic dance, but the images at times are unexpectedly, but intentionally, hilarious. “Game Two” is a serious ballet that never takes itself too seriously.
And part of the reason "Game Two" is so interesting and entertaining is the spirit and capability if the NYTB dancers. There wasn't a weak link in the seven-dancer cast. Particularly outstanding was the work done by Carmella Lauer, Ching Hoon Lee, Stephen Melendez, and a company dancer I'd not previously seen, Nayomi Van Brunt. Ms. Van Brunt comes across, both here and in another piece in which she appeared, as a pixie with an engaging and magnetic personality that captures a viewer’s eye. Although they don't look at all alike, and although Ms. Van Brunt is wiry rather than athletic looking, in terms of both affect and effect, she reminds me of Carolyn Adams, an effervescent spark plug for many years with the Paul Taylor Dance Company.
The Neenan piece, which closed the program, was an excellent counterpoint to the evening’s austere opening piece, "Short Memory," which was choreographed last year by Ms. Tanowitz for NYTB. “Short Memory” is also an abstract piece, not apparently 'about' anything more than bodies in motion, which may be admirable as exercises but which I often find not the least bit entertaining or stimulating. But unlike many such pieces I've seen, and even though it can look dry and dogmatic and deadly serious at times, I found Ms. Tanowitz’s piece to be endlessly fascinating, filled with startling but beautiful images that at times appear isolated and relatively rigid, like thawed memories.
"Short Memory" is choreographed to a selection of complementary pieces ("Reel," by Lou Harrison, and Henry Cowell’s "Aeolian Harp" and "Hymn and Fuguing Tune No. 16 for Violin and Piano" – Harrison was one of Cowell’s students, and “Reel” was an homage to Cowell) – interspersed with periods of silence. It’s strikingly contemporary, but it hearkens back to another era – much like Cowell’s startling “Aeolian Harp” (1923) here a mid-piece transition point, still looks revolutionary but at the same time is classically soothing as strings are plucked harp-like from inside the piano.
There’s a sense of other-worldliness to the piece in which snippets of classical ballet choreographic poses and moments in time are used as distinct reference points, and are seamlessly interwoven into the fabric of the piece, as if they were reawakened memories rather than choreographic samplings. For example, Alexis Branagan and Ms. Lauer each appeared relatively stiff (intentionally) and eerily trance-like through a coordinated (but not mirror-image) sequence of ballet steps, and although the look was dramatic and shocking, at the same time it was surprisingly serene. The superb cast was completed by Elena Zahlmann, Ms. Treiber, Mr. Lee, and Mr. Melendez.
Sallie Wilson danced in the first ballet program I ever saw – in an ABT performance of “The Moor’s Pavane.” I watched her dance in other ABT performances since then – I vividly recall her performances in several pieces by Antony Tudor - and they're memories I treasure. She always impressed as a calm, somewhat haunting presence, within which one could sense a pre-eruption volcano. After her retirement, prior to her premature death in 2008, she staged many of the ballets in which she’d appeared around the world, and choreographed several of her own, including “Pas de Deux from Romeo and Juliet” for NYTB. Unfortunately, the pas de deux was, to me, the only off-note of the evening’s program, perhaps because it too closely mirrored the stage persona I saw in Ms. Wison.
Prokofiev’s music both invites and reflects passion, but there was little of it on display in what should be a climactic and cathartic pas de deux. Rather, the piece was delicate, and serene. One wanted to see the volcano erupt, but it was too muted, both choreographically and as executed by Ms. Zahlmann and Mr. Lee. Clearly they were would-be lovers, but the passion was muted, and there seemed little connection between them.
I saw “A Rugged Flourish” a couple of years ago, and reviewed it at that time. Although the choreography is powerful and clean as a whistle, matching the force of Aaron Copland’s “Piano Variations,” the purported showing of the sole and dominant male’s acceptance ‘of company’, as described in the program note, still rings hollow. If it were a matter of the heroic figure’s acceptance of community, why are there no male dancers among the ‘company’? Whatever Mr. Alston’s intent, and however exciting the piece is choreographically, it still looks like it’s ‘about’ a faun, Mr. Melendez, who finds himself surrounded by attractive nymphs, one of whom, Rie Ogura, he finds particularly appealing and with whom he dances a fervent duet as much about self-discovery as passion. Most striking about this year’s performance is seeing Mr. Melendez’s growth. Two years ago he was very good, and showed considerable promise; he’s now a commanding presence (in this and other dances in which he appeared), dancing with exceptional strength and clarity. Balanchine’s “Apollo” would be a stretch, but he might be able to pull it off.
The costumes in each piece, all designed by Sylvia Taalsohn Nolan, who is Resident Costume Designer for the Metropolitan Opera, were distinctive and appropriate for each piece. I particularly liked the simple but effective black with white (or pale blue) trim of the costumes in “Game Two.” And except for the recorded Prokofiev pas de deux, each piece on the program was accompanied by live music, and each piece received a finely played rendition by Michael Scales, NYTB’s Music Director (assisted by Pauline Kim Harris on violin in “Short Memory,” and by Zheng Ma on piano in “Game Two”).
NYTB will dance two more ‘Legends and Visionaries’ programs in the coming months. Based on those I’ve seen, they should not be missed.
Edited on 1/14 to correct a couple of name typos