Friday, August 16, 2013

Ballet, Rebooting

Whim W'him's Ty Chen & Kylie Lewallen in Monster. Photo: Bamberg Fine Art
What do we want from contemporary ballet? What do new small companies do that the big companies don't? The Ballet V6.0 Festival at the Joyce cleverly presents six companies over two weeks, letting us ponder these questions.

Contemporary, non-ballet dance can be irksome because it often seeks to reinvent the wheel. Apart from a few established modern choreographers, many cobble together their own vernacular, which is part of the fascination, but can be frustrating to watch. More energy can go toward creating a language than expressing anything with that language, given time constraints. 

On the other hand, ballet is the most universal language in dance, a true vocabulary. Entire dances can be dictated verbally with the existing canon of French-described movements and mimetic gestures. Even most contemporary choreographers who never incorporate ballet into their creations have had ballet training, if not follow a regular class regimen. The cumulative structure of a traditional ballet class provides a sensible, gradual warm-up, leading to the powerful, explosive moves that garner oohs at ABT. So it stands to reason that with this standard curriculum, there are thousands of ballet-trained dancers ready to go. It flatters the human body, often defies the cruel laws of physics, and is a highly advanced skillset that took years of time and money. But is it enough to want to put into use this advanced skill?

On Monday August 12, we got a chance to Seattle's Whim W'him company at work, with choreography by its director, Olivier Wevers. He began the troupe in 2009 after a tenure as a principal with Pacific Northwest Ballet. The three dances performed at the Joyce each had a specific point of view. Monster (2011) comprised three sections marked by intros of spoken word by RA Scion, different pieces of music (Max Richter, Alva Noto, Ludovico Einuadi), and multi-hued trunks and contemporary ballet's requisite socks (thank you, Bill Forsythe!) paired with grey t-shirts, designed by Wevers.

It also felt the freshest of the evening's fare, perhaps because the vocabulary was new to me and hadn't yet been repeated ad infinitum. Wevers favors the softened yet striking lines of extended bent legs that evoke Kylian. He'll occasionally toss in a visual joke, such as a fanning arm emerging from under a leg. Frequent partnering reworked a clockwise revolution—the woman suspended waist high, legs knifing sideways, or flung by her arms in a circle on the floor, around and around. A humorous male duet, purportedly reinventing the pas de deux from Bournonville's Flower Festival in Genzano, employed first suits, which the men stripped off to reveal underwear-as-boxing attire, to more intimately continue their battle for power or love. 

The final work, The Sofa, revolved around a purple, velvet guess-what that served alternately as a safe haven, a community bed, a lookout, a cave, and finally a cloud. A central couple (Yuka Oba and Nicholas Schultz) seemed to be the royalty or celebrities; her peplumed, parachute silk skirt was a dramatic highlight, ballooning and trailing her like an obedient servant. The humor eventually felt forced and shticky, but the dance did serve well a quirky point of view.
Taylor Stanley in BalletCollective's Epistasis. Phtoo: Lora Robertson
Troy Schumacher has gathered an accomplished group of young dancers now or once affiliated with New York City Ballet (soloists or corps members, as is he) into BalletCollective, which I saw on Aug. 14. Schumacher's choreography, in the premiere of The Impulse Wants Company and Epistatis (2011—13), shows spatial invention, if not revolution. He has created for his peers movement that shows off their particular gifts without feeling too braggy or overly dramatic at such a close proximity, as can happen with dancers used to a grander scale. David Prottas and Taylor Stanley are already true standouts among NYCB's ranks, both dancing fiercely and possessing strong, magnetic personalities to go along with their formidable technique. 

It's sometimes hard to distinguish the women in NYCB's corps, if only because their hair is usually identically styled in sleek buns, their costumes are often the same, and their petite features can be hard to read from outer space in the Koch Theater. But here, it was gratifying to read Lauren King's unaffected, but moving facial expressions, and Ashley Laracey's flexible, whip-smart movement. We could appreciate Kaitlyn Gilliland's long limbs forming architectural arabesques; she is appealingly grounded, and turns like a top.  

Costumes were, smartly, casual rehearsal-style t-shirts and shorts (Impulse's credited to Aritzia, the retail chain); the women were on pointe. The general atmosphere recalled some of Jerome Robbins' playfulness, his conviviality within a group of friends, and their mutual observation and enjoyment. The women unpinned their hair partway through Epistasis, which I know is supposed to symbolize freedom and individuality, but often is irksome as their hair drapes over their faces at inopportune moments. The Impulse Wants Company took its framework from Cynthia Zarin's same-titled poem, full of sea imagery, companionship, and loss. The result was just enough gestural impulse without leaning on a superfluous story. The collaboration of choreographer, poet, and resident composer Ellis Ludwig-Leone, who led the ACME ensemble in a live performance of his atmospheric, filmic music, form the conceptual foundation of BalletCollective.  

Schumacher also doesn't attempt to stage a ballet revolution, but works within its universe of elegant lines and logically flowing steps. He favors certain steps—kicking or extending legs, flexed feet, bent leg leaps—but can create a memorable new pose, as when two dancers spiral around one another protectively. His salon-style approach feels about right for this group of gifted artists at this moment.

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