Monday, January 20, 2014

BalletNext—Chamber Ballet Takes a Leap

Katilyn Gilliland and Michele Wiles in Surmisable Units. Photo: Stephanie Berger
There's been a boomlet of chamber ballet companies in the city in recent seasons, particularly those led by members or alumni of the two biggies, ABT and NYCB. No doubt membership in these companies is the dream of any ballet dancer, but once gained, a number of factors might lead to artistic frustration—the lack of lead roles, stalling in rank, falling out of favor, injury, stagnant repertory assignments, and age, among numerous other things. But many dancers who depart the two big companies may still be in the prime of their physical gifts. And so we see new projects being undertaken, such as BalletNext, led by Artistic Director Michele Wiles.

One of the pleasures of this proliferation is to be able to see impeccable dancers such as Wiles, once a principal with ABT, in a more intimate setting. Not every skilled dancer has the ability to project to the rafters, and Wiles, despite her immaculate balance and line, is among the subtler of dramatists. But in a theater the size of New York Live Arts, she connected with the audience in a way she hadn't seemed to in larger theaters. The same can be said of ex-NYCB principal Stephen Hanna, who danced one work on the program; always a solid partner, his pleasing, if unshowy, demeanor could be somewhat lost in the Koch Theater. Additionally, Wiles has rounded out her company with excellent dancers, most notably Kaitlyn Gilliland, another NYCB alum; it's a gift to see this luminous dancer's endless lines and captivating, mysterious gaze in such a context.

The highlight of the all-Brian Reeder choreographed program at NYLA was Surmisable Units, a somewhat technogeek title for an intriguing dance. The anchor was the parlor trick performance by Ben Laude of Steve Reich's Piano Phase (alternating performances, incredibly, with Juan Carlos Fernandez-Nieto—it's difficult to believe that more than one person could pull this off), a work for two pianos. Laude sat between two pianos at right angles, somehow playing both at once. Solos by a revolving cast on stage right, and behind the pianos, repeated slicing arms and upper body movements, as pairs or individuals performed larger-scale passages at stage left. One or two dancers would slide under the pianos (something we saw recently by Justin Peck as well), and continue their arm gestures while lying down. Gilliland and Wiles paired up, partnering one another and holding hands while walking the perimeter. Capezio is credited for the long-sleeved, colored tops and short skirts, somewhat evoking figure skating outfits.

Jens Weber and Michele Wiles in Different Homes. Photo: Stephanie Berger
Different Homes, a NY premiere to Britten's Cello Suite no. 1 (played by Elad Kabilio), featured Wiles with Jens Weber. There's a modernist sensibility to this dance which suits the cool Wiles; she does not cater to the audience to gain its affection. Here, the presentational style is straightforward, showing us form and shape, at times rendered with attack. The pair sways during the breaks in musical movements, maintaining momentum in this engaging duet. Reeder doesn't try to turn ballet on its head, instead tweaking it with the occasional flexed foot coupé, right-angled arms, or by sending rippling energy up the body and arms from relevé-ing feet. 

The company also reprised Picnic (2012), with the fleeting suggestion of a narrative. This Tudoresque mood piece with shifting group dynamics showcased the talented dancers, including Tiffany Mangulabnan (who tossed off some perfect-split grand jetés), Brittany Cioce, and Sarah Atkins. It also demonstrated the dramatic and stylistic range of which BalletNext, and Brian Reeder, are capable. 

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