Thursday, February 13, 2014

RNZB—Toward a Unique Voice

Of Days. Evan Li
RNZB (Royal New Zealand Ballet), after an especially long commute, is in town this week at the Joyce. Now led by long-time ABT principal Ethan Stiefel, a program of three dances showed the company's versatility, artistic direction, and technique. The latter was covered by Benjamin Millepied's 28 Variations on a Theme by Paganini, seen on the same stage in 2008, performed by the choreographer's own troupe. Unlike that performance, which included many familiar ballet dancers from the big New York troupes (and their accompanying associations), ABT's Gillian Murphy was the only familiar (and very welcome) face. The nine additional company members danced crisply and energetically through the well-modulated solos, duets, and groupings. Tonia Looker, in particular, seemed to capture the felicity and quicksilver nature of the music.

Of Days, choreographed by Andrew Simmons (of New Zealand) last year, is undeniably full of beauty (other than the unfortunate choice of bare legs for the women, who wore Kate Venables' pale grey, draped-top leotards and pointe shoes). But just how far can mere beauty go? In the opening tableau, the four women stood stage right, gently waving a raised arm like a tree branch. After ten minutes of tendus, deliberate backward steps, and arabesques, one section blended into the next; various tracks of new-agey music, by three composers seemingly inspired by Arvo Pärt, formed an unending sonic miasma. The dancers moved ever so carefully—apparently emotionally fragile as well—but it translated to a sense of boredom and a certain metronomic predictability. 

Clytie Campbell in Banderillero. Photo: Bill Cooper
The final work, Banderillero (2006), by Venezuelan Javier De Frutos, made an immediate impression; he also designed the boxing ring marley, ivory plunge-necked dresses for the women, and odd sheer blouses and tux-striped pants for the men (all in bare feet). A sliding step with the body tilted forward, arms swinging overhead, became a repeated motif, moving the 10 dancers into an orderly wedge, or back to the "sidelines." I sensed there was some kind of competition underway, if ballet were an Olympic sport, complete with trash talking and swagger. The soundtrack consisted of drums from Chinese opera and other sources, which at moments evoked Maori culture, as did occasional deep squats and shouts. Other movement blended ballet, martial arts, and the pedestrian. The women—Clytie Campbell in particular—were given stronger movement than the men, who on occasion whisked a woman into a high lift, or spun a partner in quarter turns as she pushed the air as if to help direct. The strange vocabulary became more vivid as the piece progressed toward a section featuring the dancers in a matrix, their lower bodies locked into place as their arms whipped and torsos spiralled. I can't tell you exactly what was going on, but it was fascinating to watch.

28 Variations establishes technical chops, and connects RNZB to the inexorable global Millepied zeitgeist in ballet now. In contrast to the numbing beauty of Simmons' dance, Banderillero creates a vivid, hermetic world with its own charismatic language—a signature work that makes a memorable impression on New York balletomanes, or at least this one. 

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