The Joyce Ballet Festival (Part I)
The Joyce Theater
New York, New York

July 18, 22 evening, and 24, 2017
Emery LeCrone Dance: In Memory, Beloved, The Innermost Part of Something (Excerpt), Time Slowing, Ending, Radiant Field
Claudia Schreier Dance: Wordplay, Vigil, Solitaire, Tranquil Night, Bright and Infinite, The Trilling Wire, Charge
Cirio Collective: Fremd, Prey(ing), Sonnet of Fidelity, MimiM, In the Mind: The Other Room, Tactility, “Efil Ym Fo Flah” (Half of My Life)

— by Jerry Hochman

The Joyce Ballet Festival, a showcase for emerging and “post-emerging” choreographers creating outside the large-company setting, began its five-company series last Tuesday evening with Emery LeCrone Dance, and continues through July 29. This review will focus on the three initial programs, LeCrone, Claudia Schreier Dance, and Cirio Collective.
Each of the three programs evidence significant choreographic talent. Of the three, Cirio Collective is the most outrageously different. I generally enjoyed LeCrone and Schreier’s pieces, and disliked Cirio’s intensely…until I recognized how extraordinary, as well as extraordinarily strange, most of his dances were. I’ll discuss each company’s programs in the order presented.

LeCrone’s company and choreography last appeared at the Joyce Festival in 2015, and this year’s program, although it included three world premieres and one New York premiere among the five pieces presented, is very much like the last one.

LeCrone’s experience shows: her name is well-recognized locally (and beyond) because she’s already established an enviable reputation for refined and classically lyrical choreography, dominated by swirling fluidity rather than angular punctuations. And to her credit, she appears more concerned with her craft than in making a statement, creating movement for movement’s sake, or finding different ways to express angst. But also, as was the case with her 2015 appearance, when she moves in a different choreographic direction, the dances look less polished, as if they were ventures into unfamiliar territory.

One ballet, however, was exceptional both in its choreography and in its utilization of the accompanying composition.

Beloved, the second piece on the program (and the one given its New York premiere), is wonderful. LeCrone’s filigree, balletic movement quality adds immeasurably to David Lang’s unusual score – complementing, illuminating, and expanding one’s sense of it while also creating a continuing sequence of visual images that on its own is simply beautiful to watch.

Lang’s composition, titled just (after song of songs), is, at least overtly, vocalization of a text Lang created by encapsulating the biblical Song of Songs into simple phrases (e.g., “just your lips,” “just your name,” “and my soul,“ and my beloved”) that highlight features, physical and otherwise, that in the erotic original ignite the passion of the lovers (with the lovers either being individuals or metaphors for greater concepts, or both). Even without being able to understand the specific words (sometimes they’re not clear), the composition is mesmerizing by itself: the vocal phrases, usually three syllables (in fact or effectively) and sung to minimal musical accompaniment, become as much musical sounds as distinct words, the result being not only the sense of passionate eroticism, but also of timeless, chant-like prayer. It’s fascinating.

Equally fascinating is what LeCrone has choreographed to it. The ballet’s structure is fairly typical: there are three couples who dance both as an ensemble and in component pairs and solos, all seamlessly interwoven so as not to break the passionate flow. Each individual dance is distinctive, but easily blends visually with the other dances and the piece as a whole, with an overall quality of deceptive simplicity.

But Beloved is more than its bare choreography. LeCrone illuminates Lang’s composition the way illustrations illuminate a religious manuscript. There’s eroticism to be sure, but also a rapturous yet timeless sense of eternity, as if all this love is taking place within a physical and emotional spiritual space. And although I suppose it might make more sense if the dance were limited to only one couple, opening it up to three couples makes the piece more visually fulfilling, and complements the somewhat numerologically magical set of “3s” that are endemic to Lang’s composition: three syllable phrases; three vocalists, three musicians.

Everything about Beloved works – watching it is an almost mystical experience. And in that respect, I must recognize the ethereal costume design (Collina Strada by Hillary Taymour), the vocalists (Melissa Hughes, Jamie Jordan and Kirsten Sollek) and the musicians (Clarice Jensen, Jocelin Pan, and Bill Solomon). The six dancers were Sarah Atkins, Blake Krapels, Tiffany Mangulabnan, Amber Neff, Scott Schneider, and Lukasz Zieba.  Each executed impeccably, and Neff, who substituted apparently on relatively short notice for the injured Erin Scott Arbuckle, merits special praise.

Unfortunately, nothing else on the program equaled Beloved’s impact.

The dances for the company’s guest artists, both world premieres, are lovely, but had little substance. New York City Ballet soloist Megan LeCrone’s performance of a solo titled In Memory came as close to looking ethereal as not being lifted off the stage floor can get. Filled with uplifted arms and endless swirls, and accented by a flowing red costume that seems to move with a life of its own, the piece is a celebration of a life remembered rather than a requiem for a life lost. It’s gorgeous for what it is, but it’s of limited consequence. The same can be said of Time Slowing, Ending, a low-decibel romantic pas de deux for American Ballet Theatre dancers Stephanie Williams and Cory Stearns. It’s lovely to watch as the piece, and the dancers’ stage relationship, slowly unfolds, and the pair execute it well, but it doesn’t go anywhere (it’s not a visualization of the culmination of a relationship; just an evocation of one), and the ballet’s high point is saved for a heavenly lift as the slowing time eventually comes to its ending.

More problematic were the other two pieces on the program. The Innermost Part of Something premiered at the Joyce engagement two years ago, and I noted then that the piece, though well-crafted, was a departure from the lyrically dominant sense of LeCrone’s other pieces, and was less successful. Limiting it to an excerpt for this program didn’t change my opinion. It’s not uninteresting; but it’s not engaging either. Similarly, Radiant Field, a world premiere, was not more than a radiant field of dance illuminated by two intersecting bars of fluorescent light (one of which moves, for no particular apparent reason except to mark a change in musical and choreographic emphasis from, for example, slow, ponderous, “slinky” movement to a fast-paced conclusion. The dancers executed superbly (the cast included Nick Burrage and Charles McCall in addition to most of company members already named), but the piece didn’t go anywhere, and the concept’s been done many times before.

Claudia Schreier has exploded on the dance scene of late, but her company’s performance on Saturday evening, its Joyce debut, was my first exposure to her choreography. Although somewhat lacking in movement variety within five of the six dances presented, based on this program her work is finely wrought and already has gone beyond “promise” to show considerable accomplishment. I would have preferred to see additional large ensemble pieces such as the program’s final ballet, the 17-dancer Charge, but working on a more concentrated scale certainly encourages the development of finely-tuned craftsmanship, which these pieces all demonstrate.

The best way to describe Schreier’s dances, to me (and with the exception of Charge), is that they’re intricate choreographic miniatures. Limited in scope and stage time, her pieces are marvels of intricacy on a small scale. As I watched, I kept thinking of the miniature artwork of Joseph Cornell. [I had no idea, until I researched a bit, that Cornell had a fascination / infatuation with ballerinas. I should have known…] While not surreal, as Cornell’s work has often been described, Schreier’s dances’ limited focus become complete by themselves, even though comprised of bits and pieces from a larger (choreographic) world – somewhat like Cornell’s boxes.

Be that as it may, if there’s a dominant imagery that can be gleaned from this program, it’s soaring, powerful, and meaningful lifts, which seem to punctuate all of her partnered pieces to one extent or another. Schreier’s not afraid to rely on them to make a point or just to move things along, and they demonstrate a level of choreographic development and sophistication that some are never able to achieve.

The evening opened with Wordplay, a duet for NYCB dancers Unity Phelan and Jared Angle. To an excerpt from a composition by Ellen Taaffe Zwilich, the duet is edgy, dramatic, stark, and sleek (which, together with Martha Chamberlain’s costumes, appropriately reflect the score). The dancers present as two forces, with interaction that seems more mechanical than emotional, and Schreier transitions from primarily angular movement to lyrical and back intelligently. Very well done.

Vigil, created in 2015 and here a duet for Wendy Whelan and Da’Von Doane, is a beautifully constructed and executed piece. As they sing two juxtaposed devotional vocal compositions, the 19 member choir Tapestry provides a semi-circular frame for the dancers and for Schreier’s elegiac choreography (soulful, emotional swirls; and soaring, inspirational lifts). It’s a stirring, visually beautiful piece of work.

Whelan’s ability to naturally infuse movement with emotional depth is always astonishing, even if not at all surprising. But Doane’s performance was unexpected. His performances were a highlight of recent Dance Theater of Harlem programs that I’ve seen, but here, outside what seemed to be his element, I was unprepared for the extent of his partnering skill. He enabled Whelan to be Whelan, and gave a touch of urgency to the duet that it might not otherwise have had.

Solitaire, which was commissioned by the Vail Dance Festival for its 2016 NOW: Premieres program, is a pas de quatre for three men (here danced by Cameron Dieck, Angle, and Doane) and Phelan coupled with a pas de deux for Phelan and Angle. I’m not sure why Schreier mashed the two segments together (to music by, respectively, Dmitri Shostakovich and Alfred Schnittke) – there’s no indication that Phelan has somehow “chosen” Angle from among the three men; the pas de deux just “happens” – but the piece is lovely to watch regardless. It’s dominated by lifts, with each of the men taking turns partnering Phelan in the opening segment, and a general swirling, circular ambiance, both on an individual and group basis, creating geometric patterns that flow seamlessly from one to another. And those soaring, precarious-looking overhead lifts are stunning. Solitaire was followed, after intermission, by a “preview” of Tranquil Night, Bright and Infinite,” which will premiere at Vail next month. Since it’s a work in process, I’ll not comment on it beyond noting that it’s a playful reflection of its score – Leonard Bernstein’s Sonata for Clarinet and Piano.

The Trilling Wire, a solo created for Whelan to excerpts from three compositions by Marc Mellits, is a clever albeit one dimensional idea, with Whelan somewhat literally drawing movement inspiration from – or delivering musical inspiration to – the accompanying string quartet. It’s another lovely-looking piece, though with more limited focus than the other dances on the program.

Charge, the program’s concluding ballet, was created in 2016 for upper level students at Ballet Academy East. Although the choreography is too bound by the repetitive pulse of the score (Douwe Eisenga’s Piano Concerto: III), this was clearly Schreier’s intent rather than a reflection of slavish musical dependence. And for a piece that’s limited in its choreographic vocabulary (perhaps necessitated by its being choreographed initially on students), it looks like it has considerably more variety than it does because of Schreier’s intelligent staging – and I suspect (though I’m not certain) that she’s modified it somewhat to add more complexity for the professional dances with her company. In that respect it was good to see many of these dancers again, some of whom I recall from the Pennsylvania Ballet; and some who have performed in New York with small, independent companies.

Of the three companies in the initial three Festival performances, the most unusual was Cirio Collective. I must concede that I sat through the first half of the program feeling somewhat like a stranger in a strange land. Although I found no fault at all with the dancers, many of whom dance or formerly danced with Boston Ballet (on the contrary, I found the clarity of their execution extraordinary), the movement quality seemed haphazard and artificial visual nonsense designed to show how strange choreography can look if its movement is frenetic, jagged, forced, and seemingly purposeless beyond showing how fast the dancers could move to grating musical accompaniment. I thought it was garbage (which is what I wrote in my notes).

And then…I stopped fighting it (maybe it was the aspirin I took during intermission; or maybe because Damian Woetzel sat down in front of me and I picked up on his vibes) and recognized it as a coherent, idiosyncratic language I couldn’t quite translate – a 21st (or maybe 22nd) century way of expression that I could appreciate even if I couldn’t understand it. By the end of the program, I found myself enjoying it, though I can’t explain exactly what I saw or why I did.

The program opened with Fremd (the title of one of five musical compositions, or excepts therefrom, that comprise the piece’s score), and not only was I unable to connect with the piece at all, I was frustrated that I couldn’t decipher the title: I tried breaking it into component letters; reading it backwards; nothing. After the performance, I decided to search it. The word “fremd,” it turns out, is middle English/German for “strange” or “foreign”. Figures. In hindsight, with Altan Dugaraa most often separated from the piece’s other six dancers, I can see that connection, but not much more.

Fremd was followed by an equally strange world premiere video (untitled in the program, but titled prey(ing) in the closing credits). It’s a beautifully filmed video (directed by Sean Meehan) that features choreography by Cirio and four or five people (Collective dancers) mostly doing nothing describable (a Collective gathering in an old barn?) beyond the characters acting out for the sake of acting out (which perhaps is meant to be representative of a typical Collective gathering). At this point, I began checking to make sure I’d brought aspirin.

Sonnet of Fidelity, a duet for Lia Cirio and Paul Craig, choreographed by Paulo Arrais to a poem (Soneto de Fidelidade by Vinicius de Morais) read by Arrais, which is thereafter followed by Philip Glass’s Piano Concerto No. 2 (or excerpts therefrom), wasn’t so much “strange” as unsatisfying. The dancers seemed strangely distant from each other despite the apparent “fidelity” theme, with no apparent emotional connection. MiniM, which succeeded Sonnet of Fidelity on the program, also opens with a poem (by Josh Knowles, read by Craig), which begins with the line “I saw the face of God today.” Perhaps reflecting that statement, the dance is filled with flexed limbs; thrusting arms; jerky, staccato movement; undulating slow motion movement; and sound and fury that didn’t signify much of anything to me. Even the accompanying Brahms composition (Sonata for Cello and Piano No. 1 in E Minor) sounded heavy and burdensome. I really needed that aspirin.

But after intermission, Cirio’s world premiere piece, In the Mind: the Other Room, was an eye-opener. Suddenly his choreography began to look very interesting – clearly a peek into the dark thoughts of the lead dancer’s mind (Whitney Jensen), as the other three dancers (Akiba, Lia Cirio, and Craig) act out her thoughts and/or direct her actions. I have no idea what Cirio (Jeffrey) is trying to show here, but I found it fascinating, and the dancers, particularly Jensen (who was quite remarkable in each of the pieces that she danced in), executed brilliantly. Tactility, choreographed by Gregory Dolbashian to unidentified music by Christopher Tyng, is a brief, simple-looking duet for Jeffrey Cirio and ABT soloist Blaine Hoven that plays off the pair’s stage relationship in a galvanizing way as they touch each other physically and, more significantly, emotionally. In terms of accessibility, this was the best dance on the program.

The evening concluded with “Efil Ym Fo Flah” (Half of My Life), which premiered in 2016. By this point, I’d given up trying to take notes or even remembering in detail what I saw. I have no idea what Cirio means by the title (or by beginning it with the letters backward), and if there was any correlation between the title and the dance I missed it. But I just accepted that the choreography was anything but the same old same old, and even though I didn’t “get” it, I let the novelty and explosiveness wash over me.

I can’t say that Cirio’s choreography represents the future of dance in general or ballet in particular, but it’s certainly intelligent and different, and it’ll be interesting, and somewhat of a roller-coaster ride, to see where Cirio Collective goes from here.

I’ll review the Festival’s final two programs together in a subsequent review.