Ballet West in The Lottery.  Photo © Luke Isley

Ballet West in The Lottery..
Photo © Luke Isley

The Sixth Beauty, Presto, Games, The Lottery

The Joyce Theater, New York, NY; March 25, 2015

Jerry Hochman

Ballet West, the Salt Lake City-based company founded in 1963 by Willam Christenson, opened its first full New York season with a program of four contemporary ballets that were appropriate for the intimate setting that the Joyce Theater provides. The choreography, overall, was both interesting and unexceptional, but what was clearly on display was the strength of Ballet West’s dancers.

The highlight was the world premiere of Helen Pickett’s Games. The piece is easy to dismiss – its presentation of casual sex is somewhat repellant, as if the dancers were being used to promote a toned down dance version of polyamory. But there’s more here than meets the eye.

Games is set to Debussy’s Jeux, commissioned by Diaghilev for a ballet of the same title to be choreographed by Nijinsky and presented by Ballet Russes.

As Diaghilev originally conceived it, Jeux was to relate to a sexual encounter among three men. As finally presented by Nijinsky, it described a sexually charged relationship in the context of a tennis game in which a tennis ball gets lost and the search for it becomes the ‘cover’ for ensuing relationship games between the one man and each of the two women, and the two women with each other. The piece apparently did not cause a major uproar, as did Nijinsky’s Le Sacre du printemps which premiered two weeks later, but suffered a worse fate – it was ignored.

The choreography for Nijinsky’s original has been lost, but Jeux has been presented in several different incarnations in recent years, including a noteworthy reconstruction choreographed by Millicent Hodson in 1996, supposedly based on existing snippets of contemporaneous information.

The Hodson version was presented by the Joffrey Ballet in 2002. Before becoming Ballet West’s Artistic Director in 2007, Adam Sklute was affiliated with the now Chicago-based company for 23 years, first as a dancer, then as Associate Director. I don’t know if he had any involvement with Jeux while he was there, but I suspect that the connection between the Joffrey’s presentation of Jeux and Ballet West’s commissioning of Games is more than coincidental.

Although Pickett pays homage to Nijinsky in the program notes, Games isn’t a reconstruction of Nijinsky’s ballet, nor is it a reinterpretation (as I understand was Wayne Eagling’s 2012 version for the English National Ballet), and it’s more than a simple temporal update. The sexual attraction goes far beyond, and is much more clearly described, than in the Hodson reconstruction. And there is no need for a tennis game as metaphor for the games people play – although, to a degree, cell phones are used as catalysts just as the errant tennis ball was in the original. Pickett also specifically salutes New York in her program notes – and the ballet appears very New York-ish as well, both cosmopolitan and informal-looking.

As the dance begins, two women are seen hanging out with each other amorously. A man, who to me looks somewhat intentionally dangerous (as in the kind of ‘dangerous’ that some women supposedly find attractive) leers at them. One of the women is attracted to him, and subsequently pairs off with him. He then has an encounter with other woman; the women pair off again with each other; then they interact sensuously as a threesome. The cycle repeats as the scenes shift from outside to inside, from office to apartment. The set, by Michael Andrew Currey, though not particularly complex, is much more than merely utilitarian – its multi-use morphing is cleverly done, and the costumes and lighting (Sandra Woodall and Nicholas Cavallaro) help set the mood.

Games doesn’t comment on the sexual behavior it depicts. Rather, it treats it as both a given and as a norm, and no big deal. This is not casual, serial lust – the behavior that Susan Stroman captured so well with Frankie and Johnny…and Rose, nor is it particularly prurient, as were Demis Volpi’s Private Light or Liam Scarlett’s With a Chance of Rain for American Ballet Theatre. It’s just the way things are. Beyond that, the ballet is neither choreographically complex nor unusual, but it works. That is, the style doesn’t dominate the action – it both reflects and propels it.

But mostly Games is a fun piece to watch because the three dancers did such a fine job making it look emotionally real, albeit somewhat superficial. Christopher Ruud, a company principal, was annoyingly right as the lucky man who wasn’t so much torn between two lovers as happily enjoying them both. Allison DeBona, a soloist, played the taller, slightly less aggressive girl, and Arolyn Williams the more feisty, shorter girl. All were very good, but company principal Williams, whose role had somewhat more emotional and physical depth, was super. She danced the lead role at the premiere of Sklute’s version of Giselle last fall, and I can envision her in that as easily as in Games.

The program began with The Sixth Beauty by Matthew Neenan, which had its world premiere with Ballet West less than a year ago. I’ve admired Neenan’s work previously, but this, heartfelt and earnest as it obviously is, is an agglomeration of styles that lacks coherence, with a theme (reflections of one’s past) visualized in three lengthy episodes that show little connection between each other. There were moments of brilliance (leg fluttering to indicate pleasure as women were carried across stage being one example), but overall it didn’t mesh.

The dancers, however, executed the choreography superbly, led by Tyler Gum’s rapid-fire execution in the opening segment, Christiana Bennett and Rex Tilton’s handling of the more subdued solo and duet, and, most markedly, by Beckannne Sisk in the exuberant closing segment. Sisk’s electricity arises in part from the nature of the ballet: there’s an intentional aura of chaos and dysfunctionality that permeates the initial parts and requires the dancers to perform accordingly. The last part, however, is intended to be exhilarating, and it was. But Ms. Sisk’s performance went beyond that: her presence lit up the stage. I didn’t recognize her at first, but she appeared in last year’s Youth America Grand Prix Gala in an excerpt from Gerald Arpino’s Light Rain, and I recognized her elegance and fluidity then. Here she added technical pizazz and an engaging, magnetic stage persona. A company soloist who has risen rapidly through the ranks and has already assayed lead roles in company versions of Swan Lake and Giselle, Sisk is a dancer to watch.

Presto, by company resident choreographer Nicolo Fonte, followed. Presto is also the brand name of a pressure cooker. Although the piece takes its name from its music (Quartet No. 5, XI, Presto, by Ezio Bosso), its controlled but simmering emotions portrayed by two couples are analogous to the controlled forces within the appliance. The dance is abstract, sculptural, sleek and intense, and well-crafted, with slow, deliberate choreographic punctuations that match the emotional slow boil. But although there’s lots of balletic angst, and body contortions, Presto doesn’t go anywhere. Adrian Fry, Katherine Lawrence, Alexander MacFarlan, and Jacqueline Straughan executed Fonte’s choreography magnificently.

Ballet West in The Lottery (dancers Emily Adams and Christopher Ruud).  Photo © Luke Isley

Ballet West in The Lottery (dancers Emily Adams and Christopher Ruud).
Photo © Luke Isley

The evening closed with Val Caniparoli’s 2012 piece, The Lottery. Couples, townsfolk, initially enter a fenced-in field on the prairie appearing somewhat gloomy, pick up ‘stones’ that are strewn all around and carry them offstage. Shortly thereafter, a man enters the fenced area, looking solemn and apprehensive, carrying a box with ominous but unknown (to the audience) contents.

The Lottery has similarities with Paul Taylor’s 2012 piece, To Make Crops Grow, in which a leader holds a box from which others pick a number; a lottery ticket of sorts. One of the numbers carries a death sentence, and the villager who selects this condemning ticket is subsequently stoned to death as a sacrificial offering so that crops will grow. It’s also similar to The Rite of Spring, but there’s less dramatic build-up – as a consequence, the ending is more startling.

Although the story is the same, the Taylor piece is to a different score, does not reference Shirley Jackson’s story The Lottery as its source as the Caniparoli piece does, and is darker looking. Caniparoli’s work, which is pleasant enough to watch, loses something by isolating the lottery and its consequences to three basic scenes, with everything in between being a similar degree of happiness, perhaps festiveness. And even though the choreography (dispersed among seven town couples who dance separate, and at times overlapping, duets) doesn’t look repetitious, it still has an overall feeling of sameness.

In the final scene, the selection of the losing lottery ticket is done randomly – the dancers don’t know who will be the one to die. On this evening, Sayaka Ohtaki drew the short straw, and danced the blazing dance of death with a remarkable combination of fear and fearlessness, hopelessness and courage, that was breathtaking to watch. Her brief dance was a highlight of the evening.

Under Sklute’s leadership, and apparently in an effort to attract a wider audience, Ballet West has considerably broadened its classically-based repertoire to include a trove of contemporary pieces. That’s well and good, but for this, its first full New York season, it would have been enlightening to see what these dancers can do with classical as well as contemporary ballet roles – which is all the more reason for Ballet West to return to New York soon.