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

July 25 and 28, 2017
Gemma Bond Dance:
Then and Again, The Giving, Impressions

Amy Seiwert’s Imagery:
Wandering

Jerry Hochman

The Joyce Ballet Festival concluded its five-company, two-week set of programs with performances by Gemma Bond Dance and Amy Seiwert’s Imagery. The latter group closed the 2015 Joyce Ballet Festival as well, but this was Bond’s Joyce Theater debut. The results, like those for the series’ other three companies, which were the subject of a prior review, were uneven, but not because of any deficiency of choreographic ability: these post-emerging, on-the-rise choreographers know how to put a ballet together that’s also interesting to watch. One that is also compelling, makes a coherent statement, and invites the audience to become vicariously involved with it is a level still to reach.

Hopes were high for Bond’s program, in part because I’ve seen and admired her previous “emerging” efforts, and in part because of the stellar group of dancers from American Ballet Theatre that she assembled. (And many ABT dancers who were not performing, as well as artistic staff, populated the audience.) The dancers, not surprisingly, were superb. But the choreography, while highly accomplished in terms of presentation, and which provided the greatest variety of pacing and imaging of all those dances in the Festival, was, to me, surprisingly uninspiring. I enjoyed watching it, especially the way Bond utilized and emphasized her dancers, but the dances as a whole were less than the sum of their parts.

Stephanie Williams (foreground) and members of Gemma Bond Dance in "Then and Again" Photo by-Rod Brayman

Stephanie Williams (foreground) and
members of Gemma Bond Dance
in “Then and Again”
Photo by-Rod Brayman

In her prior efforts that I’ve seen, Bond, a long-time and respected member of ABT’s corps, has infused her pieces with a sense of humanity, and/or a sense of levity, that was missing from all three pieces on the program. They’re very well put together, and very well executed, but they don’t resonate beyond that. With that caveat, I thought the opening ballet was the best and brightest of the three, and the closing piece, though having considerable focus on individuals and pairs to commend it, felt incomplete and somewhat pointless. The middle piece, a pas de deux for ABT principals Christine Shevchenko and Cory Stearns, was the most fascinating, but also the most frustrating because although I liked the way she said it, I had no idea what Bond was trying to say.

The pas de deux, titled The Giving, to a repetitiously pulsing composition of the same name by contemporary composer Lori Scacco, is clearly intended to be a representation of some sort of “giving.” Not exactly rocket science. But beyond that, the intended meaning of the piece (and this is one of those pieces that had to have had an intended meaning) is unclear. What exactly is Shevchenko’s character (the dance’s primary focus) “giving”? Her heart? Her love to someone who’s leaving her (or who’s already left her) for whatever reason? [The Stearns character, seemingly always playful-looking and with a slight smile on his face, repeatedly lifts her, physically as well as emotionally, but just as repeatedly leaves her, and fades into the upstage boundary at the end.] Or is she “giving up” on a relationship that isn’t working out? Or all of the above? Or none? That it’s titled The Giving, aside from simply being a consequence of the composition’s title, distances the action from the act, but otherwise doesn’t help.

In short, I had no idea what the relationship was about – except that it looked substantial and interesting (with lots of abrupt changes in directional movement, perhaps to mirror the changes in direction of the stage relationship), was certainly dramatic (an example: at one point Stearns lifts her over his head…by her legs), and was danced by Shevchenko with an extraordinary amount of anguished power and passion, even majesty. Though I wasn’t comfortable with the piece because it made little coherent sense to me (as well put together as it was), I would see it again in a heartbeat just to see Shevchenko’s performance.

Christine Shevchenko and Cory Stearns in Gemma Bond's "The Giving" Photo by Rod Brayman

Christine Shevchenko and Cory Stearns
in Gemma Bond’s “The Giving”
Photo by Rod Brayman

Individual performances also highlighted the other pieces on Bond’s program.

Then and Again, choreographed to 12 Caprices for solo Cello, Op. 25 by 19th Century Italian cellist and composer Alfredo Piatti, is dominated by Stephanie Williams, who introduces the piece, appears within most of its component dances, and closes it (at first with the other dancers surrounding her, then alone). Williams, who should be given more featured roles at ABT than she gets, is a dramatic dancer of considerable range, depth, and emotional weight (I’ve previously written that I can see her eventually assaying Odette/Odile), and as fine as the other dances in the piece are, she’s the glue that holds it all together. I’m not quite sure what her role was supposed to represent, or if it was supposed to represent anything in particular, but that didn’t matter in a piece that is a series of integrated and well-choreographed dances to Piatti’s composition.

Structurally, as well as choreographically, the ballet is complex, with enough compositional variety that it maintains interest throughout. And the occasional shadow projections were a nice touch. But attempting to describe it makes it sound somewhat circus-like, which it isn’t. Initially, Williams is joined by Thomas Forster, then Devon Teuscher, then others; some exit, leaving two couples remaining on stage together (Williams, Forster, Teuscher, and Jose Sebastian); then the men leave and Williams and Teuscher dance together; then Teuscher leaves…you get the idea. The next segment is a sequence of sprightly dances that includes Alexandra Basmagy, Lauren Post, and Katherine Williams (who also should be given more featured role opportunities), and eventually Stephanie Williams sits and watches the others. This is the nature of the piece as a whole, with different foci for each of the component dances, and within them, moments of brilliance. For what it is, an abstract dance with Stephanie Williams providing some semblance of emotional gloss (anomie, loneliness, and actual or imagined competition between her and Teuscher for Forster’s affection) and a super solo for Sebastian, it’s highly complex choreography that’s interesting and fun to watch, but its significance ends there. Luciana Paris, who managed to squeeze profound emotional detail into a one-foot-off-the-ground-at-a-time lift that lasted only a split-second, completed the stellar cast.

The closing piece, Impressions, to a string quartet composition of the same name by highly regarded (Pulitzer Prize and Grammy Award winning) contemporary composer Jennifer Higdon, also has fine component parts and is beautifully put together, but perhaps because the ambiance and structure is similar to There and Again, and overall is too dependent on the score, it doesn’t appear as strong. Without diminishing the significance of, and performances by, the other dancers in the piece (Tyler Maloney, Calvin Royal III, Gabe Stone Shayer, and Teuscher), the highlights of the ballet include a stunning pas de deux with Cassandra Trenary and James Whiteside, solos by each, and Skylar Brandt’s high-octane flights across the stage.

Shania Rasmussen and Amy Seiwert's Imagery dancers in "Wandering" Photo by Chris Hardy

Shania Rasmussen and
Amy Seiwert’s Imagery dancers in “Wandering”
Photo by Chris Hardy

Wandering, Seiwert’s first evening-length piece, is a fine example of why the name of her San Francisco-based company is so apt. The choreography is fine for what it is, and quite beautiful, but even though I enjoyed it and was thoroughly impressed by Seiwert’s choreographic elegance and restraint, I might have appreciated it more had I clearly understood what she was trying to do or say beyond creating images that enhance the accompanying music.

Wandering is choreographed to Franz Schubert’s Winterreise (Winter Journey), a German song cycle composed in 1827 and 1828 to 24 poems composed a few years earlier by Wilhelm Muller. The composition is in two parts, each of 12 songs, corresponding to Schubert being initially aware of Muller’s first 12 poems, and then, after completing that cycle, discovering that there were 12 more. The ballet as a whole is comprised of individual dances, each visualizing various atmospheric and non-specific instances of wandering – not “wandering” as in meandering aimlessly from point A to point B, but as in a journey through life. And although the overall ambiance is slow-paced and deliberate, each dance is different enough from the other to be distinct, and, admirably, none of it was bound to each vocal inflection or musical beat.

Muller’s poems speak of a sad journey that the narrator takes after leaving the home of his beloved who has decided she loves someone else. His journey through the winter cold, wind, and snow that he barely feels is a metaphor for the journey he (and his heart) takes as he attempts to come to terms with his sense of loss, loneliness, and depression. It’s bleak, but in a strange way ultimately uplifting because, miserable and desolate as he feels, he survives.

Schubert’s somber music (he was dying when he composed it…of syphilis) complements Muller’s poems, and Seiwert’s ballet complements Schubert’s music – but it doesn’t necessarily follow that Seiwert’s ballet complements Muller’s poems, even though the poems are the songs’ lyrics and the ballet is comprised of related dances choreographed to each of the poems/songs. I get that Wandering describes the sorrowful journey depicted in Schubert’s music and Muller’s poetry, but as far as I could tell any representation of the narrator’s (or any) impetus for the journey, metaphoric or otherwise, is missing.

Tina Laforgia Morse and Amy Seiwert's Imagery dancers in "Wandering" Photo by Chris Hardy

Tina Laforgia Morse and
Amy Seiwert’s Imagery dancers in “Wandering”
Photo by Chris Hardy

Indeed, to the contrary, Seiwert here universalizes Muller’s “wandering” experience, whether arising from a sense of loss or representing a journey through life. The words to the songs are sung in German, and not translated, so for performance purposes the words’ meaning isn’t as critical as their tone. Further, although not absolute, generally one dancer is outfitted in a red robe/jacket-like covering and is featured in a particular dance/song, and then the jacket (not only a designation of the song’s featured dancer, but also a commentary on the environment through which the dancer wanders) is passed to another dancer, who becomes the focal point for the next dance, and so on. [The robe/jacket may also signify some burden to bear and overcome, since at times it’s rolled into a “rope” shape that acts as somewhat of a restraint.] So one man’s sense of loss of love and subsequent journey in the poems/songs becomes every-person’s loss of something and subsequent journey in the ballet. The wandering depicted is still beautiful and sorrowful, but the nature of the suffering, and the wandering, is more enigmatic.

No less significant, and puzzling, is Seiwert’s use of lighting, props, and costumes. [The lighting and scenic design is by Brian Jones; the costumes by Susan Roemer.] I can’t pretend to understand the purposes behind any of it, but they’re visually intriguing additions to the choreographic landscape.

For example, at the outset, old-fashioned brass lanterns are set upstage left, in front of most of the arrayed dancers. At various points, the dancers raise and carry the lanterns to provide illumination for the journey (metaphorically as well as factually). And the lanterns themselves become components of the dances, moving not so much as objects but as inanimate dancers (one of the dances can described as a pas de trois with one man, one woman, and a lantern).

Also, there seems to be some significance to the fact that at the beginning of each section, in full view but set off toward the stage right wings, one dancer ceremoniously places the arm of an old-fashioned record player onto a vinyl record to begin to play that record – which is broadcast, seemingly “live,” through the theater speakers as the recording of Winterreise. But I watched – the machine’s arm didn’t move; its needle didn’t touch the record; it was just a prop. Obviously this had a definite visual impact, and also had the effect of placing the ballet in an older temporal context, but beyond that I have no idea why it was staged this way.

Further, the first part of the ballet is performed in dim lighting, with costumes that are basically white, and it concludes with white “snow” falling over the stage panorama. When the ballet’s second part begins, the stage is now lit brightly, but the “snow” that falls is black, and the costumes now are all black dominant.  I have no clue as to the reason for this either.

Normally this degree of opacity would drive me crazy – but here, it’s just another example of the intriguing enigma that this dance is.

Amy Seiwert's Imagery dancers (l-r) Shania Rasmussen, James Gilmer, Gabriel Smith, Ben-Needham Wood, and Jackie Nash in "Wandering" Photo by Chris Hardy

Amy Seiwert’s Imagery dancers
(l-r) Shania Rasmussen, James Gilmer,
Gabriel Smith, Ben-Needham Wood,
and Jackie Nash in “Wandering”
Photo by Chris Hardy

All of the dancers have significant ballet training and performing experience, and it shows: their execution of Seiwert’s intricate choreographic maneuvers seemed both graceful, seamless, and flawless. Although each of the dancers is featured in solos or in the context of a group dance, the ballet is very much an ensemble piece, and each of the dancers – Alysia Chang, Tina Laforgia Morse, Jackie Nash, Shania Rasmussen, Anthony Cannarella, James Gilmer, Ben Needham-Wood, and Gabriel Smith – was outstanding, with Morse and Rasmussen in part 1 and Nash in part 2 delivering especially memorable performances.

Wandering has a lot in common with two of the pieces on Seiwert’s 2015 Joyce program. Most obviously, Starting Over at the End (which she co-choreographed with KT Nelson) was also choreographed to German lieder (unidentified) by Schubert. I don’t recall it in detail, but I described it in my subsequent review as being intricate and powerful, yet delicate, choreographically imaginative, and awesomely controlled, a description equally applicable to Wandering. And Back To, the most successful of the pieces on that program, also is a suite of semi free-standing but related dances, there choreographed to a suite of bluesy folk-like songs, marked by ensemble body-manipulation and which had a bench instead of lanterns as an inanimate participant. Obviously this is a formula that Seiwert relies on, and that continues to work for her.

Regardless of the merits of the individual dances on these programs, this year’s Joyce Ballet Festival, which was very well-attended at the performances I saw, has been a rousing success. Aside from the pleasure of watching world-class ballet dancers in an intimate theatrical environment, each of the choreographers represented demonstrated a high level of choreographic accomplishment, even though I couldn’t always understand what they were saying. Indeed, it’s been so successful, and eye-opening, that the Joyce might want to consider expanding its scope in the future to accommodate more such programs. Kudos to Executive Director Linda Shelton, Programming Director Martin Wechsler, and Curatorial Associate John Selya.