New Chamber Ballet
New York City Center, Studio 5
New York, New York
February 18, 2019
Morning Song, Sanctum (world premiere)
So … I was notified of a performance by a group I’d not previously heard of called New Chamber Ballet. Since the description appeared promising and I was otherwise free one night of the two night engagement at City Center’s Studio 5 space, I decided to give it a look.
The opportunity provided yet another indication that I need to get out more often.
Under the leadership of Artistic Director Miro Magloire, New Chamber Ballet has been around for a long time – 19 years. And although it may not be well-known to the bulk of New York area dance-goers, judging from the over-sold turnout on a holiday evening, it’s hardly under the radar to many, and has developed a significant following of devotees. I am now one of them – not so much because I loved every second of the program, but because this is a group that not only has a solid ballet choreographic foundation and highly capable dancers, but, based on this performance, is marked by a level of creative intelligence that is undeniable even if I can’t determine exactly what, if anything, Magloire and his company are trying to communicate.
I’ll discuss the two pieces on Monday’s program – Morning Song, and the world premiere of Magloire’s Sanctum, after a brief summary, for those as unfamiliar with it as I was, of New Chamber Ballet and its artistic director.
Born in Munich, Germany, Magloire was trained as a composer, and at 17 won a prestigious local award for young composers. Within four years, and after receiving further training at the Conservatory of Music in Cologne, Magloire’s musical compositions were greeted with considerable success in Europe. That’s when he decided to stop composing. He emigrated to New York to obtain training in dance (first contemporary, then ballet), supporting himself in part by becoming a ballet class accompanist and by creating, in 2000, at least one highly-regarded album of ballet class music, titled “Ballet Music for Class” (listed, but not presently available, on Amazon) consisting of his own work and his arrangements of pieces from the classical repertoire.
Soon thereafter, in 2004, he founded his own company, New Chamber Ballet, to which he applied his knowledge of both music and dance. Within four years, the company had achieved a considerable reputation – at least among those in a position to know – for originality, ingenuity, musicality, and the financial resourcefulness necessary to survive within the high-pressure New York dance world. Eschewing attention-grabbing high profile (and high cost) ventures, over the years New Chamber Ballet has regularly performed multiple focused programs per season in small venues at various locations in New York (primarily, it appears, City Center’s Studio 5).
Whether borne of preference or necessity, New Chamber Ballet maintains a small roster of experienced female ballet dancers, supported by a relatively stable group of creative associates and driven by Magloire’s amalgamation (based on what I saw on Monday) of contemporary classical music, including vocalization, with ballet. Although his is not the only choreography that the group performs, Magloire has created some 80 ballets for his company.
Monday’s program was representative of those qualities that have made New Chamber Ballet so successful for so many years: in addition to those already mentioned, they include a Spartan but inventive performing environment (dance in–the– round, sort of), and a basic ballet vocabulary augmented by things that are “different” (as opposed to a “new language” of contemporary ballet) that make his choreography distinctive, all created and executed with almost mathematical precision.
Morning Song, a brief solo that Magoire created last year for company founding member Elizabeth Brown, which served as the evening’s aperitif, is choreographed to an obscure (to me) composition by John Cage: the 1st movement of Cheap Imitation. That choice of score reflects Magoire’s musical knowledge. The piece impressed me as being unlike any Cage composition I’d previously heard – which, I later discovered, is because it is unlike any other Cage composition.
The music was created in 1969 to accompany a Merce Cunningham dance, but my admittedly non-exhaustive research indicates that there’s a more interesting backstory. The score’s original iteration was as a 1947 piano transcription of the first movement of a piece by Erik Satie (Socrate), that Cunningham asked Cage to prepare to accompany a new dance to be based on Satie’s piece. Cunningham reportedly decided thereafter to expand the dance to include the other two movements from the Satie composition, and Cage composed an arrangement to those movements as well. Prior to the 1970 premiere of the dance comprised of all three movements, Satie’s publisher refused to grant permission to use Satie’s music, so Cage created his own “imitation” of Satie, ergo the title of the Cage’s composition and the new title of Cunningham’s piece: Second Hand. The music was described by Cage himself as not representative of his work, but he reportedly was fond of it – indeed, Cage subsequently produced an orchestral version, and in 1977 created an arrangement for solo violin, which is the form in which the composition was presented and used in Sanctum.
Magloire takes Cage’s Satie-based composition (the first movement) and weaves a simple but visually complex solo that is mesmerizing the way a well-honed honored ritual can be. Superficially resembling solos performed by modern dance icons, Morning Song is less expressive and self-involved than those because its passion is directed outward, toward some unseen force to which the dancer greets the day and with muted joy seeks the divine’s beneficence. [Its analogue might be the ritual practice in various cultures of a visual prayer over candles, although with considerably more movement.] It’s not a celebration of personality as much as a submission of personality – albeit with no diminution of individuality within the ceremony. In my mind, I was transported as much to the temples of India, where a temple dancer like Nikiya in La Bayadere might have greeted the day, as to Isadora Duncan.
The dance is introduced by violinist Doori Na, who has a distinguished performing background and is part of the nucleus of support that Magloire has assembled (Da has played for New Chamber Ballet for seven seasons), followed shortly thereafter by Brown who, en pointe, at once sways and swirls to the lightly dramatic strains of the violin (complemented by Sarah Thea’s simple but flowing costume), gradually expanding her presence and traversing the four corners of the stage as if concurrently greeting and imploring (and repeatedly returning to) the four compass points that surround her, at times like a supplicant, at times like a bird in flight. Appropriately enough, Morning Song ends with Brown raising her arms upward as if in silent prayer – or giving thanks for the blessings the new day will provide. It’s a lovely little piece, beautifully executed.
Sanctum, a 70-minute work, is a far more complex dance. It also addresses inner passion, but the nature of that passion – beyond its existence – is more difficult to determine. And I acknowledge that my lack of familiarity with Magloire’s work impacts my understanding of it.
Structurally, Sanctum, is choreographed to an assortment of pieces by contemporary Finnish-born composer Kaija Saariaho and Swedish-born Karin Rehnqvist, neither of whom is familiar to me. Its form, as well as the content within, appears extraordinarily controlled and precise. The ballet is bracketed by vocal music (opening with two pieces by Saariaho and closing with one by Rehnqvist) in which the singers appear and dance together with the dancers, within which are a variety of seamlessly interwoven dances to music only, played by Na and, on piano, by Melody Faber, another highly respected musician who has performed with New Chamber Ballet for fourteen seasons. [The singers (Mary Elizabeth Mackenzie, Charlotte Mundy, and Elisa Sutherland), members of a group known as Ekmeles, have worked previously with New Chamber Ballet as well.] The result, notwithstanding its simplicity, with the vocalization and the singers intermixed with the pure music and the dancers, is a visually striking presentation remindful, overall, of a Greek tragedy, with the performers here being a sort of dancing Greek chorus: an anonymous grouping of witnesses to and commenters on an event worthy of Aeschylus – except here the “event” is an internal one.
While, again, there’s nothing particularly ground-breaking in Magloire’s movement quality, what he adds to this basic vocabulary and the way he puts it all together is quite extraordinary – even more so because of the confined, open space and the limited number of dancers. Because of its sheer variety of movement and seamless, almost kaleidoscopic transitions that materialize seemingly from thin air, Magloire and his dancers – Sarah Atkins, Kristine Butler, Amber Neff (the only one of the group I’d previously seen), Rachele Perla, and Madeleine Williams – captured my interest immediately and never let go.
The piece opens with the eight performers, five dancers and three singers, separated into pairs, each pair positioned equidistant from each other at the edges of the stage floor, surrounded by the audience on each of four sides of the “in the round” stage. If there’s a rhyme or reason to the pair divisions, beyond facilitating the flow of the subsequent dance segments, I didn’t see it. The women sit on the floor, legs spread beneath them but sitting upright and leaning their heads against one another. Soon after the music begins, the pairs of women begin to sway gently, and one hears a vocal sound emanating from the stage. At first I couldn’t determine its source, but soon noticed that one of the performers in one of the pairs (Mundy) was singing. Although her voice was remarkably strong, her body, besides continuing to sway in concert with her partner, didn’t change position in the least. The sound I heard was a series of plaintive cries, as if the singer was wrestling with inner demons, which, by narrative extension, all the performers were.
Soon thereafter the pairs rise sequentially, physically supporting each other as they do. Although the movement quality is simple (perhaps to accommodate the singers), it’s compelling, as within the small stage confines the performers subdivide, approach each other and depart, or circle the area and move linearly, while Mundy wails in apparent agony. The impression one receives from all this is a sense of tortured fluidity. After another introductory song segment, the singers eventually depart, and the stage is left to the dancers and the only sound comes from the musicians.
It’s not possible, or productive, to describe the ensuing dance segments in detail (one of which was presented last year in an earlier incarnation). While the vocabulary is still relatively limited, most striking are the additions to the basic vocabulary that Magloire adds. Being an all-female group, one would anticipate little beyond limited partnering. That’s hardly the case. One dancer might grab the foot, or the head, of another; fingers furl and unfurl as if they were the points of emotional release; they push and pull each other – not so much in an attempt to escape another’s force as an acknowledgement that they are inextricably bound together. While there are no soaring lifts, there are repeated examples of seemingly impossible weight shifting and balance (not at all like Pilobolus) either arising from a close-knit swarm of interlocking bodies or within an individual pairing, resulting in startling combinations that look remarkably unforced. Within a pair, for example, one dancer may lift another onto her back as she kneels on the floor, rolling her partner to the floor, and then the dancers reverse positions, all seamlessly. Or one dancer may position herself such that she can lift and turn the other dancer upside down and hold her there without apparent effort. After these sequences pass, the singers rejoin the group, and the performers, in form connected with each other (and to my recollection now barefoot), exit the stage in a line one behind another.
The difficulty I have with Sanctum, however, is that beyond the performers’ wrestling with … something … within their minds, there’s no clear indication of what that “something” is beyond its existence. It’s certainly possible, based on his concisely written but non-committal program note, that Magloire has no intention of spelling this out, or that there is even a “something” beyond the bare existence of inner conflict within some sacred and/or privately secluded place.
So what’s left are two factors: connections between the dancers that appear to indicate that they’re concurrently representative of a single woman, or all women; and undefined but debilitating struggle. I’m not sure if that’s sufficient to make the piece as a whole any more compelling than being a series of interconnected non-specific vignettes. The lack of definition can get tiresome, and when the singers perform, the mostly high-pitched screaming (not a negative comment on the singing quality at all) can be – perhaps intentionally – grating. And although I heard a few phrases of song that might have been English, only one – which I heard as “I am I” – was decipherable (at least to me), indicating that the specific words were not nearly as significant as the manner of their delivery. Again, however, my response in this respect might be a product of lack of familiarity with Magloire’s work.
I have no such concern with the dancers’ execution, and while singling any of them out for particular praise is, under the circumstances, inherently unfair, the two newest members of the group, Williams and Perla, added an emotional quality to their work that captured attention.
Although I found the ultimate significance and impact of Sanctum somewhat opaque, I have no such hesitation about the craftsmanship, meticulousness, inventiveness, or overall intelligence that Sanctum reflects. New Chamber Ballet has won another convert.