Buttenweiser Hall, 92nd St. Y, New York, NY: January 9, 2015

Jerry Hochman

New York Theater Ballet in 'Rondo'. Photo © Darial Sneed

New York Theatre Ballet in ‘Rondo’.
Photo © Darial Sneed

Even though New York Theatre Ballet’s program on Friday night at the 92nd St. Y’s intimate Buttenweiser Hall, the first of this year’s annual “Legends and Visionaries” series lacked any premieres, it was a smashing program, and another feather in the cap of company Founder and Artistic Director, Diana Byer.

The most eagerly awaited piece was the revival of Jerome Robbins’ “Rondo”. It’s a gem.

In many ways, “Rondo”, danced to Mozart’s “Rondo in A Minor”, K. 511, bears a visual resemblance to Robbins’ “Other Dances” (to Chopin) because it features a pair of dancers performing for each other as well as the audience, although here the pair consists of two women rather than a woman and a man. It communicates a similar sense of intimacy, and, well, it’s danced to piano music.

But the resemblance is superficial: Chopin’s music is a different form and considerably more introspective than Mozart’s exquisite playfulness, and instead of a suite of dances to various pieces of music, this is a suite of echoing couplets within overall themes. Perhaps most significantly, instead of encouraging the audience to visually eavesdrop on private moments, “Rondo” invites the audience to, figuratively, join the fun. The lightness of mood almost, but not quite, camouflages the complexity of Robbins’ choreography, which requires not only quicksilver movement but impeccable timing. The result is a magical conversion of the devilish choreographic details into a vision of what might be a pair of angels dancing on a cloud.

Staged by former NYCB Principal Dancer Kyra Nichols, no stranger to stage magic, the ballet was executed brilliantly, in form and character, by Amanda Treibor and Mayu Oguri. They danced to the excruciatingly explicit but irregular counterpoint in the composition and the choreography as if they were fractured mirror images, with a combination of finesse and exuberance that perfectly reflected the qualities of both. Ms. Treibor appeared somewhat more effusive, Ms. Oguri more subtle, but even this difference complemented the differences in musical and choreographic phrasing. I thought at one point that one of the dancers was slightly off the other, but they danced so skillfully that either I was mistaken, or they compensated such that the minor error, if there was one, quickly evaporated. Amid the split-second timing, these two looked like they were having a blast – but not nearly as much as the highly appreciative audience seemed to be. Remembering it still makes me smile.

Former Pennsylvania Ballet dancer, now Choreographer in Residence, Matthew Neenan’s Ballet X (co-founded with Christine Cox) has a sterling reputation. I don’t know how typical “Game Two” is of his work, but it’s wonderful.

“Game Two” is an abstract, contemporary ballet with no choreographic focal point. Nor is there an overall implicit thematic sense – other than what’s provided by the unidentified music by Georges Bizet to which it’s choreographed. But it doesn’t need either – it’s stimulating and different to watch, and it’s fun.

It’s tempting to refer to Mr. Neenan’s style, at least in this piece, as ‘kitchen-sink choreography’. Every movement quality, it seems, is mixed in. At one moment it looks light and airy, at other times weighted; and dancers move individually, collectively, in the air, on the floor, and over, under, around, or atop each other. Hands and legs appear to be thrust all over the place and out of control. Movement is backwards as well as forward, and changes of movement direction occur in a heartbeat. Solos of different character are skillfully blended with segments involving pairs, trios, and the cast as a whole. This is not a comedic dance, but the images at times are unexpectedly, but intentionally, hilarious. “Game Two” is a serious ballet that never takes itself too seriously.

Part of the reason “Game Two” is so interesting and entertaining is the spirit and capability if the NYTB dancers. There wasn’t a weak link in the cast of seven. Particularly outstanding was the work done by Carmella Lauer, Ching Hoon Lee, Stephen Melendez, and Nayomi Van Brunt. Ms. Van Brunt comes across, both here and in another piece in which she appeared, as a pixie with an engaging and magnetic personality that captures a viewer’s eye. Although they don’t look at all alike, and although Ms. Van Brunt is wiry rather than athletic looking, in terms of both affect and effect, she reminded me of Carolyn Adams, an effervescent spark plug for many years with the Paul Taylor Dance Company.

The Neenan piece, which closed the program, was an excellent counterpoint to the evening’s austere opening work, “Short Memory”, choreographed for NYTB last year by Pam Tanowitz. “Short Memory” is also an abstract piece, not apparently ‘about’ anything more than bodies in motion, which may be admirable as an exercise, but which I often find not the least bit entertaining or stimulating. But unlike many such pieces, and even though it can look dry and dogmatic and deadly serious at times, I found Ms. Tanowitz’s piece to be endlessly fascinating, filled with startling but beautiful images that at times appear isolated and relatively rigid, like thawed memories.

“Short Memory” is choreographed to a selection of complementary pieces (“Reel”, by Lou Harrison, and Henry Cowell’s “Aeolian Harp” and “Hymn and Fuguing Tune No. 16 for Violin and Piano” – Harrison was one of Cowell’s students, and “Reel” was an homage to Cowell) interspersed with periods of silence. It’s strikingly contemporary, but it hearkens back to another era – much as Cowell’s startling “Aeolian Harp” (which dates from 1923), here a mid-piece transition point, still sounds (and looks) revolutionary but at the same time is classically soothing as strings are plucked harp-like from inside the piano.

There’s a sense of other-worldliness to the piece in which snippets of classical ballet poses and moments in time are used as distinct reference points, and are seamlessly interwoven into the fabric of the work, as if they were reawakened memories rather than choreographic samplings. For example, Alexis Branagan and Ms. Lauer each appeared relatively stiff (intentionally) and eerily trance-like through a coordinated (but not mirror-image) sequence of ballet steps, and although the look was dramatic and shocking, at the same time it was surprisingly serene.

Sallie Wilson danced in the first ballet program I ever saw – an American Ballet Theatre performance of “The Moor’s Pavane”. I watched her dance in other ABT performances since then, and they’re all memories I treasure. After her retirement, prior to her premature death in 2008, she staged many of the ballets in which she’d appeared around the world, and choreographed several of her own, including “Pas de Deux from Romeo and Juliet” for NYTB. Unfortunately, the pas de deux was, to me, the only off-note of the evening’s program, perhaps because it too closely mirrored the serene stage persona I saw in Ms. Wilson.

Prokofiev’s music both invites and reflects passion, but there was little of it on display in what should be a climactic and cathartic pas de deux. One wanted to see the volcano erupt, but it was too muted, both choreographically and as executed by Elena Zahlmann and Mr. Lee. Clearly they were would-be lovers, but there seemed little connection between them.

Although Richard Alston’s choreography in “A Rugged Flourish” is powerful and clean as a whistle, matching the force of Aaron Copland’s “Piano Variations”, the purported showing of the sole and dominant male’s acceptance ‘of company’, as described in the program note, still rings hollow. If it were a matter of the heroic figure’s acceptance of community, why are there no male dancers among the ‘company’? Whatever Mr. Alston’s intent, and however exciting the piece is choreographically, it still looks like it’s ‘about’ a faun, Mr. Melendez, who finds himself surrounded by attractive nymphs, one of whom, Rie Ogura, he finds particularly appealing and with whom he dances a fervent duet as much about self-discovery as passion. Most striking about this year’s performance is seeing Mr. Melendez’s growth. Two years ago he was very good, and showed considerable promise; he’s now a commanding presence (in this and other dances in which he appeared), dancing with exceptional strength and clarity. Balanchine’s “Apollo” would be a stretch, but he might be able to pull it off.

The costumes in each piece, all designed by Sylvia Taalsohn Nolan, who is Resident Costume Designer for the Metropolitan Opera, were distinctive and appropriate. And except for the recorded Prokofiev pas de deux, each piece on the program was accompanied by live music, finely played by Michael Scales, NYTB’s Music Director (assisted by Pauline Kim Harris on violin in “Short Memory,” and by Zheng Ma on piano in “Game Two”).

NYTB will present two more ‘Legends and Visionaries’ programs in the coming months.