Vail Remix NYC Festival
New York, New York
November 3, 5, 6, 2016
Former New York City Ballet principal dancer Damian Woetzel has been the force behind, and Artistic Director of, the annual summer Vail Dance Festival for the past 10 years. This year, for the first time, he brought a sampling of Vail to New York. The Vail Remix NYC Festival – a series of programs that featured dances and dancers (and musicians) who have appeared in previous years at the Vail Festival – spanned four days. While I might quibble with some of the choices made, I can attest to its incontrovertible success on all levels. It was a recurring gala without the pretensions of one, coupled with the best of Fall for Dance, coupled with what can often be seen at NYCB on any given night.
When you gather some of the best dancers in the country and put them on stage, you’re fairly certain to have an artistically successful evening. Although there were ups and downs, the quality here, across the board, was top notch. But what made Vail Remix so much fun (and, to my knowledge, although I’ve not had an opportunity to see it, what makes the Vail Festival so good) is that dancers are presented in pieces they don’t normally dance (“cross-dancing” if you will), or in ways that educate and enlighten as well as entertain.
I saw three of the four programs, and, for me, the most valuable was the one with the fewest “formal” performances, Sunday’s “UpClose: Footwork” demonstration.
It’s difficult to describe what made the UpClose program so rewarding. Of course, it’s attributable to the excellence of the dancers involved. But there’s something else more significant going on here, and it’s not just that ticket prices for these programs are lower than for regular performances – at least for now. Programs such as this are highly successful because they tap into something that to me seems peculiar to dance (although perhaps I just exist in a bubble), and that has been fueled by marketing efforts that treat dancers, and particularly ballet dancers, not as gods and goddesses or stars but as extraordinarily talented young people. It’s an urge that’s always been there – calling ballet dancers by their first names even though we’ve never met them may be a New York thing, but it reflects a sense that these artists are, or we want them to be, accessible. These programs aren’t just about getting close – one can do that at a stage door – but of seeing why one effort, even by the same dancer, may look “better” than another, and how they do the seemingly incredible things that they can do and the rest of us can’t. And – as opposed to actors who by definition alter their characters to perform particular roles – we think (or at least I do) that something about a dancer’s character can be gleaned from the stage persona that they project over time: it’s not just doing the steps but putting something of themselves in the execution.
Notwithstanding that much of the banter seemed canned and most of the “impromptu” dancing was probably (and had to have been) rehearsed, Sunday’s program was a particularly comprehensive and entertaining example of how valuable these programs can be. And although learning “secrets” from Gabriel Misse, Matthew Rushing, and Lil Buck, and seeing Fang-Yi Sheu create a magical solo as if from whole cloth were exceptional moments, the process was particularly evident in the ballet demonstrations. Watching Carla Korbes at the barre executing targeted combinations by Woetzel, and Tiler Peck responding to guidance from former NYCB principal dancer Heather Watts, seeing the effort and the grace involved, and having the opportunity to confirm that the stage persona you may have sensed is not illusory: priceless.
In the course of the observations below, I’ll discuss certain dancers and performances during the two “formal” programs I saw in some detail, but skip over others not because they’re unimportant, but because there’s little I need to say.
Three dancers dominated the programs: Peck, Robert Fairchild, and Lil Buck.
If Peck and Fairchild were not already recognized as world class dancers, their appearances in Vail Remix would have cemented it. Nothing they danced – and they appeared in many different pieces and excerpts therefrom over the four days – was delivered less than spectacularly.
I’ve often observed that ballets that are lost or not regularly performed are unseen for a reason – most of the time, they’re either hopelessly dated or considerably weaker choreographically than dances in the active repertoire. But if there’s an exception that proves the rule, Divertimento Brillante is it. George Balanchine created the pas de deux in 1967 for Patricia McBride and Edward Villella, and it essentially disappeared soon thereafter. I’d not previously seen it. It’s delightful – Balanchine at his most classical. And the performances by Peck and Fairchild on the festival’s opening night lifted the little gem to an even higher level. Their execution was not simple dancers’ reverence – it was the joy and privilege of unveiling a significant rediscovery.
Earlier, the evening opened with Peck and Fairchild (replacing the injured Herman Cornejo) dancing Balanchine’s Apollo – not the one on current view with NYCB when the powers that be decide to schedule it, but the version with the birth scene (as presented by NYCB in the 1950s, according to Woetzel’s program notes) that Balanchine subsequently deleted. I remember seeing it with the birth scene when I first saw Apollo, and I’ve always felt that deleting it was one of Balanchine’s rare mistakes of judgment. It places the rest of the piece in a context that, while not essential, makes the ballet more textured than without it. I recall Leto’s labor being much more agonizingly portrayed than it was by standout former NYCB dancer Kaitlyn Gilliland at Thursday’s performance, but perhaps that’s exaggerated in my memory. (I also don’t recall at all the two “handmaidens” present in this version, who seem to serve no useful purpose – but the same program notes indicate that Balanchine made incremental cuts from his original 1928 choreography, and perhaps my first exposure to it was the version in which the handmaidens, but not the birth scene, had already been deleted.) Regardless, this version, which Peck (as Terpsichore) and Fairchild executed magnificently, is well worth keeping alive.
On Saturday, the Peck and Fairchild dazzle continued with a suite from Jose Limon’s Mazurkas. Some may contend that their execution was too balletic – but to me, abetted by Cameron Grant’s silken piano, they added nuance, depth, and grace that made the performances extraordinary. They also appeared individually (Fairchild on Thursday in an explosive little tap piece, 1·2·3·4·5·6, led by Michelle Dorrance and featuring Melissa Toogood and Lil Buck; Peck on Saturday in the enchanting pas de deux from Balanchine’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, with NYCB’s Jared Angle), and during Sunday’s demonstration, in which, separately or together, they danced excerpts from Apollo, George Balanchine’s “The Nutcracker”, Theme and Variations, Duo Concertant, and Slaughter on Tenth Avenue. It was quite an exhibition.
I must admit that I was less than overwhelmed when I first saw Lil Buck at a Fall for Dance program many years ago. I’m still not convinced that jookin, no matter how well it’s performed, is a potential component of anything greater than itself. But the jamming demonstrations that he presented during the performances took jookin to a different and significantly more refined level. It began, presumably as jookin itself began, as a duet (with Ron “Prime Time” Myles) to Gangsta Walk by Young Jai. Although nicely executed, it was there to set the groundwork for what followed – the application of jookin to musical genres that had nothing to do with jookin’s origins (except to the extent that many may be considered also to have “folk,” if not “street,” roots: Galician, Kazakh, Indian, Persian). I’ll withhold judgment as to whether this was anything more than a curiosity, but it was a highly entertaining multi-faceted display of virtuosity, as Buck and Myles, and Woetzel’s extraordinary assemblage of musicians – including, but not limited to, Yo-Yo Ma, Cristina Pato (on gaita – a bagpipe instrument from northern Spain and Portugal – and piano), Kate Davis (on bass, piano, and vocals), Grace Park (on violin), Saneep Das (on tabla), and Wu Tong (on sheng, flute, and violin) — took jookin to places it (presumably) had never been before the mass jam was initially presented in 2013. The result was both educational and electrifying.
The other dances and dancers were more of a mixed bag.
Korbes, a former NYCB soloist and principal dancer with Pacific Northwest Ballet, though now “retired,” is still one of the most innately musical, expressive and compelling ballerinas anywhere, and one I’d happily see dance anything at all. But Balanchine’s Élégie is another example of my “rule.” Originally created as a pas de deux in 1948, then as a solo, and rechoreographed in 1982 for Suzanne Farrell, to my knowledge Élégie has been absent from the repertoire since. The piece, to Stravinsky’s Elegy for Solo Viola, was sensuously danced by Korbes on Thursday’s program, but the piece says nothing beyond being elegiac about something, and lacks the drama of Martha Graham’s Lamentation, which Korbes was scheduled to dance the next night. But on Saturday, together with Angle, Korbes danced Liquid Velvet, a pas de deux choreographed by Jodie Gates, whom I recall as a dancer with the Joffrey Ballet in New York but whose choreography I’d not previously seen. It’s a lovely piece, not particularly innovative, but innovation isn’t the point. Sometimes being a beautiful, heartfelt dance, a mini-love story, is significant for its motivation rather than for its innovation, and Liquid Velvet (to music by Luigi Dallapiccola, impeccably played by Grant on piano and Suliman Tekalli on violin) is exactly as titled.
I’ve often been critical of Sara Mearns for injecting too much pathos into much of what she dances. But there was no pathos at all in her rendition of Alexei Ratmansky’s Fandango, a dance he created for Wendy Whelan in 2010. Choreographed to music by Luigi Boccherini (played on stage by the Flux Quartet, Scott Borg on guitar, and Elena Heiss – a Vail Scholar in Residence who danced a smashing flamenco on Sunday – on castanets), and Mearns delivered every gesture and nuance spectacularly well. In every respect it was one of her most memorable performances.
Isabella Boylston and Calvin Royal III, both members of American Ballet Theatre, danced This Bitter Earth on both Thursday’s and Saturday’s programs, a pas de deux created by Christopher Wheeldon in 2012 as part of a larger work. After its premiere at Vail, it was featured at the NYCB “Valentino Gala” later that fall (and at that year’s Fall for Dance a few weeks later), and I marveled then at the nuance that Whelan was able to milk from and add to Wheeldon’s impressive choreography. Part of what made the piece as moving as it was, in addition to Whelan’s performance, were her simple costume and the earthy vocalization by Dinah Washington, both of which added immeasurably to the barren hopelessness/we-only-and–will-always-have-each-other sense of the piece.
All this, except for the choreography itself, went out the window in the Remix presentations. The result was a brilliantly danced performance by both Boylston and Royal, but there was nothing beyond the choreography to show the emotional devastation, the courageous survival, the nobility of suffering, that Whelan and her partner, Tyler Angle, showed at those initial performances. Royal danced and partnered superbly, but his costume and the dim lighting made him somewhat disappear into the woodwork. Boylston executed perfectly, but her facial expression never varied (as was the case with her Odette/Odile when I last saw her dance the role), and her costume, a blue leotard, made no stylistic sense unless there was an intentional effort to change the mood of the piece to one of hopefulness – which might well have been the case since the song, though beautifully delivered by Davis, was at a pitch that lifted it out of its earthy base and converted it into something prayerful. The audience loved it, but knowing what Whelan did with it, I felt something very significant was lacking.
The situation was somewhat similar with Boylston’s performance as Calliope in Apollo. Compared to others I’ve seen, it was by the numbers, lacking the emotional dynamism that Lauren Lovette or Ana Sophia Scheller bring to the role. And lowering her head as she climbed Mount Olympus at the end was unsettling. Boylston is a fabulously powerful dancer, and not incapable of emotional nuance – as she demonstrated so well in Ashton’s La Fille Mal Gardee, and more than sufficiently as Juliet. In all fairness, these roles are examples of the “cross-dancing” I mentioned, so some lack of familiarity may be an issue.
Whelan herself appeared with Brian Brooks in Brooks’s First Fall, a puzzling piece to me when I initially reviewed it, and puzzling it remains now, until the emotional game of non-commitment ends, and the emotional support that has been there all along, unseen, takes over.
At both Saturday’s and Sunday’s programs, Rushing danced a solo created from lfe/My Heart, a larger piece created by Ronald K. Brown for Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater in 2005. Rushing does a marvelous job with Brown’s combination of hip-hop and African/Cuban infused movement, and his fluidity is extraordinary, but at least in this solo, the choreography is, intentionally, all repetition, all rhythm, all image and no substance – fitting the beat of the accompanying song (Ursula Rucker’s Release) but having no connection at all to the words, which are exclusively a vocalized component of the rhythm. Sheu’s duet on Saturday with Myles, Anywhere On This Road, to music by Lhasa, was superbly done, but her solo on Sunday’s program was even more impressive. And Misse and Carla Espinoza danced a brief Argentine tango, Universe, that they choreographed to music by JP Jofre (who accompanied them on bandoneon, together with the ubiquitous Grant on piano and the Catalyst Quartet).
Lastly, two companies were given opportunities to showcase their work on Saturday. The evening opened with a scintillating performance by Ballet X’s masterful dancers of co-founder Matthew Neenan’s Switch Phase, which premiered at Vail in 2012. It’s a marvelously vivid, and concurrently lyrical, piece detailing progressive relationships with a folk-inspired musical ambiance. Although there are occasional (and inevitable) misfires, Neenan’s choreography is always varied, surprising, and coherent, and the company should be seen the next time it returns to the Joyce (or at its home in Philadelphia). The evening closed with Keigwin + Company in Larry Keigwin’s exuberant Canvas, commissioned by Vail for its 2013 season. If the program didn’t already leave the audience in a good mood, Keigwin’s effervescent choreography and engaging dancers did the trick.
My only criticism of these programs is that, for a four-day series, seeing a greater variety of dancers attempting the stylistically different dances that they’re given an opportunity to assay at Vail would have been expected (though I can appreciate the logistical problem that this might create, as well as a preference to give certain dancers the opportunity to experiment outside the NYC critical microscope). In any event, based on this year’s programming, if Vail Remix returned with a new “remix” every year, it would be a welcome addition to the city’s dancescape.