American Repertory Ballet
New Brunswick Performing Arts Center
New Brunswick, New Jersey
September 23, 2022
Kaleidoscope Program: Hindsight (world premiere), Bewitched, Delibes Duet (world premiere), Kaleidoscope Mind (world premiere)
American Repertory Ballet opened its 2022-2023 season Friday night at its home base, the New Brunswick Performing Arts Center. The program of four dances included three world premieres, one of which was the choreographer’s first such effort for a live audience.
Overall, although the program didn’t stretch choreographic boundaries, it wasn’t intended to. It proved to be an invigorating, audience-pleasing event, and the dancers’ energy level warmed a chilly early autumn night.
Surprisingly, since with smaller local companies it’s usually something of an afterthought, a highlight of the evening were the costumes for the opening and closing pieces, which were effective in communicating and enhancing the spirit of each dance. The costumes also serve another function: to distinguish the two pieces, since they have similar choreographic qualities. Aided by the costumes, the closing ballet had far greater pizazz; aided by its costumes, the opener appeared more nuanced and introspective.
Ryoko Tanaka’s Hindsight, which opened the program, turned out to be an impressive effort.
To my knowledge, Tanaka had only choreographed once before this, for ARB’s digital 2021 season. I didn’t see that piece, but with Hindsight she has the benefit of a specially-created score by composer Ian Howells, and live musical accompaniment by Howells on piano and Paul Vanderwal on cello. The costumes, designed by long-time company costume designer Janessa Cornell Urwin, are simple but striking: all share the same color (deep rust), and differ only with respect to the apparent gender of the dancers wearing them. Normally, this might result in an uninteresting presentation, but here Urwin’s designs served to unify the piece, and to focus attention on the music and choreography.
Hindsight is a fast-moving, generally rapid-fire dance that is a perfect evening opener. The eight-dancer cast appears, divides into different sub-groups throughout the course of the piece, and reappears regularly, which doesn’t distinguish it much from a plethora of other similar dances. What does distinguish it is the variable choreographic pace provided by the Howells score, and the variety of imagery that Tanaka utilizes.
There’s little sense of unnecessary repetition here aside from multiple mirror or reverse imaging which here serve a unifying, motif-like function. [In the former two dancers perform in tandem with each other, but as if one were looking in a mirror, so the positioning that the audience sees between one and the other is reversed; in the latter; the two dancers move in tandem while opposite each other, without any mirror image, so the audience sees them dancing the same choreographic movement.] And the “lead” dancer(s) in any one choreographic segment, to the extent there is one, varies from one seamless segment to another.
Most importantly, roughly two-thirds of the way through the piece Tanaka tempers the general choreographic speed with a warm and well-executed pas de deux with naturally nuanced emotional gloss danced by Annie Johnson and Aldeir Monteiro that allows a viewer to temporarily catch his or her breath. The fact that the duet ends with a third dancer breaking up the relationship is strange, but it was handled as if nothing unexpected had happened.
There is one moment, however, that does appear somewhat strange. At one point Leandro Olcese enters from the stage left front wing in the downstage corner, does a little dance while still at that spot, and then departs from whence he came. It seemed not to belong anywhere in the dance – perhaps its function (beyond being temporary visual window-dressing) will occur to me in … hindsight.
But that’s a minor point. Tanaka is a fine ballerina, as she proved in her Giselle with the company shortly before the pandemic began; with Hindsight she demonstrates that she has the makings of a fine choreographer as well.
In addition to those already mentioned, Shaye Firer, Michelle Quiner, Erikka Reenstierna-Cates, Andrea Marini, and Matanya Solomon completed the very fine cast.
Kaleidoscope Mind, choreographed by former Dance Theatre of Harlem principal Da’Von Doane to a composition composed in 1979 by Steve Reich (Variations for Winds, Strings, and Keyboards), is a visually stimulating closer. The score is gorgeous to listen to: the constant melodic repetition for which Reich is famous being consistently variable here. That is, it’s aurally mesmerizing rather than numbing. Doane takes his cue from the composition and choreographs constant but consistently variable repetition. Abetted by the costumes and set design by Grace Lynne Haynes, it looks stunning, but choreographically there seemed less variety here than in the Tanaka piece.
Without a doubt, Kaleidoscope Mind is a visual feast. Haynes’s set is striking: first, there’s a stationary image projected against the upstage scrim that roughly corresponds to the view in a kaleidoscope before one changes the positions of the moving elements (four segments in a circular shape, with the borders between the segments looking intricately carved, giving the appearance of movement and depth); and second, four free-standing objects (two metal structures that I initially thought were barre shaped, but which on subsequent view looked crookedly and spartanly angular, and a pair of metallic spiral-shaped structures atop a roughly 5 foot high pole) that initially bordered an invisible circle center stage, but which were lifted out of the way once the dance began.
Haynes’s costumes are basically two differently-colored unitards (or two-piece: from my vantage point, I couldn’t be certain): half for the eight-dancer cast in blue/white, and half in different shades of orange/yellow. But none were exactly alike: the areas of contrasting color vary from one costume to another.
The impact of all this on top of the Reich score is to create a super-kaleidoscope set of images, with the dancers moving in and out of a generally circular pattern and the patterns varying from moment to moment and image to image, just as in a kaleidoscope. It’s indisputably an exciting dance to watch, and the dancers (Emily Cordies-Maso, Johnson, Quiner, Nanako Yamamoto, Roland Jones, Marini, Solomon, and Re) deliver the execution to match.
The piece looks and “feels” substantially different from Hindsight, although choreographically, but for the pointe work here, they appeared similar to me. Dancers subdivide into smaller groups from time to time, and don’t always dance within a circle (or in one circular form within a larger one). But, like its score, the pace varies little from its initial moments to its conclusion. I suspect, like the composition, that there is a level of almost imperceptible variety of visual tempo, but it’s hardly noticeable – at least on first view. And unlike the Tanaka piece, I recall nothing isolating one pair of dancers for more than fleeting seconds.
That being said, I can’t fault Doane for the absence of apparent choreographic variety: he’s created a reasonable visual amplification of the score, and a greater choreographic palette might have contradicted rather than enhanced the music. But if it weren’t for the set and costumes, I think Kaleidoscope Mind would look far less exciting.
And the set not only looks impressive; it adds a strange and different ambiance to the dance beyond being a simple representation of changing kaleidoscopic images. Those standing props that I mentioned earlier are returned to the stage just prior to the dance’s concluding segment, accompanied by another prop – a round bulb of light atop another 5 foot or so pole that’s positioned between the other pairs of set props that we saw earlier (perhaps it was there at the dance’s outset as well, but I failed to notice it). All are lined horizontally upstage. Then, as the dance concludes, the lamp is moved downstage with dancers surrounding or in front of it, and the color of the illuminated light changes from orange to blue as it moves from one position to the other.
I confess that I don’t understand the meaning behind the shapes of the props, and although the lamp colors change from one dominant costume color to the other, I don’t know the reason for that either. The effect on me was like an itch that I couldn’t scratch – and probably shouldn’t have cared about. But these additions did add an additional visual and atmospheric dimension to the dance: a vague and somewhat confusing sense of spirituality and mysticism, which made me do a bit of further investigating.
As it turns out, a spiral form such as what was mounted on poles here has a definite albeit multi-faceted spiritual significance, and it’s been in use in various cultures for eons. According to symbolsarchive.com, a spiral “symbolizes the consciousness of nature starting from the center and expanding outwardly—the way of all things, according to mystics. It represents life, creation, birth and rebirth, evolution, awareness, and growth or development.” Another site, symbols.com, adds that it also “can represent the path leading from outer consciousness (materialism, external awareness, ego, outward perception) to the inner soul (enlightenment, unseen essence, nirvana, cosmic awareness).” I didn’t check any meaning for the bent metal bar because I couldn’t describe it, but I suspect it has a similar place in the spiritual pantheon.
This provides another layer of meaning to Doane’s work, and connects the two words of the dance’s title. He’s not only visualizing a kaleidoscope; he’s examining and visualizing the human mind as it responds to internal and external stimuli. Cool. Beyond that, however, it doesn’t change the visual impact of the dance.
Sandwiched between these dances were the two pas de deux. The first, choreographed by American Ballet Theatre dancer Claire Davison, titled Bewitched, is a breezy choreographic take on Rodgers & Hart’s “Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered,” sung on its accompanying breezy recording by Ella Fitzgerald. While not a particularly memorable dance, it accomplishes what it sets out to do well, and was … breezily … danced by Reenstierna-Cates and Elias Re. My only minor quibble with it is that at times Davison attempts to inject very subtle choreographic references to the song’s words, but they don’t always appear in sync with the timing of the words in the song.
As I watched Delibes Duet, the second pas de deux, choreographed by ARB’s Artistic Director Ethan Stiefel, I took it as a re-choreographing of the Act III Wedding Pas de deux from Coppélia. But that’s only partly correct; Stiefel replaces bits of Coppélia’s score with bits of two other Delibes compositions, La Source and Sylvia. Accordingly, whether a product of the different music or the different choreography, there are moments in Delibes Duet that look idiosyncratic. Overall, however, Stiefel’s revisions, though noticeable, don’t create something sufficiently different from what regular balletgoers are familiar with. And as performed here by company apprentices Lily Krisko and Tiziano Cerrato, it all looked somewhat tentative and rough around the edges.
This was disappointing, but understandable. It was, to my knowledge, Krisko’s first appearance with ARB, and both dancers may well have been impacted by a technical glitch that required them to restart the piece following the roughly ten minutes it took to rectify the problem. So although the choreography looked a bit different from the usual versions, and certainly (and appropriately) was a stretch for the dancers, it wouldn’t be fair for me to comment on the execution now. But I will note that the substantial height differences between the two (Krisko appears short; Tiziano is quite tall and thin) made the pairing look unbalanced. A better-looking pairing might have been the piece’s second cast (also apprentices), Clara Pevel and Seth Koffler.
And it crossed my mind as I watched Delibes Duet evolve that perhaps it signals an effort by Stiefel to mount a complete new version of Coppélia, which hasn’t been seen in the New York area in many, many years (both New York City Ballet and ABT have productions of it – the latter version performed brilliantly on the same day more than eight years ago by Gillian Murphy, ARB’s Associate Artistic Director, and enchantingly by Sarah Lane, currently a Guest Rehearsal Director with ARB). It all seems to fit. Maybe it’s something to look forward to.
All things considered, and notwithstanding critical nitpicks here and there, ARB’s Kaleidoscope program accomplished what it set out to do: to further grow a growing company, and to further cultivate its audience.