American Repertory Ballet
New Brunswick Performing Arts Center
New Brunswick, New Jersey
September 21, 2019
“New Heights” Program: Airs, Overture, Beyond the Normal (world premiere), Fluctuating Hemlines
Two questions dominate after seeing American Repertory Ballet’s first performance of the 2019-2020 season at its new home theater, the New Brunswick Performing Arts Center (NBPAC). First, does this program represent a new direction for ARB under its new artistic leadership (led by Executive Director Julie Diana Hench, former principal dancer with Pennsylvania Ballet)? – which I’ll address at the conclusion of this review. The second: where did they find the choreographer of the evening’s world premiere, Beyond The Normal – Riccardo De Nigris?
The program note indicates that the Italian-born De Nigris was a soloist with Germany’s Augsberg Ballet, and for a period of time was its House Choreographer. Within his described ambit of experience are the usual “emerging choreographer”-type references, and a recitation of some dances he choreographed that I’d not heard of. Obviously, however, someone at ARB did know of him, and invited him to choreograph a piece specially created for this inaugural program. The result is one of the most entertaining of small-scale contemporary dramatic non-narrative ballets that I’ve seen in a very long time, impressive both for its well-crafted choreography and its execution by the four ARB dancers: Annie Johnson, Aldeir Monteiro, Hallie Rumsey-Lasersohn, and Jonathan Montepara (the latter two being members of ARB2). That there may have been two parts to the ballet, or one part followed by another seemingly unrelated to it that cut the dramatic tension of the first to smithereens, only makes the feat all the more impressive. Indeed, my only criticism is that there’s no indication whether the second part was intended to be a separate “add-on,” or was part of the same titled dance.
Regardless, Beyond the Normal is exciting, whether comprised of one part or two. The ballet, or the first part of the two part ballet, is aggressive in its movement, ominous in its general tone, and somewhat mysterious and fiery in the way that combustible relationships can be mysterious and fiery, with added emphasis from Christopher Chambers’s lighting design, Janessa Cornell Urwin’s sleek dark costumes with red-orange tiger-ish horizontal stripes down the arms and on the upper body, and Massimo Margaria’s electronic score. [The program does not provide a biographic summary, but it appears that Margaria is a soloist with the Royal New Zealand Ballet, who also has created ambient electronic scores for ballets (and, aside from being of Italian descent, also danced with the Augsberg Ballet). Connections … connections.]
From the opening moments, when dome lights attached to a horizontal beam rise above the stage floor and the four dancers appear beneath them (as if being released from some hidden world), through to the end, when the dancers retreat back to the now descending beams of light, the atmosphere is intense. The Johnson / Monteiro couple appeared a bit more dramatic, and the Rumsey-Lasersohn / Montepara couple more physically emotional, but both couples executed with a simmering passion (directed a bit less at each other than as a consequence of the movement and the ambience) that was disquieting and fascinating. The choreography isn’t new, or even idiosyncratic, which is refreshing – but it’s interesting, which is half the battle. And unlike those contemporary ballets that focus on anomie and fury against the machine, whatever the particular machine happens to be (dances that some reviewers have dubbed “eurotrash”), the ballet’s ominous, aggressive tone does not lead to that here. Nor is it movement for movement’s sake. What’s depicted is more than undefined energy sources: these are relationships of sorts, with some measure of emotional gloss. While there’s no plot, there’s no vapid posing either. All four dancers excelled, and each attacked the choreography with noteworthy gusto, but Rumsey-Lasersohn threw herself into the choreography that required it with far more emphasis and control amid the physical fury than one might expect from a dancer in a training company.
When the piece ended, and the stage darkened, and the audience started to applaud enthusiastically, the dancing suddenly resumed, and the ambience abruptly shifted to out of control humor, as if the release of the tension from the ballet (the first part) resulted in an outrageously funny (but not slapstick) seemingly unscripted adventure on the other side of the emotional scale.
I enjoyed the piece a great deal – as, apparently, did the rest of the audience. Does it “mean” anything? If there is a meaning, I couldn’t discern it – but that doesn’t matter as long as it maintains my attention and doesn’t curdle my stomach. But in a different sense, it does mean something – that De Nigris is a choreographer to watch.
The evening opened with the company delivering a thoroughly commendable performance of Paul Taylor’s Airs. The piece is relatively early Taylor (it premiered in 1978), and is somewhat of a cross in mood between Aureole and Esplanade in its use of the ground and the air together to create a sense of lyricism that makes it a perfect connection to Taylor for a ballet company (indeed, the first time I saw Airs was in a performance by American Ballet Theatre). The dance was staged by former Taylor Company dancer Sean Mahoney, and its authenticity showed. Erikka Reenstierna-Cates was the dance’s central focus, to the extent there is one, with duets and solos by Journy Wilkes-Davis and Ryoko Tanaka, and Monteiro and Nanako Yamamoto, with Wilkes-Davis (whose “Beast” in last season’s Beauty and the Beast, by Resident Choreographer Kirk Peterson, was so memorable) bringing to mind Taylor himself and Monteiro dancing with particular abandon (consistent with the choreography) in his solo. Emily Parker and Montepara completed the excellent cast.
Although executed well and fun to watch, the evening’s other two ballets didn’t leave as strong an impression.
Created by former ABT Principal Dancer (and former Royal New Zealand Ballet Artistic Director) Ethan Stiefel, Overture doesn’t seem to have a sense of direction. Choreographed to the overture to Beethoven’s Egmont, the ballet has nothing to do with the play by Goethe for which the music was composed, or the underlying story of the heroism of the title character in opposing domination by Napoleon. On the contrary, the ballet has no definable narrative.
Overture (which, given its title, might have been more appropriate as the opening dance on the program – an “overture” to ARB’s new season) is not at all uninteresting to watch, with catchy images like the opening display of the dancers in silhouette followed by unpredictable movement flow and commendable changes in visual emphasis. But then Stiefel begins to inject comic movements and gestures that don’t fit: aside from some strange costuming (the men with arms unencumbered by the part of the costume that’s supposed to be there), there are sporadic arm movements that look funny and an occasional shoulder shrug that appears from nowhere. Fine, I thought. So he’s converting something “ballet serious” into something funny. But Overture doesn’t go there either. The comic gestures and images are just ticks in the overall ballet prompted neither by the music nor by a discernible theme, establishing nothing more than an apparent absence of focus. Overture isn’t a bad ballet, and it was performed with flair by the 10 ARB dancers (particularly by Shaye Firer and Marie Tender), but it’s not a memorable one.
Following Beyond the Limit, the evening concluded with former ARB Artistic Director (and current Artistic Director of the Hong Kong Ballet) Septime Webre’s Fluctuating Hemlines. Choreographed to pleasantly pulsing music by Robert “Tigger” Benford, who performed the music live, Fluctuating Hemlines may have been considered groundbreaking when it was first performed in 1996. Now, it’s a reasonably entertaining curiosity.
There’s nothing in Fluctuating Hemlines that relates to fluctuating hemlines. There are hemlines of sorts, and there aren’t. By that I mean that the dancers – six men, six women – appear costumed (the women in various color dresses, each with hemlines that vary in length from front to back, and the men in different color suits), or “without costume” in undergarments that might have been the norm several generations ago. The women and men at first appear separately, the women pouting and flirtatious, the men preening and self-absorbed. When their clothes are removed revealing underwear, nothing much changes except the change in body covering.
I suppose one could argue that the dance’s title isn’t to be taken literally, but as a catch-all description for fluctuating styles, or the irrelevance of fashion and the persistence of the narcissism that such preoccupation reflects. And before one jumps to connect Fluctuating Hemlines with ballet dancer narcissism and, say, Jerome Robbins’s Afternoon of a Faun, don’t. Here, it’s not so much dancer narcissism as cultural narcissism.
All this being said, like Overture, Fluctuating Hemlines is clever at times, and was impeccably executed by the ARB dancers. That it, too, leaves no lasting impression may be less important than that it’s fun to watch. The twelve-dancer cast was comprised of Tanner Bleck, Daniel Cooke, Ruben Rascon, Matanya Solomon, Firer, Johnson, Parker, Reenstierna-Cates, Tender, Yamamoto, Monteiro, and Wilkes-Davis. And as a connection to ARB’s roots, or one of its roots, it was not inappropriate for this inaugural program at the company’s new home.
What is very clear from this program is that these ARB dancers continue to maintain the level of quality that the company has demonstrated in prior years. What isn’t clear yet is how this talent will be used. At the outset of this review, the first question I posed was: does this program represent a new direction for ARB under its new artistic leadership? Although there’s a long way to go before that question can be answered, based on this program, I think it does.
Nowhere in this program is there evidence of the kind of classical ballet that was emphasized under its previous leadership. Classical ballet isn’t being abandoned, but the nature of the pieces differ, and emphasize a direction toward contemporary ballet (a catch-all term that may mean to some anything created by a choreographer who is still living, and to others an emphasis on physicality, hyper-energy, contorted bodies, and /or seemingly non-stop movement that pushes dancers to their limits to galvanize audiences less inclined toward the formalities and plotlines of what audiences usually think of when they think of ballet), with the pluses and minuses that this brings. And the sparkling new NBPAC reflects this change as well: the theater spaces (there are two) are considerably smaller than the State Theater (which remains next door), with the larger theater (the Elizabeth Ross Johnson Theater, where this program was performed) having an 81 foot stage and seating for 463. A theater of this size may be perfect for the other NBPAC constituent members: George Street Playhouse, Crossroads Theatre Company, and Rutgers University’s Mason Gross School of the Arts (for Dance, Theater, Film, and Music programs), but for a ballet company, it’s limiting. My guess, only that at this point, is that instead of costume ballets and a Joffrey-like repertory, the company will at least in the near future focus on contemporary ballet (hopefully of the caliber of Beyond the Normal), sprinkled with stagings of classic ballets on a small scale (the company is scheduled to dance Giselle at NBPAC in February), and occasional revisits to modern dance classics such as Airs (comparable to what ARB previously included in its programming, with such pieces as Jose Limon’s There is a Time). But unlike carving a Joffrey-like niche, a small, regional ballet company that focuses on contemporary ballet is far more common.
But perhaps any change to a more contemporary-based, less effete programming is simply a reflection of reality. At least since I’ve become familiar with it, ARB has had to walk a tightrope between the cities to the north and south. With the refocus of Pennsylvania Ballet, competing for audience attention with the major ballet companies in New York and Philadelphia has become even more problematic than before. And it’s a problem that the prior Artistic Director, Douglas Martin, himself must have recognized, since the move to NBPAC was initiated, and nearly fulfilled, during his tenure. Catering to a different type of audience with a different focus of programming — and one that requires less of a financial outlay, may have become essential.
Regardless, it’ll be an interesting ride. And if this program is a guide, one that promises lots of fine dance to come.