American Repertory Ballet
New Brunswick Performing Arts Center
New Brunswick, New Jersey

June 10, 2023, evening
“Premiere3” Program: Holberg Suite (company premiere), Sight Line (world premiere),VARIANTS (world premiere)

Jerry Hochman

I confess. Where possible, and unless a dance is obviously ego-driven, I try to find something positive to say about a piece of choreography or a performance. I don’t think that gratuitous critical attacks aid a choreographer, performer, or viewer.

I have no need for such critical niceties with respect to American Repertory Ballet’s program, Premiere3, that I saw last Saturday evening, the second performance in a three-performance run. Everything, without exception, was a genuine pleasure to watch, as well as genuinely exciting and interesting in terms of choreography and execution. The world premiere pieces in particular – Amy Seiwart’s Sight Line, and Artistic Director Ethan Stiefel’s VARIANTS – were knockouts. I don’t think I stopped smiling from beginning to end.

The only negative aspect of the evening was the program’s announcement of the farewell performance of the company’s longest-serving dancer, Shaye Firer. But even this wasn’t really negative – it was a celebrated event. I’ll comment on it at the end of this review.

The evening began with the company premiere of the late Arthur Mitchell’s Holberg Suite.

Created in 1970 for Dance Theatre of Harlem, which Mitchell co-founded, Holberg Suite is classical ballet to the core, as well as an example of the neo-classism that Mitchell encountered when he was a member of, and a Principal Dancer with, George Balanchine’s New York City Ballet. Here it was staged by Cassandra Phifer, a former DTH member, who reportedly gave it a more contemporary spin that the ARB dancers could identify with without altering the choreography. Whatever it was that Phifer suggested, it worked.

Although I saw many DTH performances and ballets in the 1970s and beyond, I missed this one. The piece is not only classical in style, it’s classically balanced, and the various solos, duets, trios, and other ensemble segments flow naturally and seamlessly from one to another. And, like his boss at NYCB, Mitchell successfully infuses a level of excitement into the piece as it builds toward its conclusion.

“Holberg Suite” was composed by Edvard Grieg, a late 19th Century – early 20th Century Norwegian composer who is considered to be one of the leaders of the period’s Romantic style. He’s best known for his Peer Gynt Suite (incidental music for the Henrik Ibsen play), which includes independently iconic movements that people recognize even though they probably have no idea of its source: “Morning Mood” and “In the Hall of the Mountain King.” [His work is also special to me. A recording of Peer Gynt Suite was the first record I ever purchased.]

The “Holberg Suite” itself, which was composed in 1884 to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the birth of Danish-Norwegian playwright Ludvig Holberg, represents an attempt to replicate the music of Holberg’s era (late 17th – 18th Centuries). That explains why the music has a Baroque tint to it, a sense of joy as well as craft, and why it was subtitled: “Suite in olden style.” Grieg originally composed it for piano, which is the form used here, and a year later it was adapted for string orchestra.

Grieg’s composition consists of five movements: an introduction and a set of dances based on 18th Century dance forms. Mitchell’s ballet is structured identically, and reflects the same qualities of joy and craft.

(l-r) Anthony Pototski, Clara Pevel, and Leandro Olcese
in Arthur Mitchell’s “Holberg Suite”
Photo by Kyle Froman

For these young ARB dancers, Holberg Suite was something of a challenge, and while less than perfect, it was executed, by company apprentices and members of ARB2 as well as company members, far better than anyone had a right to expect – except perhaps Stiefel and the dancers themselves. A stretch is a good thing for a growing company, and the ARB dancers came through with flying colors (reflected in the colorful contemporary yet still classical costume designs by long-time ARB costume designer Janessa Cornell Urwin).

The curtain opens to a stage filled with the fourteen-dancer cast. In short order, in the dance’s first movement (corresponding to the Grieg delineation “Praeludium” – andante vivace), the dancers subdivide into small groups, changing places and separating into featured segments for several of the fourteen-dancer ensemble, including a few isolated duets and solos. For the second movement (“Sarabande” – andante), three of the dancers from the first movement, Clara Pevel, Anthony Pototski, and Leandro Olcese, remain after the others leave the stage to dance an exuberant pas de trois; thereafter the third movement (“Gavotte” – allegretto), danced by another trio: Firer, Tomoyo Suzuki, and Seth Koffler; which was followed by the fourth movement (“Air” – andante religioso), a pas de deux for Nanako Yamamoto and Andrea Marini’ concluding with the fifth movement (“Rigaudon” – allegro con brio), a reprise for the entire cast, led by Lily Krisko and Aldeir Monteiro. The overall impact, particularly in the Prelude and Conclusion, is that of a nonstop kaleidoscope of neoclassical motion that’s as entertaining as it sounds.

I’ve singled out Pevel before. She’s an engaging, ephemeral young dancer who executed well here, but her partners, whether because of uneven heights or differing strides, made the joint lifts above their heads look more wobbly than they should have. In other respects the two men performed with admirable precision and appropriate joie de vivre. Other standouts included Yamamoto and Marini, Krisko and Monteiro, and Firer, who dazzled in her final appearance.

As fine as Holberg Suite was, the program went uphill from there.

Amy Seiwert’s career as a dancer and choreographer is well documented. Her nineteen-year dancing career segued into a choreographic career after she retired from performing in 2008, and she was Choreographer in Residence for Smuin Ballet (a San Francisco-based company led by the late former NYCB Principal Michael Smuin and one of the companies for which she performed) from then until 2018. She will be rejoining that company, now Smuin Contemporary Ballet, as Associate Artistic Director for the 2023-24 season.

Since her work has been, and remains, primarily centered in the San Francisco area, my exposure to her dances has been limited: one full-evening dance in 2015, and one evening of repertory pieces in 2017. [My CriticalDance colleague Heather Desaulniers, who writes primarily about dance in the San Francisco area, has commented on her work many times.] My evaluation at the time was decidedly mixed, but, frankly, I have no recollection of any of them.

That will now change.

Absent sufficient context, I don’t know whether Seiwert has previously created anything similar to Sight Line, and it would take me more time than I have to find out. But I’ve never seen anything quite like it before. It’s an agglomeration of mysticism, passion, and reverence, together with an aura of haunting other-worldliness, all visualized through both choreography that manages to explore and capture complex emotions without any overt semblance of emoting or melodrama (the abundant emotion quite obviously simmers beneath the surface), and by its score, which does the same with a sound that combines a wistful, faraway sense with an overall Balkan influence.

Annie Johnson and Andrea Marini in Amy Seiwert’s “Sight Line”
Photo by Kyle Froman

Although I was mesmerized by the piece and consider it quite extraordinary, I wanted to know more about Seiwert’s inspiration and any meaning she may have intended to communicate. Sight Line wears its intelligence on its sleeve, but there are no program notes. I had a sense of what Seiwert is trying to say, but I wanted to confirm that, and to know more about this superb piece of dance art.

There are no program notes, so in order to try to understand where Seiwert is coming from, or going to, with this piece, I felt I needed to start from scratch – something I wouldn’t do unless the choreography was so unusual-looking and successfully presented that the urge became a compulsion, which is the case here.

The music for Sight Line is credited to the Balanescu Quartet, from the album “Maria T.” With that information alone one knows that Sight Line is at least vaguely inspired by Romanian music (the musical ensemble’s name is characteristically Romanian) or, more generally, the music of the Balkans. That’s a lot of territory and a lot of potential inputs, but it allows for a combination of different source modes from which to draw choreographic inspiration.

Checking the internet, one finds that the Balanescu Quartet is described by many sources as a contemporary avant-garde music ensemble formed in 1987, and its guiding force is the Romanian virtuoso violinist and composer Alexander Balanescu.

The Balanescu Quartet’s own website references its “Maria T” album, an early (2005; early is relative) example of the Quartet’s work, as “a re-connection with Alexander Balanescu’s roots evoking the spirit of one of his earliest influences, the glamorous and iconic folk-singer Maria Tănase (1913-1963).” [As reported in her Wikipedia entry, Tănase is considered by many Romanians as their own Edith Piaf, and on her death, throngs of people reportedly filled the streets of Bucharest to memorialize the lady who helped popularize the folk music of their country.]

Annie Johnson and Andrea Marini in Amy Seiwert’s “Sight Line”
Photo by Kyle Froman

In the course of his album-length reverence, Balanescu incorporates Tănase’s voice, and bits and pieces from her vocals – of course in Romanian – to accompany some of the music. But since this isn’t a direct recording; the sound of Tănase’s disembodied and somewhat hazy-sounding voice, combined with Balamescu’s music, carries with it an other-worldly quality – as if the music is, in part at least, the product of a seance.

So, although we don’t know the specific album contents from which Seiwert curated her score, we have a source for the haunting and muted vocal sounds, the language of which I couldn’t decipher in performance, that contributes so mightily to Sight Line’s atmosphere.

If you put the music together with the lighting (designed by Jason Flamos), you get – or at least I got – a sense of a faraway place, perhaps an island in some real or imagined sea, with a “sky” alit with changing color as the night evolves into day and back. Urwin’s costumes complete the supporting picture with a decidedly sensual edge to them – for the four women, they’re black, nearly-floor-length “dresses” slit up from the floor two thirds or so up her legs – not demurely along the side as one might anticipate, but somewhere between the side and the center front. The resulting sensuality just from the costumes themselves, and of course from the dancers’ movement within them (which Seiwert’s choreography exploits but in a way that’s not at all crude), provides another level of passive emotional depth to the piece.

Fortifying that exotic island feel (whether a real island or one dreamed of), on the ensemble level Seiwert’s choreography often comes across visually as gentle waves. When the music’s pitch momentarily lowers, the dancers’ bodies physically lower as well relative to the stage (keeping in mind that the rises and falls in pitch of the score gradually and methodically transition from one to the other). It applies in reverse also, and the “upward” and “downward” movements are usually coupled within one phrase. [It might also be visualized as lunging slightly forward and then pulling back.] My description may make this very specific and unusual set of moves, prompted by the music, seem like walking like an Egyptian, but that’s not the image I’m going for. It’s more akin to the movement of one’s chest when one inhales and exhales, except here the movement is noticeable, and vertical.

This doesn’t mean that Sight Line is filled with up and down body movement; its use is more limited than that, consequently increasing its significance when the “wave” imagery is repeated.

These aren’t the only examples of unusual-looking choreography that Seiwert peppers throughout the dance: Among others, Sight Line is alive with dreamy stretches of bodies and their extremities that match the lilting taffy-pull snake-charmer tones of the score. [The same sense of broad movement expanse is included in the opening and closing duets, but there it’s more dramatic.]

Sight Line is divided into three segments. The first and last are bookended duets for Annie Johnson and Marini. In between is a segment for the piece’s other five dancers. The isolated duets have greater impact arising from the facially muted but choreographically emphasized passion displayed, but the middle segment is chock full of ensemble, duet, and featured solo highlights by the other dancers in the piece. The choreographic riches are liberally spread.

This ensemble section, which comprises a significant segment of the dance as a whole (including the Tănase vocal additions to the Belanescu Quartet’s music), is essential to provide a general context for the piece as a whole and to maintain the dance’s other-worldly ambiance. Here Erikka Reinstierna-Cates, Ryoko Tanaka, and Monteiro excelled, abetted by Tizio Cerrato, and Savannah Quiner. The ensemble section also serves as a distinction between it and the two duets, in which Johnson and Marini were brilliant in their compulsive attraction to each other.

Which, finally, brings me to the dance’s meaning. I’m not sure it has one (and one isn’t necessary), but if it does, the haunting sense of other-worldliness, passion, and reverence lead inexorably, at least to me, to conclude that Seiwert is attempting to capture, relate, and generalize the relationship between Balanescu and Tănase.

The romantic expression between Johnson and Marini does not lead to a “romantic” relationship – at least as such a relationship is commonly meant. Rather, both Johnson and Marini’s characters appear desperate to hang on to each other. Their relationship is one of mutual dependence and unthinkable absence: between, for example, a mother and her son; an idol and an acolyte; a muse and the one he/she inspires. And when one’s muse dies, the response is akin to losing an indispensable part of one’s life: denial, and a compulsive effort not to let go of that source of inspiration.

This makes sense for Sight Line. The dance doesn’t so much end, as it abruptly stops, echoing Tănase’s sudden and untimely death. Johnson and Marini’s  characters are visualizations of the inspirational, reverential relationship between Balanescu and Tănase. And it’s the only way to explain the dance’s title: the relationship between them is a “sight line” to that loss, and that memory.

Similarly, the dance can be seen more generally as a visualization of a relationship between anyone and  a person he/ she feels a special connection with, and, in the other direction, the need by Tănase, or anyone in her position, for the adoration by people like Balanescu.

This theory isn’t perfect – I can’t account for the middle, ensemble segment, except either as a reference to the impact of Tănase on the population, and/or the population’s sense of loss. But neither of these is really supported. So sue me.

Regardless, Sight Line is a bewitching dance, one that manages to say something significant in a new way and without being obvious about it, or that says nothing at all but the visual context is compelling. Either way, it’s an impressive piece, and one of the best I’ve seen this year.

And then there’s Stiefel’s VARIANTS.

Choreographed to Johannes Brahms’s “Handel Variations,” Op. 24 (the composition’s full name is “Variations and Fugue on a Theme by Handel”), the piece is a three-ring circus of a ballet, and Stiefel’s best original work that I’ve seen to date – and I don’t mean any of that as a backhand compliment. It’s great fun; very well-choreographed and executed. And it gives the lie to the notion that entertaining non-narrative ballets aren’t as good as efforts that more obviously have lofty and serious intentions.

Some or all of the same music was used by Jerome Robbins and Twyla Tharp in their ballet for NYCB, Brahms/ Handel, which premiered in 1984. I don’t recall seeing it, but even given the senses of humor both choreographers have shown through their respective careers, I doubt that a level of zaniness was a component of it as the controlled zaniness is here. I say “controlled” because this is not in any way slipshod. If there’s something called “respectfully irreverent classicism,” this might be it. Except for parts of the final segment, in which caution – and to some extent classism – are tossed to the wind in favor of theatricality – it’s true to the music and the style. But even that last segment, though it’s more gimmicky, is consistent with the apparent goal of the piece: to show off the ARB dancers’ talent, and to entertain – as well as to take another look at the composition. On all counts, VARIANTS succeeds. And I must emphasize that VARIANTS is not a comic ballet the way Robbins’s The Concert is. Although it has giggle-moments, underneath it all is an effort to recognize that a ballet can be classically centered, but have a sense of humor.

(l-r) Jasmine Jasper, Tiziano Cerrato, Annie Johnson,
Anthony Pototski, Ryoko Tanaka, and Matanya Solomon
in Ethan Stiefel’s “VARIANTS”
Photo Kyle Froman

Once again, the costumes here reflect, and enhance, the fun that’s apparent here. For Urwin, the piece entitles her to a program trifecta. The costumes (which Urwin designed with Keto Dancewear) are variations on unitards for the men and tops and skirts for the women, covered with bright but controlled color: that is, the costumes’ colors, which to my recollection are either red or blue-based, meld into another color or shades of the dominant one from top to bottom. They give the dance a festive aura beyond even what’s native to Brahms’s composition (which many commentators consider to be among the best of such compositions – ever).

The tenor of the dance is set with its opening. I don’t know whether it’s been done before (I suspect it has, since with rare exception there’s nothing new under the sun), but that doesn’t matter. It’s startling and brilliant, thumbs its nose at formality and portends the playfulness to come.

Initially, part of the score is played while the curtain is down. At some point the curtain rises to reveal a piano set center stage. When the opening piano segment ends (or perhaps while it continues), the piano is removed from the stage to make room for the dancers. But this isn’t the ordinary transition. As the audience waits for something to happen, the piano’s lid folds upward, as if preparing to cover the keyboard. But when it reaches its apex, the top disengages from the piano’s body and continues moving up … to the rafters, followed promptly by the “piano” body itself splitting in two, with each section pulled out of the way. It’s a totally unexpected coup de théâtre that not only is audacious, but that set the tone for the dance to come. Kudos to set designer Howard C. Jones.

Annie Johnson in Ethan Stiefel’s “VARIANTS”
Photo by Kyle Froman

Brahms, who lived in the mid-19th Century, composed “Handel Variations” in 1861, basing it on an aria in the third movement of George Frideric Handel’s “Harpsichord Suite No. 1 in B♭ major, HWV 434,” which was created between 1710 and 1717. As such, and like Holberg Suite, it has a Baroque air, which melds well with Stiefel’s approach.

The composition consists of 25 Variations and a concluding Fugue. Reportedly, Stiefel uses all of it, but they’re not distinguishable (at least to me) by breaks in the flow of the piece. They’re almost all placed inconspicuously within the dance without clear delineation, which is consistent with the composition but makes identifying the segments and the dancers in them problematic when reporting on what happens when and by whom, as I am here.

Without intending to limit my recognition in any way, I recall being most impressed by Johnson in an early solo section where Stiefel’s playfulness was on full view (Johnson had quite an evening); Tanaka and Monteiro (both of whom also excelled in their assignments throughout) in their duets – one lilting and a little folksy, the other featuring quick partnered turns); Lily Krisko’s spins;  a segment that featured the ladies being carried on the men’s shoulders (Johnson, Tiziano Cerrato,  Tanaka, Matanya Solomon, Jasmine Jasper and Pototski); duets danced by Madison Elizabeth Egyud and Cates; Seth Koffler’s bravura turns; and Pototski, who was a one-man centerpiece for several variations, including one or two in which he convincingly played an imaginary guitar as if he were the featured performer in a rock band, and later, in the Fugue. If I haven’t singled out other dancers in the piece, it’s inadvertent; all excelled. Those not mentioned above include Michelle Quiner, S. Quiner, Avery Snyder, Emily Cordies-Maso, and Suzuki.

Anthony Pototski in Ethan Stiefel’s “VARIANTS”
Photo by Kyle Froman

The Fugue is Stiefel’s piece de resistance to balance the piano-splitting gasp-inducing opening. It begins with dancers sliding on their bellies from the wings to positions on the stage, in the process gradually emphasizing the angle of the thrusts (as I recall, their chests and bottoms are raised markedly off the floor, making them look like undulating sea worms pushing their way forward), after which the dancers slowly rise and deliver the fun-filled choreography – including Pototski executing a wholly out-of-place sequence of classical bravura variations usually found in Romantic ballets, including but not limited to circle jetés (Coupé jeté en tournant) into barrel turns, executed with the panache of a guitarist who plays ersatz guitars. A little off, but perfection wasn’t the point; pleasant surprise was.

VARIANTS is no less an excellent piece of work because it’s enjoyable; and it presents a side of Stiefel that I’d not previously seen. It’s refreshing.

And then there was the disappointment/ celebration.

Other than principal dancers with major ballet companies, retirements don’t get much attention. That doesn’t mean they don’t happen; just that they happen before audiences realize it, making any farewell recognition, at best, stale.

So Shaye Firer’s decision to leave the company and move on with her life shouldn’t have been unexpected. It was anyway. Somehow, I thought she’d be there as long as I was able to attend company performances. The reason behind that is that she was, to my recollection, the first ballerina I singled out in an ARB performance, and who I continued to highlight in the years since. With all the company’s changes in personnel over the years, she’s the ballerina who stayed.

Shaye Firer,
here with Marc St. Pierre
in Douglas Martin’s “Nutcracker”
Photo © Leighton Chen

I’ve been unable to locate that initial review. The performance, of Douglas Martin’s Rite of Spring, was in 2012 or 2011, but anything before 2013 apparently is in the ether somewhere. But I remember the piece, and the performance, vividly. What made the piece unique was that Martin placed it in an office setting. It shouldn’t have worked, but it did, and Firer’s “Chosen One” was a large part of why it did. At the time, Firer was relatively new to the company, Martin’s confidence in her was fully warranted. And the performance awakened recognition that dancers with small, emerging, and/ or out-of-New York City bonafides can execute very well, to fine choreography, anywhere they land.

From that point forward, ARB was on my radar screen. I’ve seen many ARB performances since then, including a repeat of Rite of Spring in 2016 (where, somehow, I avoided writing any details of the dance except to note that it impressed me as much, if not more, then it did when I first saw it). Again, here Firer played the Chosen One.

At Saturday evening’s performance, following Holberg Suite, Firer was recognized during final stage bows with a bouquet of flowers and the applause of her company colleagues and the audience. I assume that the same happened at Sunday afternoon’s performance – her last.

So, to the recognition given to her on stage, I here add my own. Reportedly she’s headed back to her hometown, Winnepeg, Manitoba, Canada. We wish her happiness and continued success in whatever adventure she chooses to pursue.