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

June 3, 2022
Movin’ + Groovin’ Program: Moving to Bach (world premiere), Circadia (World Premiere), Time Within a Time (world premiere)

Jerry Hochman

I’d read that American Repertory Ballet would be premiering a program of original dances by emerging choreographers, only one of whom I’d heard of (and as a dancer, not a choreographer). So the only real question about the program in my mind was on what scale of “emerging” each dance would be. Attending didn’t seem like it would be worth the effort.

But I had this rare hole in my schedule. So, stymied by two separate car-stopping traffic jams, I made my way to New Brunswick to see a program I was sure couldn’t be very good.

Sometimes it’s really nice to be wrong.

The routine 45-minute trip turned into 2 hours, and I arrived slightly late. I was escorted to a seat just after the first dance started. Once I caught my breath (more difficult than it sounds), I sat back in my seat and watched the dancing on stage … and began to smile. What I was seeing was interesting choreography executed by very good dancers.

And as I continued to watch, I began to get excited. Everything about this first piece looked very well-done. But I had no idea what I was seeing, or who the dancers were.

By the time the second piece began, I’d secured my program, knew what was coming, and thought I’d seen the best of the evening already.

Wrong again.

Despite its silly program title (which likely was chosen to attract a young audience, although I’d think the words are passé by now), “Movin’ + Groovin’” turned out to be an exceptional evening of contemporary ballet, with each dance substantially different from the others, and each unexpectedly good. It’s still not clear what direction ARB will take under its still relatively new leadership, but it’s becoming increasingly clear that whether it goes in one particular direction or another no longer matters. This was a quality evening of dance.

I’ll discuss the dances in performance order, although each was equally meritorious albeit in significantly different ways.

The piece I walked in on was Moving to Bach, choreographed by Ja’ Malik. Although I can’t speak to the opening minute or two of it because of my late arrival, based on what I saw it’s a super opening ballet that accomplishes all it attempts to do.

Malik has ballet-related experience, although on the surface not the kind of extensive classical ballet experience that Moving to Bach clearly demonstrates. He was recently named Artistic Director of Madison Ballet, has previously choreographed for Charlotte Ballet, Festival Ballet Providence, and Houston Contemporary Dance Company, and prior to that danced with, among other companies, BalletX and Ballet Hispánico.

Malik choreographed this ballet to J.S. Bach’s “Sonata for Violin Solo No. 1 in G Minor,” part of a series of solo violin sonatas and partitas that Bach created in or about 1720. Like the other sonatas in this set, it’s divided into four movements: Adagio, Fugue (allegro), Siciliana, and Presto. The music is characterized by polyphonic and overlapping texture that sounds more contemporary than Baroque. [E.g., this isn’t the violin version of “The Goldberg Variations”.] Indeed, some of the passages might have been irritating (the way some contemporary music at times sounds to me) had the overall structure not been so interesting.

It’s very clear that Malik knows what he’s doing. To his credit, he resists the temptation to expressly emphasize the music’s polyphony in his choreography. Instead, he picks up on the classism of the sonata’s structure, and presents it in a compelling visual way. That’s not to say that Moving to Bach doesn’t pick up on Bach’s counterpoint, but he’s woven it so skillfully into his dance that one doesn’t feel forced into seeing it. That’s a remarkable skill.

Ryoko Tanaka and Jonathan Montepara
in Ja’ Malik’s “Moving to Bach”
Photo by Rosalie O’Connor

Moving to Bach follows the movement order in Bach’s composition, but doesn’t specifically reference it. That’s not critical either. Whichever tempo Malik hears is the tempo he uses. Accordingly, the dance is completely bereft of any break in the choreography. It’s smooth as silk.

Malik uses five dancers: three men, and two women. Upon my arrival my first view was of the three men: Aldeir Monteiro and Jonathan Montepara, both members of the company who I’ve seen in major roles previously, and Leandro Olcese, an apprentice. [I suspect that the opening that I missed included all five dancers.] Instead of presenting the three men concurrently through that section of the ballet, which the score at that point would have allowed, Malik adroitly weaves the men in and out of this section (perhaps we already were in the “Fugue”) in varying quantities (solo, pair, or trio). And the three dancers, without exception, executed admirably, and with a sense of joie de vivre that immeasurably contributed to the dance’s overall welcoming ambiance.

When the musical tempo changed, to the best of my recollection (I hadn’t taken pen or paper out of my bag yet), out from the wings flew a young ballerina who I didn’t recall seeing previously. She was marvelous: clean lines, gorgeous extensions, musical (even to an extent lyrical in a role that doesn’t require it), and seemingly without any degree of inexperience butterflies. Splendid. Thereafter, with one or more of the men interspersed, the piece’s other ballerina emerged for her solo. This one, Ryoko Tanaka, I’d seen before (many times) and remembered: among other roles, she was the company’s extraordinary pre-pandemic Giselle. Here too she executed brilliantly albeit in a non-narrative role, and confidently pulled the audience in with her.

Clara Pevel in Ja’ Malik’s “Moving to Bach”
Photo by Rosalie O’Connor

After the dance ended and I’d secured a program, I noted that the first ballerina was a dancer I had seen, and noted, previously. Clara Pevel, a company apprentice, was Titania in ARB’s recent production of Artistic Director Ethan Stiefel’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and I noted then that she held her own with that performance’s Oberon, American Ballet Theatre principal dancer (and ARB Artistic Associate) Gillian Murphy. Here Pevel performed with endearing ephemeral grace, adding a special dimension to the dance. Had I read Pevel’s bio ahead of time, I wouldn’t have expected less. Among other credits, she attended ABT’s Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School on a Youth America Grand Prix scholarship, and was trained at JKO by, among others, Cynthia Harvey, Robert La Fosse, Karin Averty (former Principal Dancer with Paris Opera Ballet and San Francisco Ballet), and … Stiefel. She’s a major company asset. But as I’ll elaborate on below, she’s not the only one.

Caili Quan is becoming a name – and my not knowing about her before this performance proves that I need to get out more often. Here, Quan was represented by the program’s second piece, Circadia. It’s another unanticipated (by me) success.

American Repertory Ballet in Caili Quan’s “Circadia”
Photo by Rosalie O’Connor

Quan’s familial heritage is Chamorro Filipino (indigenous people of the Mariana Islands of Filipino descent), and she was raised on Guam. Like Malik, she danced with BalletX (from 2013-2020), and is now based in New York. Her appointment as a Creative Associate with the Julliard School recognizes her choreographic efforts to date, having created dances for, among other companies, BalletX, the Nashville Ballet Company, and Oakland Ballet Company. I don’t know whether Circadia is a typical example of her choreography or an outlier, but it’s exquisitely original.

I saw no explanation in the program for the dance’s unusual title. Without a definitive explanation, the first word that came to my mind was “cicada”: those noisy insects that emerge from eggs on some specific multi-year time schedule to drive those who live outside a city crazy during the insect’s mercifully short life span. But I don’t think Circadia relates to that – rather, I think it’s a take on a related word, “circadian” (as in circadian rhythm – a natural process that regulates body activity within a particular time period), maybe simply referring to some sort of natural rhythm. Regardless of any specific meaning that may have been intended, Circadia visualizes such natural rhythm as well as any dance I’ve seen.

Circadia is choreographed to an eclectic set of music (excerpted from four different pieces by four different composer/performers) that appear to have no common denominator beyond, to some ears, sounding somewhat strange: one is classical / contemporary, one is 1950s pulp sex / romance, one is by a gypsy orchestra, and one is sort of funky soul. This common sense of strangeness is a perfect fit for Quan’s strange choreography. By “strange” I don’t mean “weird” so much as “different.”

Erikka Reenstierna-Cates and Jonathan Montepara
in Caili Quan’s “Circadia”
Photo by Rosalie O’Connor

I find describing Quan’s piece to be virtually impossible, but I’ll give it a shot. From the first minute to the end, the viewer enters a parallel universe of movement that’s at once slinky, slouchy, funny looking, free-spirited, and beautiful to watch unfold. In intentionally non-descript costumes (black, with some dancers in shorts and some in pants), the four male and four female dancers move in groups, or pair up, or some combination (I don’t recall any solos) that sometimes seem to have a theme (romance or relationships, sought or continuing) and/or that have a common sense of the uncommon.

Quan’s movement quality here looks more structured in its sometimes visual strangeness than Twyla Tharp, the choreographer who came to mind while I watched Circadia evolve. In a very far-fetched sort of way, I saw a little stylistic similarity– ok, very little – to Push Comes To Shove, but here the movement looks natural, rather than imposed to achieve an effect. At most, maybe, the two styles are distant cousins.

However one chooses to describe it, Circadia is brilliant. There’s not a dull moment, it’s hugely entertaining, there’s some carefree emotional gloss, and the dancers seem to be having a great time. There was no weak link in the bunch. In program order, the dancers were Tiziano Cerrato (a member of ARB2), Shaye Firer, Montepara, Monteiro, Olcese, Michelle Quiner (who trained with former ABT Principal Xiomara Reyes and is one of New Jersey’s well-known Quiner family ballerina sisters), Erikka Reenstierna-Cates (like Quiner, a stand-out here), and Tanaka.

Last on the program was Time Within a Time, choreographed by ABT dancer Claire Davison. It doesn’t have the flair of the other two pieces, but it has character (and characters), a continuing theme of sorts, and may have been the best of the bunch because Davison, who has considerable ballet performing background but less choreographic experience than the others, chose a tougher road to hoe and succeeded with it.

Time Within a Time is choreographed to six songs by late 60s – 80s+ British/American rock/pop group Fleetwood Mac. The songs Davison uses are far less familiar to me than other Fleetwood Mac songs (and, judged by the more muted than expected audience response to them, to the audience as well), but, based on a program comment, they apparently have personal significance to her. This might have been why the dance works as well as it does. Without focusing on the group’s most well-known hits (like the hugely popular songs from the album “Rumours”), the dance does not depend as much on the musical memory of the songs as do other, similar, pieces. Time Within a Time isn’t an homage or a gilded memory piece; it’s a ballet to some Fleetwood Mac music.

(l-r) Annie Johnson, Jonathan Carter and Andrea Marini
in Claire Davison’s “Time Within A Time”
Photo by Rosalie O’Connor

There’s a continuing theme throughout the general ambiance of the dance (a look back at a time within a greater time). I hesitate to characterize it because I’m not sure I’m right, and it’s not a theme that’s continuous throughout the dance – although it’s so strongly depicted that it might as well have been.  To me, the focus of attention here is in large part on the “outsider,” one of a group of contemporaries of similar background and age who thinks of himself as different, who loves and loses and then nearly wins but loses again and then again…but ultimately moves on. He’s maybe one who considers himself to be an albatross (the song “Albatross” is the penultimate song in the piece). And, considering how personal this dance appears to be, maybe (although I have no information to support it) he’s a surrogate for Davison.

Davison’s choreography here is complex and varied – it had to be to maintain visual interest. Most significant to the dance is the choreographed relationship between the outsider (as I see him), played by Jonathan Carter, and the girl in red who he falls for but who is involved with another (Annie Johnson and Andrea Marini, respectively – the latter a relatively new member of the company) – though she seems to be willing to consider the alternative the outsider represents. All three dancers, with the pas de trois among them being the dance’s centerpiece, deliver wonderfully nuanced performances. I’m not familiar with the two men (Carter and Marini), but for Johnson, this is the finest work I’ve seen her do.

Annie Johnson and Andrea Marini
in Claire Davison’s “Time Within A Time”
Photo by Rosalie O’Connor

But this isn’t the dance’s only focal point. There’s another ballerina who the dance highlights, eventually with a very well-crafted solo (into which, to my recollection, some of the male dancers enter and leave). I’m not sure what “type,” if any, she represents, but Madison Elizabeth Egyud, another company apprentice with JKO training, appropriately dominated the stage when the dance focused on her. Each of the other dancers in the ballet (Samantha Huebner – another apprentice, Hernan Montenegro, Matanya Solomon, and Nanako Yamamoto) contributed mightily to the piece’s seamless flow.

I must add that the lighting for each piece, designed by Jason Flamos, was restrained but stunningly effective when it needed to be.

One final observation. World premiere dances, even repertory dances at the opening of a season, are often performed tentatively, whether because of lack of sufficient preparation and rehearsal time, or simply unfamiliarity with the piece. The three dances in this program appeared to have been executed flawlessly, and with cast-wide confidence, even though this performance was the three-performance run’s opening night. This speaks volumes about ARB’s dancers themselves, of course, but also to the quality of their specific dance preparation and rehearsals.

One couldn’t ask for a better repertory evening than this, particular one consisting of premieres by “emerging” choreographers. If the program, or parts of it, return, don’t hesitate. Go. And if they don’t return for awhile – based on this program it’ll be interesting to see whatever Stiefel and his colleagues can pull off next.