American Repertory Ballet
New Brunswick Performing Arts Center
New Brunswick, New Jersey
October 14, 2023 (evening)
Program: Elevate – Intrare Forma (world premiere), if (world premiere), The Time That Runs Away (world premiere), Wood Work
American Repertory Ballet opened its 2023-2024 season with a program of four dances, three of which were world premieres. Seeing a world premiere is like opening a box of chocolates; you never know what you’re going to get. Three on the same program is almost too much to digest.
Well, no worries. Each bon bon in the box of chocolates that ARB presented this past weekend at its New Brunswick, NJ home was good enough to satisfy any audience member, from critic to Gump. The world premiere pieces were Intrare Forma, choreographed by Meredith Rainey; if, by company Artistic Director Ethan Stiefel; and The Time That Runs Away, a marvelous dance created by Stephanie Martinez. Stiefel’s ebullient Wood Work, the only piece that was not a world premiere, completed the program. Each dance was enjoyable and well-crafted, and each was executed with enthusiasm and quality by the ARB dancers.
Rainey has had a long and distinguished career as a dancer and choreographer. Intrare Forma is his first for ARB, and the first of his pieces that I’ve seen. It’s a multi-faceted dance that isn’t intended to be more than the visually interesting dance that it is.
Translated, “intrare forma” means “form input.” As applied to dance, it’s defined as the organization and sequence of sections of a dance into an overall whole. It can also mean the selection, utilization, or sequencing of a particular dance form. Both apply here (aided in no small part by the costumes, distinctive but essentially similar for all dancers, created by long-time company costume designer Janessa Cornell Irwin, which include colorful embedded geometric forms), with the result being something of a kaleidoscope of movement into and out of a variety of structural forms, based on the forms of the composition to which it’s danced.
The score for Intrare Forma was composed by Miranda Scripp, a student at NYU studying music theory and composition. Notwithstanding her still being a student, she has honed her compositional skills in several different venues, and is a multi-instrument musician herself. Perhaps of equal importance to all of this, she’s the daughter of outstanding long-time Philadelphia Ballet (and its previous incarnation, Pennsylvania Ballet) Music Director and Conductor, Beatrice Jona Affron). Scripp’s eponymous composition here was the product of collaboration with Rainey, and was pre-recorded by Scripp herself (on violin and viola) and Lila Holyoke on cello. While at times the score was too repetitious for my taste (which itself is something of a form), it was obviously the product of a joint decision, and complemented Rainey’s choreography.
And “form” is an integral part of Intrare Forma. Following its introduction, which involves all eight dancers evenly divided by gender, the piece is divided into discreet component parts: Trio, Quartet, and Duet. Within these forms there’s considerable variety. The dance ends with a comprehensive Finale.
After the comprehensive opening, the stage goes dark and the music’s tempo changes. The dance within a dance that follows is not a standard operating pas de trois. Rather, often it’s divided into a concurrent solo and duet, eventually with the ballerina, Lily Krisko, being partnered by each of the men (Andrea Marini and Aldeir Monteiro) sequentially. The tempo slows and the lighting dims, and the dance continues until the company as a group reappears, and then separates again into its second component form, the quartet. The choreography here is divided between two couples, Madison Elizabeth Egyud and Roland Jones, and Erikka Reenstierna-Cates and Leandro Olcese. Staged to use the full stage, the quartet is primarily danced within an illuminated square space on the stage floor, for reasons that are not clear beyond providing another “form.”
Before its rousing finale (which had some minor timing issues), the dance segues into its third form component, the duet. Even here, however, the form is not maintained rigidly. The primary couple, Ryoko Tanaka and Marini, are interrupted, visually, by Reenstierna-Cates and Olcese leaping through and providing additional pleasant visual effervescence. [As he demonstrated here and in other parts of the program, Olcese’s leaps are memorable.] Even with the interruption, and maybe because of it, the segment works very well, with Tanaka and Marini executing Rainey’s measured choreography peppered with surprise visual exclamations (e..g., unexpected but well-executed flips) with finesse.
I don’t know whether Rainey’s intent here was to create forms and then eliminate the usual form boundaries, or simply to present an interesting, invigorating opening dance that uses “forms” as a basic structural principal. Regardless, Intrare Forma is a pleasant, engaging opener that’s appealing and makes visual sense.
Stiefel’s new piece followed after intermission, and it’s fundamentally different from the dance it followed. if is a solo, danced at this performance by Savannah Quiner, and its score is a song written and performed by Blaze Foley titled “If Only I could Fly.”
The piece is venued in an unspecified area, likely a room or the porch of a house, and the set consists of a rocking chair. As it opens, Quiner, wearing jeans and a shirt, is seated on the chair, rocking. My initial reaction was that this was to be a take on a piece choreographed by Samuel Pott, Artistic Director of the Jersey City company Nimbus Dance, titled Empty Place and exquisitely performed by former American Ballet Theatre Principal Dancer Sarah Lane (who for a time was a rehearsal director with ARB), but other than the rocking chair and related themes of loss, loneliness, and despair, the two have nothing in common choreographically.
I didn’t clearly understand all the words of the song as it was piped through the NBPAC audio system (undoubtedly my problem rather than the system’s); I deduced what was there from the gist of the lyrics and Quiner’s performance. Checking the song’s lyrics afterward confirmed what I saw: the song is about a broken relationship with nowhere for the singer to go, who laments at the end: “…If only I could fly, if only I could fly / I’d bid this place goodbye to come and be with you/ But I can hardly stand and I got nowhere to run/ Another sinking sun and one more lonely night.” [Think the popular oldie by Hank Williams, “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry,” except updated, less country, and more emotional.]
That “more emotional” quality, together with Quiner’s performance, is the key to this brief dance. As the music begins, Quiner leaps out of the rocking chair as if girding for battle, and performs an expressive, angry solo rather than being tethered to the measured woefulness in the song’s lyrics and delivery. Here, Quiner is a broken relationship survivor – sort of, who takes punches and returns them. Underneath the choreography that seems to thrash out at everything that’s gone on in her life all at once and what I saw as a resolution to deal with it is a wounded human unwilling to heap blame on herself. After conquering (or at least resolutely deciding to bury them), Quiner returns to the rocking chair as the victor of the battle she had with whatever it was that impacted her so deeply, and with herself.
Stiefel’s choreography here looks like a kitchen-sink of random physical expression, but there’s a unity to it that undermines any such assessment. And Quiner’s magnificent, albeit brief, performance delivers the requisite intensity and determination while avoiding melancholy on one hand and melodrama on the other. If the piece had lasted any longer, it might have been too much; as it was, it was just the right length.
if was performed by different dancers at two of the three other program performances: Michelle Quiner (Savannah’s sister) and Annie Johnson. I regret not being able to see those dancers assay this role as well, particularly since I understand that Stiefel gave the dancers significant leeway to “imbue the choreography with their own personal experience into the rhythms and steps.” And if is the kind of solo that’s not gender-specific: down the road, it could also be performed by a male dancer. [The above quotation is taken from a program summary, written by Reenstierna-Cates, that provides an insight into the program’s dances from a dancer’s point of view, and which gives the lie to the notion (if anyone still believes it) that ballerinas are empty-headed bunheads.]
One wouldn’t think that if would be consistent with any other dance on the program, but it dovetailed very nicely with the much more complex dance that immediately followed it.
Martinez’s The Time That Runs Away is the curious title of a dance that doesn’t seem to say anything, but nevertheless says a great deal that can’t, and needn’t, be crystal clear. It’s the overall concept here, including the music variety and the dancers’ execution, that takes it beyond the ordinary.
Dressed in identically-colored costumes – black tops and white slacks – the dancers breeze through the piece’s seven segments, each to an extent defined by the specific piece of music to which it’s choreographed : “13 Pieces for Piano, Op. 76: No. 3, Etude,” composed by Jean Sibelius and performed by Jian Wang and Göran Söllscher; ”Bioluminescence,” composed by Stephan William Hoganson and performed by Aquatic Focus; “String Quartet No. 2 (aka Company), II,” composed by Philip Glass; “Dream a Little Dream of Me,” performed by The Mamas and The Papas; “More than Yesterday,” written by Patrick Upton; and the iconic “Smile,” composed by Charlie Chaplin, with lyrics by John Turner and Geoffrey Parsons, and performed (as it was originally, in 1954) by Nat King Cole.
It may not be readily discernable, but there’s a connection among the diverse components of the score that’s reflected in the choreography. I don’t know the specific meaning of the dance’s title, if there is one, but at a minimum it connotes a passage of time, roughly from the beginning of time until now. That sounds like a ridiculously expansive period, but Martinez isn’t going for a millennium by millennium choreographed analysis; rather, simply that time passes and always has– things happen, and life goes on – from the beginning of life (represented by “Bioluminescence” through to modern times. [“Smile” is from the Chaplin film, Modern Times.] The key to surviving is to persevere; ergo a connection to if.
And rather than being an overdrawn cliché, as some explorations of “time passes, be happy” are, it looks at things in an original way, and in the end, concludes that life is still worthwhile.
There are no examples of choreographic barrier-breaking here; no extraordinary highlights. This piece isn’t created as a showcase for cutting edge ideas, and doesn’t try to be. Rather, it’s something perhaps rarer – a dance that carries out its concept clearly and consistently, in somewhat of an understated way, in which the concept and the dancers’ execution of the hybrid ballet/ contemporary dance choreography is paramount. Make no mistake about it: even though The Time That Runs Away passes in a quick 15-20 minutes, it’s an example of dance art at its finest.
The piece begins with a focus on two of its nine dancers, Marini and Olcese, to the Sibelius composition. The title of the album comprising this segment of the piece is “Reverie,” which, in music, is an instrumental piece suggesting a dreamy or musing state. In other words, a state of being pleasantly lost in one’s thoughts; a daydream. It’s the perfect opener for The Time That Runs Away – musings on life. Because this is a male/male pairing, the thought arises that Martinez’s piece is focused on that as a specific reference point for what follows, but that’s not at all the sense that I took from the dance as a whole. It’s a connection like other connections that come and go, and reflects a secondary theme of searching for a companion, ideal or otherwise.
This introduction leads seamlessly into the next, what might be considered representative of the soup from which life emerges. The dance’s additional seven dancers join Marini and Olcese, sometimes form lines from which individuals separate and return with a slightly different alignment. There’s no obvious connection here to the rest of the piece, except from time to time (as choreographed time runs away) I thought I saw what might be representations of genes or chromosomes – but that’s a stretch. This segment leads to a solo performed by Roland Jones, the newest member of the company, that combines fluidity with angularity, which is appropriate for Glass’s rest and restless score.
These segments, to me, serve as a predicate for the rest of the piece. Segment IV, to Dream a Little Dream of Me, is a quartet for Olcese, Anthony Pototski, Michelle Quiner and Savannah Quiner that’s filled with solos, duos, and partnering changes, infused by the sense of dreaminess combined with “whatever happens, happens.” The fifth segment continues and expands on the overall theme. “More Today Than Yesterday” is a 1969 song written by the late Pat Upton and performed by Spiral Starecase in 1969. Upton was the lead vocalist. Martinez’s choreography here for all nine dancers is as joyous as the song. And the song’s connection to the dance’s overall theme is obvious.
The dance could have ended there, but as she inserted a sort of “introduction,” she adds an “epilogue” of sorts, to “Smile,” with Marini, separated out from the mass in the prior segment, appears to accept the idea that whatever happens happens, and moves on. Throw in some rain and an umbrella, and Marini’s concluding dance has echoes of Gene Kelly. It’s a perfect conclusion to the piece as a whole, and when the curtain comes down, it’s impossible not to smile.
Martinez, who is based in Chicago, has choreographed for a plethora of companies, mostly in the Midwest with an occasional foray into California, and started her own company, Para.Mar Dance Theater in July 2020 (during the pandemic). [She purportedly choreographed a piece for Ballet Hispanico, but I’ve found no record of that – other than her having appeared as a choreographer/teacher in 2016.] Consequently, to my knowledge, this is her first choreographic effort for a company in this area. It will not be her last.
The evening’s closing piece, Stiefel’s Wood Work, is reportedly a revision to a piece he created in 2019 for the Washington Ballet, and which had its company premier with ARB in its first program after he became its Artistic Director. Not having seen that performance, I can’t comment on any changes that were made – but in its current incarnation it’s a dynamite closing piece for the nine or ten participating company dancers who seem never to stop moving.
Choreographed to a variety of Norse folk music recorded in two separate albums – “Wood Works” and “Last Leaf” – by the Danish String Quartet. I won’t even attempt here to give examples of Stiefel’s choreography for each of the dance’s seven segments. Suffice it to say that to a variety of music that changes the pace of the dance from fast to slow to faster to still faster that at times sounds much like an Irish jig or a Scottish reel or robust Highlands dance, with the boisterousness and exuberance built in, and without slavishly following every beat of the music, Stiefel has choreographed a most joyous and effervescent dance. The dancers at this performance (in order of program appearance listing) were Tanaka, Johnson, Marini, Reenstierna-Cates, Egyud, Nanako Yamamoto, Tiziano Cerrato, Jones, Seth Koffler, and Olcese.
Wood Work sparkles in a viewer’s eyes and leaves an audience breathless with its energy – and gives meaning to the program’s title: Elevate. Overall this was a superb ARB program; an elixir of dance that was a perfect complement to those chocolate bon bons.