AVID (Artistic Ventures in Dance)
Theater at St. Jeans
New York, New York

June 26, 2024
“Art That Moves” Program: Italian Suite (excerpts), Moonlight, Untamed Woman, Persona, Owls – Birds 1, Impulse

Jerry Hochman

It’s a rare privilege to see the opening night of the inaugural season of a new dance company. AVID (which stands for Artistic Ventures in Dance) provided that opportunity, and I attended its inaugural performance on June 26th at the lovely little Theatre at St. Jean’s on Manhattan’s East Side. This was the first of a two-night run.

AVID’s creation was spearheaded by co-founders Emily Speed (the new company’s Artistic Director and Co-Producer); Tanya Lynn Trombly (its Creative Director and Co-Producer) and David Hochberg (its Grant Writer). All three are also company dancers. Together, they have joined with an assemblage of collaborating artists who contributed their various talents to the evening. It was all presented in a very professional-looking package, with lighting designed by Jesse Campbell, sound by SND Broadcast, and stage managed by Jacob Wexler.

On its neatly-designed web site, AVID describes itself as “… a collaboration of seasoned professionals & young artists from across the country coming together for projects designed to be real, raw, & vulnerable. The desire is to combine AVID’s established dancers with local artists to create something authentic to each location, something the community can relate to and participate in.” I’m not sure that that’s doable, but it’s certainly admirable.

My connection with the evening, directly, was Artistic Guest Valerie Madonia, who danced with both the Joffrey Ballet and American Ballet Theatre, and here staged excerpts from one of Gerald Arpino’s dances. I also recognized several of the dancers from their prior appearances with other companies.

Following a welcoming address by Speed, who seemed remarkably self-assured under the circumstances, the evening opened with an “Inaugural Overture,” composed by Artistic Guest Asher Komor, played live by Komor on flute, with Molly Aronson on cello and Taisiya Pushkar on piano. The piece sounded both portentous and accessible – and included a variety of tempi. I’m not a music expert, but I was impressed; it was an auspicious introduction to the evening, and the company.

The remainder of the evening was comprised of the Arpino excerpts (from Italian Suite) and pieces by an assortment of choreographers previously unknown to me, although, in an unusual twist, most appear to have long passed the stage where I’d describe them as “emerging.” I’ll consider them all in program order.

Since Italian Suite was choreographed by a renowned choreographer and staged by a repetiteur for the Arpino Foundation (Madonia), I expected fine performances, and got them.

Emily Speed and Austin Eyler
in Gerald Arpino’s “Italian Suite”
Photo by Jeremy Kyle

Before I discuss the piece and the performances, forgive a slight diversion to enlighten those who may not be familiar with Arpino, or with the Joffrey Ballet when it was located in New York.

Gerald Arpino (1923 -2008) was the co-founder and principal choreographer for Joffrey Ballet, which, while it was resident in New York from its founding in 1956 to 1995 (when it decamped to Chicago), was one of my favorite ballet companies and a source of joy and inspiration far different from that provided by the other major New York-based ballet companies. The Joffrey was a continuing shot of adrenaline for dance audiences, presenting unique dances, or revivals of ones long absent from any company’s repertory, including pieces with a decidedly contemporary thrust. As the company’s web site trumpets, the Joffrey was “the first dance company to perform at the White House at Jacqueline Kennedy’s invitation, the first to appear on American television, the first classical dance company to use multi-media, the first to create a ballet set to rock music, the first to appear on the cover of TIME Magazine (Astarte), and the first company to have a major motion picture based on its origins (Robert Altman’s “The Company”).” [The autocratic teacher/ choreographer in that film, portrayed by Malcolm McDowell, is reportedly based on Arpino.] Though it’s not mentioned in the program, AVID’s presentation of excerpts from Arpino’s Italian Suite is listed on the Arpino Foundation’s website as one of the performances presented during the two-year celebration of Arpino’s Centennial.

The Joffrey was like that box of chocolates that Forrest Gump found analogous to life: you never knew what you were going to get. But with the Joffrey,, you knew it’d be delicious or interesting, or both. In addition to Robert Joffrey’s Astarte, among its broad and eclectic repertory were Arpino’s Trinity, Light Rain, Kettentanz, and Suite Saint Saëns (one of my favorites), Twyla Tharp’s Deuce Coupe (and Deuce Coupe Two and As Times Go By), and revivals of Kurt Jooss’s The Green Table, Ashton’s Façade (and Monotones I and II, and Les Patineurs), Ruthanna Boris’s Cakewalk, Massine’s Parade, Fokine’s Petroushka, and, famously, Nijinsky’s L’Après-Midi d’un Faune (with Rudolf Nureyev), as well as its landmark “Tribute to Nijinksy” program. And its dancers, including but in no way limited to Christian Holder, Denise Jackson, Gary Chryst, Beatriz Rodriguez, Tina LeBlanc (who later danced with San Francisco Ballet), Trinette Singleton, Starr Danias, Rebecca Wright (who later danced with ABT), Charlene Gehm, Ann Marie DeAngelo, Nicole Duffy, and Martine van Hamel and Kevin McKenzie (both of whom later danced with ABT, where McKenzie eventually became its Artistic Director), became as familiar as NYCB or ABT dancers. It was one component of that “Golden Age” of ballet that I referred to in some of my early reviews. And it’s a huge disappointment that no NYC area-company, at least none I’m aware of, has filled the void since The Joffrey moved to Chicago. [An aside – I’ve never told this story before, but at one of the Joffrey performances I attended in the early ’70s (as usual, in City Center’s nosebleed level) I found myself sitting in the same row, and only four or five seats away from Gelsey Kirkland, at the time still with NYCB, who was there with a few female friends (who appeared also to be dancers). The seats between us were empty, but though the temptation was unbearable, I didn’t have the guts to change my seat, or to otherwise approach her. Probably a rare wise decision.]

Madeline Bez in Gerald Arpino’s “Italian Suite”
Photo by Jeremy Kyle

Although I’ve seen many Arpino ballets, Italian Suite, which was choreographed in 1983, is one I missed. It’s a romantic, lyrical, neo-classical ballet that in this day and age looks comfortingly retro. Choreographed to unidentified heart-swelling opera music by Ermanno Wolf-Ferrari, Italian Suite is divided into four segments, three of which – labeled “Flower Solo,” “Pas de Deux,” and “Women’s Dance” – were presented here. [The one omitted is the opening segment, titled “7 Couples.”]

“Flower Solo” was performed by Melody Mennite. She delivered a superb performance. Had I been aware of her bio, that wouldn’t have surprised me as much as it did. Mennite has been a Principal Dancer with Houston Ballet (since 2008), and has danced a wealth of leading roles with Houston (and other companies) over her lengthy career, including Giselle, Juliet, and Manon (my bring-a-bucket trilogy).

Mennite’s acting is as celebrated as her dancing; here she acted a young ballerina dreaming of curtain calls following, perhaps, her first ever performance (or a role debut in a favorite ballet), being cheered by the audience, and being presented with a flower bouquet. It was a precious performance – she had me convinced that she was in, maybe, her mid-20s (I’m easy) – that made an indelible impression. What a way to begin an inaugural program!

“Pas de deux” followed, danced by Speed and Austin Eyler. As noted, Speed is AVID’s Artistic Director.  Speed is a former soloist with Colorado Ballet and Ballet Idaho; Eyler is a current highly regarded Soloist with Philadelphia Ballet. Both did fine work with this lushly-choreographed excerpt, which essentially visualizes an idealized romantic relationship at the height of mutual ecstasy, with no issues to complicate things beyond whether Eyler could accomplish the multiple lifts that Arpino included. He did. Easily. Both are engaging dancers, and Speed dances the way she delivers opening comments on auspicious occasions – very self-assured. But with a partner like Eyler, who bears a vague resemblance to Superman on the cusp of adulthood, being self-assured goes with the stage territory.

Emily Speed and Austin Eyler
in Gerald Arpino’s “Italian Suite”
Photo by Jeremy Kyle

The last excerpted segment, “Women’s Dance,” maintained the lyrical, balletic, and romantic aura. Seven ladies (perhaps the female contingent of the initial segment of the piece) dance … well, lyrically, around the stage, turning as they go. There isn’t much to it, but it looks gorgeous. The group included some fine dancers who I’ve seen previously, but not necessarily in ballet pieces. For some, it seemed to me, the ballet steps took some getting used to, including one who had some difficulty completing pirouettes (perhaps a low-grade injury). In addition to Speed, the seven dancers included Anissa Bailis, Madeline Bez, Sara Jumper, Elizabeth Kanning, Lauren Treat, and Trombly.

The other five dances on this inaugural program were choreographed by Speed, or by guest choreographers whose work, generally, is not widely known by dance denizens, at least in the NY area.

Tanya Lynn Trombly and David Hochberg
in Emily Speed’s “Moonlight”
Photo by Jeremy Kyle

Moonlight, a pas de deux choreographed by Speed to Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata” was next on the program. It featured her co-founder colleagues Trombly and Hochberg.

I’ve seen both dancers previously: Hochberg with MorDance on several different recent occasions, and Trombly with Neville Dance Theatre in 2015 and 2016. Despite the passage of time, I remember Trombly well.  Hochberg is a strong performing component of the glue that holds MorDance together; Trombly I remember executed her roles well, but appeared to be overly tentative when it came to partnering – it appeared to me that she didn’t have full confidence in her partner on that occasion. Here, with Hochberg, Trombly had no such concerns.

But Speed’s dance isn’t fun to watch – not because it’s bad (on the contrary, it’s very tight, with not a step too many or too few), but because it’s painful. Not all relationship dances can be romantic, and Moonlight is one of those that isn’t. The couple appears initially as being in a somewhat half-hearted relationship. Trombly’s character is the initiator of mildly romantic contact, and the two do dance together at times. But Hochberg seems reticent; he never smiles, despite Trombly’s efforts to get him to respond to her. Eventually, and not surprisingly, as the dance ends the pair go their separate ways.

Tanya Lynn Trombly and
(background) Molly Aronson on cello
in Emily Speed’s “Moonlight”
Photo by Jeremy Kyle

Speed certainly choreographs well (judged by this example), and using the music in a manner that emphases its brooding spirit is a clever take on a tired subject.

I thought that I’d not previously heard of the choreographer of the program’s next piece, Ursula Verduzco. Turns out I did – on that same 2016 Neville Dance Theatre program. Verduzco was a guest choreographer, and the very brief piece she presented there, Epidermis, I described as a compact exploration of skin-deep differences between women who appear on the surface to be virtually identical. Eight years have passed since then, and her dance here, Untamed Woman, reflects a considerably broader issue, but one that’s, in a way, similar.

Verduzco, who was on the faculty of the Joffrey Ballet School in New York, has considerable dance and choreographic experience (primarily with local ballet companies) and is currently freelancing in both capacities. Her piece is choreographed to music by Anne-Marie Keane, a multiple-degreed AVID composer guest artist who works collaboratively with filmmakers, choreographers and artists to craft music that uniquely tells their story. Keane’s score, played live by a group consisting of Aronson and Pushkar again, respectively, on cello and piano, Laura Manko Sahin on viola, and Daniel Ojeda on drum, accomplishes that. [The three women perform together as the chamber music trio Ensemble Mycelium.]

I had a difficult time figuring out Verduzco’s message here, if there is one. There are these seven women and three men, the women with their hair down and costumed (not credited) identically in soft orange near floor-length skirts topped with a leotard in a lighter shade of soft-orange or soft-white that made them all look like creamsicles (maybe that was the point), all corralled on stage audience-right. They break off into a series of dances that seem to have no connection with each other, but soon the ten-dancer ensemble gather audience-left into a relatively tight circle and proceed to touch each other (they run their hands along the others’ bodies – nothing salacious – and slide their hands down other dancers’ long hair). As the piece progresses, different women become the focal point of the gathering (they stand inside the “circle”), getting their bodies touched and hair stroked and fluffed, but at one point one of the women (Bailis) refuses to be groomed this way, and goes wild and crazy-looking trying to break free – eyes bulging; nostrils flaring, like a cornered animal. Then the dance ended, and I scratched my head.

(l-r) Elizabeth Kanning and Madeline Bez
in Ursula Verduzco’s “Untamed Woman”
Photo by Jeremy Kyle

But Verduzco’s intent became clear, or at least logical, in hindsight: “corralled”; “groomed”, “cornered animal” – I decided, after the fact, that the dancers were wild horses prior to and after being “broken,” analogous to wild women prior to and after being tamed or rendered subservient to their male masters. I may be completely wrong, and there may be no “meaning” to the piece at all beyond the visualization of a “wild woman,” but it’s logical, and the only analysis I could think of that works.

The many individual or smaller group instances of dance that dot the piece are not really significant – unless one considers them analogous to horses prancing in the wild, hair (ponytails) bobbing up and down freely, which, again in hindsight, I think it was.  And that wild animal-looking human that refuses to be broken is analogous to that “wild woman” who refuses to submit.

Anissa Bailis
in Ursula Verduzco’s “Untamed Woman”
Photo by Jeremy Kyle

But I concede that the analogy doesn’t always work. There are the three men, who are “corralled” together with the women. These men participate in, and are recipients of, the “grooming” that I describe. Moreover, there are actions taken prior to the final confrontation with Bailis’s character that I don’t understand – the dancers form a variety of lines, mostly vertical or angled downstage, in which (to my recollection) the men are more often than not separated from the women. I take this as representing the staging of attempts to break Bailis’s character until the final confrontation, but I admit that I really have no good explanation. And if my hypothesis (aka educated guess) is wrong, that leaves a dance that takes a very long time simply to visualize a “wild woman,” and does so for no reason.

In any event, Untamed Woman is an intriguing dance. To paraphrase George Balanchine: Put a group of ballerinas on stage with their hair down, throw in a few men, and there’s already an intriguing dance. And kudos to Bailis, who made a wild woman look credible, scary, and exciting concurrently.

(l-r) Ian Rotheroe (hidden), Madeline Bez,
David Hochberg and Emily Speed
in Quinn Wharton’s “Impulse”
Photo by Jeremy Kyle

Following intermission, AVID presented choreography by Ojeda (who had played drum in the preceding piece).  Ojeda, a soloist with Ballet Idaho, danced with and choreographed for that company since 2011. He has top-flight ballet education credentials (SAB, CPYB, and BAE), and extensive choreographic and performance experience.

Persona features four dancers, three of whom were colleagues at Ballet Idaho: Kanning, Ian Rotheroe, and Ethan Schweitzer-Gaslin (who also danced with Oregon Ballet Theater – where Speed recently guested as Aurora in a production of The Sleeping Beauty – and Neville Dance Theatre, among other companies), and Lauren Treat (who I remember well from several MorDance performances). [It’s fascinating to me that there’s so much cross-pollination from company to company, but with dancers picking up opportunities wherever they can to supplement regular employment, to collaborate on a new project, and/or just to dance somewhere, I suppose that’s to be expected.]

The dance is choreographed to unidentified music by Marc Mellits, a prolific American composer and musician who has been described by some as post-minimalist. I’ve found no indication that “Persona” is the title of a piece he created, so I suspect that the music used here is an assemblage. I recall it as being percussive, with string and maybe brass elements. More significantly, the score complements, but doesn’t interfere with, Ojeda’s piece. The costumes for each of the dancers, designed by Elizabeth Barreto, consisting of basic black with silver trim, look sleek and ultra-contemporary, and add to the dance a sense of feral refinement.

Persona is divided into component parts, which, of course, is not unusual. The first involves the group of four dancers as an ensemble. The choreography is to the beat of the music, with dancers moving off and on stage, and often focuses on subsets of the whole. The dance then shifts to a pas de deux, performed by Kanning and Rotheroe. It’s a beautifully executed, albeit intentionally antiseptic, duet, with no emotional presence, much less exchange. It thereafter concludes much the way it started, although maybe with more frenetic activity. And then Persona ends. Suddenly.

There’s no purposefulness to the movement; no emotional gloss, much less any semblance of a narrative. All this is nothing unusual, and it’s what holds disparate-seeming segments together. And slicing and dicing foci among the dancers in a non-narrative piece (at one point the focus is two women and one man, at another just the two women, at another one of the men and a woman, etc.) is nothing unusual either. Nor is frenetic pace (which characterized the final segment before the piece’s sudden ending). However, although it’s a child of its time, Persona’s changes of focus are seamless, and, mercifully, what Ojeda presents doesn’t devolve into the mindless speed, sweat, and frenzy that Generation Z (or whatever letter we’re up to) audiences seem to want.

What might be unusual, however, is the cinematic sense of the scenes. I have no idea whether this is accurate, but as part of my research I found a series of video games titled “Persona” that include dances by their animated characters. Maybe there’s some relationship between Ojeda’s Persona and the video game series.

Regardless, and no matter how good the choreography may be (and it was good here; Ojeda has undeniable choreographic talent), unless there’s something choreographically original, such dances often are easily forgettable. As I wrote above in another dance context, something more is necessary.

That being said, Persona’s sudden ending together with the brilliantly crafted albeit emotionally barren pas de deux lead me to think that maybe there’s more to Persona than was presented here (or that it’s a work in progress). If that’s the case, seeing the entire (or completed) piece might provide a more memorable presentation.

Melody Mennite and Jack Wolff
in “Owl – Bird 1”
Photo by Jeremy Kyle

I enjoyed Owls – Birds 1 more than any of the other original dances on the program, and not just because it’s short. The two dancers seemed to be having a grand old time, and that kind of feeling is contagious. [I should be clear that I generally dislike pieces in which dancers portray animals, with or without appropriate animal sounds. But there are exceptions, and this is one of them.]

Choreographer Jack Wolff is a demi-soloist at Houston Ballet. Here he’s choreographed a piece for himself and fellow Houston Ballet dancer Mennite that presents a highly entertaining encounter between an owl and a bird (a bird that’s not an owl – though here the difference isn’t completely clear). The dance’s title would lead one to believe that there is more than one bird, but I only saw one (Wolff), with Mennite as the owl. [Or, possibly, the reverse.] The title suggests that it’s the first of other contemplated (or already completed) owl/bird dances, particularly since the piece’s composer, Cosmo Sheldrake (I looked it up; that’s his real name), has composed several musical compositions involving owl and more generic bird sounds. One way or another, bird is the word. Or owl.

I can’t clearly describe what happens in the dance. The two characters connect, and gradually one hears the sounds of owls and other birds, which, as I recall, are distinctively applicable to Mennite and Wolff, respectively. Eventually, the piece seemed to morph into something resembling an owl/bird vaudeville act. I don’t know who was having more fun – Wolff (who at times resembled a wolf in bird’s clothing; seriously) and Mennite, or the audience.

Melody Mennite and Jack Wolff
in “Owl – Bird 1”
Photo by Jeremy Kyle

This isn’t great ballet, but it doesn’t pretend to be. It’s just different from anything else, and great fun. That sort of combination is rare. It may have been put together an hour or so before the performance, and it may have involved considerable improvisation, but it worked.

Impulse, choreographed by Quinn Wharton, performed by Bez, Hochberg, Kanning, Rotheroe, and Speed, was the evening’s closing piece.

(l-r) Ian Rotheroe, Elizabeth Kanning,
Emily Speed, David Hochberg, and Madeline Bez
in Quinn Wharton’s “Impulse”
Photo by Jeremy Kyle

Wharton has significant film and video experience, in addition to his extensive choreographic expertise, and was a dancer with San Francisco Ballet and Hubbard Street Chicago.

Impulse is choreographed to a curated selection of pieces by three different artists (Tycho, BT, and Brian Eno and Fred again), and is highlighted by a pas de deux danced by Speed and Rotheroe. It’s not a run of the mill pas de deux. There’s considerable emotion percolating under the surface here, from the opening moment when Rotheroe rests his head on Speed’s neck. But it’s gloss; a viewer doesn’t know exactly what’s happening or why. Although there’s undeniable affection here, there’s a sense of agony, as well as a sense of imminent loss coupled with undeniable affection, and the accompanying portion of the score (it appears to have been “I Saw You” by Brian Eno and Fred again) exacerbates that. The choreography reflects this and is quite good (I particularly appreciated the “leg pushes” – actually, a recurring motif throughout the piece) in which one dancer would grip the other’s lower leg or foot and push him or her away (or at least in a different direction); and Speed and Rotheroe deliver superior performances in every way.

Emily Speed and Ian Rotheroe
in Quinn Wharton’s “Impulse”
Photo by Jeremy Kyle

Indeed, the entire piece is crafted well, and to interesting electronic accompaniment (which often, at least to me, is somewhat of an oxymoron). Like the score (particularly the beginning, choreographed to Tycho’s “Division (Heathered Pearls Remix), the dance has a pulse that propels (but doesn’t control) the movement – there’s melody in addition to rhythm. And all five dancers handle Wharton’s movement variety easily. My only complaint with it is that, as was my sense with Persona, it ended more abruptly than I thought it should have, which leads me to think that perhaps Impulse also is a work in progress, or that what was presented were excerpts from some greater whole.

The best thing that could have happened from this inaugural AVID program is for the audience to enjoy what it saw. In that sense, based on the audience’s responses to each piece, AVID’s Inaugural performance was a success That being said, there’s a lot here that functions similarly to collaborative efforts by up-and-coming or under-the-radar dancers and choreographers already, so AVID may have to find a particular niche – at least in New York.

This niche could be filled by combining pieces by relatively unknown artists with those by long-established successful ones, which is what was done in this program. That’s been done too, but it might provide a reason for potential audience members unsure about seeing AVID’s next performance a reason to give it a try. And the implicit point I was making earlier is that since this area is starved for the kind of dances that the old Joffrey Ballet provided, more dances by Arpino would satisfy a need.

But there’s a danger in presenting emerging or established but unfamiliar artists on the same program as already successful ones. It’s a conundrum that’s frequently plagued New York City Ballet (i.e., pit the work of any such emerging or little-known choreographer – or even those with established reputations) against a piece by Balanchine or Robbins, and it probably won’t measure up). But it’s worth a shot.

Based on this program and its founding artists, AVID has a lot going for it, so I’ll look forward eagerly to its sophomore effort. I expect it’ll be well worth a shot.