Ailey Citygroup Theater, New York, NY; November 16, 2014
Carving a new path in the NYC dance community is no small task, and one not for the lazy or weak of heart. Aaron Atkins, Artistic Director of the contemporary ballet company, Ballet Inc., knows that and is wasting no time. Since its inception in 2012, the company has created over a dozen dances, participated in more than ten showcases and festivals, and presented three self-produced concerts of thoughtful, high caliber dance. I had the pleasure of meeting Atkins and Executive Director Edgar Peterson several months ago at a choreographer symposium and found them to be very warm and personable and I enjoyed discussing their vision and the trials and tribulations of starting a company in the dance mecca that is New York City. I was excited to see their work for the first time and delighted to see that they are successfully making their vision a reality with dance works that are accessible, stunning, joyful and meaningful to behold.
With Ballet Inc., Atkins and Peterson are committed to maintaining the history and tradition of classical ballet while expanding its creative possibilities. Atkins aims to “challenge traditions that may inhibit a dancer due to his or her body type or ethnic background,” and it was wonderful to see a company made up of 19 dancers of varying sizes, shapes and ethnicities, with unique nuances of style and very strong technique. I love seeing the classical companies like American Ballet Theater and New York City Ballet in performance, but I am always struck by how cookie-cutter everyone looks. From a distance, the entire cast on stage could be the same person- same shape, same color, same size. From the outset of the show, I was very pleased to see the humanness of Ballet Inc. and struck by the joy of seeing different bodies mastering and expressing the athletic, graceful and intricate choreography.
Inspired by the powerful words of Dylan Thomas, “Do not go gently into that good night. Rage, rage against the dying of the light,” “In Nocte”, a world premiere by Atkins for 11 dancers, opened the evening. Complimented by the dusky, moody, enchanted lighting design, the piece feels like a journey, the dancers sometimes searching and contemplative, other times ethereal and dynamic. Atkins’ choreography is lyrical and supple, blending classical ballet with contemporary forms and is both athletic and graceful.
Dona Wiley, a long, lithe elastic dancer, wore pointe shoes while the ensemble wore ballet flats. Atkins, gifted at working with large groups of dancers, crafts entrances and exits, sudden duets and small groups, in creative ways more akin to contemporary dance than classical ballet. The pas de deux for Wiley and Max Simoes wove in and out of a more flowing ensemble, unlike the crisp, symmetrical jewel-like floor patterns normally seen in the corps de ballet of a classical company. Perhaps symbolic of the realm between heaven and earth, perhaps representing the journey through life until the moment of death, or perhaps depicting a person’s last days on earth, “In Nocte” is dramatic and gorgeous. The ending image haunts me days later – the ensemble winds down on a dimly lit stage, light cuts down the diagonal as one dancer slowly walks into the light, back arched parallel to the floor, chest lifted to heaven in surrender, as the rest of the group watches him, slowing lunging backwards on the opposite diagonal, a gentle goodbye as they fade into the dying light.
In contrast, “Somsay” is a light, flirty duet for Michelle Vargo and Executive Director Edgar Peterson. Fun, casual and playful, it lightens the mood with quirky gestures and a conversational coyness. Both dancers are strong, confident technicians, and Peterson impresses with the easy grace he brings to even the quickest movement combinations.
Although a young company, Atkins is apparently hard at work and a prolific creator. The evening’s program featured four premieres and four older works. “Toccato”, one of the premieres, is a dramatic flurry of intricacies. The word toccato comes from the Italian verb ‘toccare’, which means to touch. “Toccato” is rich with gorgeous partnering, both male/female and male/male, the latter of which pushed gender boundaries, highlighting masculine strength, but also masculine grace and softness. The male duet was by far my favorite partnering portion of this piece- it was so fluid, beautiful and seamless. The work employs more contemporary sensibilities in its phrase work – a dramatic, off center use of the spine, for example, weaving fluidly in and out of classicism.
I wish I could give a special shout out to the lighting designer for “An Evening with Ballet Inc. Vol. II”, but unfortunately he or she was not listed in the program. Throughout the show, the lighting – romantic, dark, and ethereal – set a stage that created a whole new world, exquisitely silhouetting the beautiful lines and muscles of the dancers bodies, and partially masking their faces, making them less identified as woman, man, Hispanic, or black, but rather identifying them as connected souls dedicated to a common expression and passion.
In “Vega en Lyra”, also a premiere choreographed by Peterson, the opening lighting effects are stunning. The dancers are completely black outlines on a bright blue backdrop; opaque cut-outs of light moving through space. Hanging in the middle of the stage is a lyre, a large hoop used in aerial dance. Aerial Mistress Kyla Ernst-Alper poses in the center of the hoop, also an opaque shape against the blue light, and begins a sculptural, graceful, series of sustained contortions in mid-air as the lyre spins. The dancers below her move in a circular floor pattern doing circular, rounded movements which compliments the aerial work perfectly. The piece ends with Alper hanging from the lyre by her elbows in a silhouette, softly spinning as the lights fade out.
The most percussive, angular piece of the evening was “Fallen Angels” (only excerpts 1-3 were presented). While much of Atkins’ choreography is subtly sensual, this piece is overtly sexy. With direct, smoky stares and sharp yet languid movements, we see the darker, more aggressive side of the lyrical sensuality presented in Act I. Courtney Sauls, a very tall, commanding dancer, opens the piece with a solo perfectly suited to her power and intensity. Hard-hitting and strong, Sauls is a passionate dancer and her solo sets the tone for a piece that conveys feelings of sexual repression, isolation, and dissatisfaction. Sabrina Imamura in her solo in section 3 was undulating and urgent.
What I love so much about Atkins’ choreography is his mix of lyrical sensuality and athletic power. His phrases are lush and expansive, his partner work evidence of a fascination with the gentle, loving nature of human connection. “Coeur Silencieux”, a duet for the tiny, lilting Kara Cooper and the very tall, strong Scott Lewis, tells the story of an ending, of an unreciprocated longing. Passionate and emotive, Cooper expresses angst and yearning through every muscle and fiber of her body. With the ability to move much larger than her small frame would appear to allow, Cooper seems to scream at her stoic partner, to no avail. Lewis partners and moves with her as if with a cherished friend, not an intimate lover.
“Arena” closed the evening with an ensemble of 11 dancers led by Courtney Sauls and Lloyd Boyd. With exploding organ chords and choral passages from Handel’s “Messiah”, this piece evokes a heavenly atmosphere of angels, gods and goddesses, the choreographic imagery exuding lust, anguish and grief.
Ballet Inc. is talented company full of beautiful dancers who are able to master and express Atkins sophisticated, intelligent, emotive choreography. They are definitely a company I look forward to seeing again.