Skirball Center at NYU
New York, New York
October 27, 2016
What Comes Next:
Until the Walls Cave In, The Answer, Invisible Divide
BalletCollective returned to NYU’S Skirball Center on Thursday for its 2016 New York Season. Each dancer in the seven dancer company is a member of New York City Ballet, as is Troy Schumacher, the company’s Artistic Director and moving force. Under the overall descriptive heading “What Comes Next”, the evening featured the world premieres of Until the Walls Cave In and The Answer, as well as a reprise from last year’s performance, Invisible Divide. Schumacher choreographed each dance.
In summary, I found the pas de deux, The Answer, to be an interestingly-choreographed and highly entertaining piece of work, and Invisible Divide to be better-looking this year than last – whether that’s a result of new blood in the company or just greater familiarity I cannot say. The opening piece had moments of super dancing, but lacked focus and often looked too much like a lot of the same thing.
BalletCollective is a “collective” rather than simply a group of dancers. The difference, Schumacher stresses, is that the collective includes representatives from different artistic genres – composers, poets, architects and designers, as well as the choreographer – coming together to create distinctive works of dance art, with the “process” being the heart of the ultimate choreographed creation. “The art provides a bedrock,” Schumacher has said, “upon which the choreographer and composer build original choreography and music. From then, whatever happens, happens.” There’s nothing unique or unusual about this – choreographers collaborate with composers and designers routinely, although I’ll grant that more often than not the choreographer knows where he/she is going from the outset, that including architects in the creative mix (rather than just for set design) is somewhat distinctive, and that the process probably is more intense here than in the creation of dances by large companies.
What seems to distinguish BalletCollective, however, is that Schumacher claims to gain inspiration for his pieces from other works of art (described as “source art”) and to import the inspiration/source art somewhat distinctively into his dances. That’s different, and to me, is considerably more problematic, particularly where the “inspiration” is less than obvious on its face. The relationship between the ultimate dance and the source art is, at best, a tenuous one, with the end result many degrees of separation removed from the source art, if it’s discernable at all.
Does this really matter to anyone outside the creative process? The dance stands or falls on its own, regardless of the source art or the existence of evidence of it in the dance itself. What makes it a concern at all is that Schumacher stresses it so strongly, particularly by including unidentified photos in the carefully prepared program that presumably are representative of the source art, but which, on their own, say little except to reflect generalized feelings and perhaps spatial relationships common to many dances that don’t claim to rely on source art. The result is that, if you care, you engage in a fruitless struggle to try to find the relationship between the source art and the dances to the detriment of fully appreciating the dances themselves.
This year, Schumacher’s new pieces are inspired by the work of what are described as “forward-thinking” architects – James Ramsey and Carlos Arniaz. I saw none of this inspiration, or even influence, reflected in the new pieces – but at the same time, can impute influence if I work at it hard enough.
For example, Schumacher’s The Answer is inspired by a photograph – or photograph of a diagram – by Arniaz that shows a basketball player (purportedly Alan Iverson) slam-dunking while another player watches, with dotted and solid lines that would describe the action spatially. Fine, though I don’t see a work of architecture there. There’s a lot of jumping around in The Answer, which could be seen as related to Iverson’s dunk/flight, but there’s a lot of jumping around in Schumacher’s other pieces (and those of other choreographers) without any supposed reliance on the inspiration here. Similarly, there’s a degree of one-upmanship that might be seen as derived from the photo/diagram, but one-upmanship is an ingredient in many dances. Other than these two generalized concepts, there appeared to me to be no relationship at all between the source art and the dance.
But the piece itself, particularly as executed by Anthony Huxley and Rachel Hutsell, is quite good. Aside from the omnipresent jumps, the dance, choreographed to music by Judd Greenstein, includes intricate and unusual jump/spins. I’m still not sure how Hutsell was able to execute what seemed to be an impossible combination, but she did, and did it repeatedly – and possibly (as I thought in hindsight) they looked unusual because they’re usually danced by a man. Perhaps Hutsell is supposed to be an Iverson analogue. Or not. It doesn’t matter in the least to appreciate the piece. The dance is an absorbing and genial sort of battle of the sexes. Both Huxley and Hutsell danced fabulously well, with Hutsell being particularly revelatory.
I reviewed Invisible Divide a year ago. Its source art by Paul Maffi reflects generalized angst and anomie, and Schumacher translates this into an abstract piece that shows an outsider, a tormented man who feels alienated from peers or unworthy of joining them, and his ultimate acceptance – of himself, and by the group. Another way to look at it is that the man is fiercely independent and attempts to preserve that independence until he’s persuaded by the others to emerge from his self-imposed isolation – but that doesn’t fit with the Maffi photos.
Unlike the premiere that opened the program, the piece has a clear focus – and is enhanced by the score (by Schumacher’s frequent collaborator, Ellis Ludwig-Leone), again skillfully played by Hotel Elefant. And the magnificently realized vocalization by Vanessa Upson (“Violetness”), whose haunting voice, like last year, seems to provide a pipeline directly into Coll’s head, and sounds as tortured as Coll looked, adds significantly to the piece’s impact. Coll’s performance is much more defined than I recall from last year (although it wasn’t at all deficient then), and as a result the piece as a whole now looks more polished.
Until the Walls Cave In lacks the same level of focus and coherence. In the program, details of the piece are accompanied by two photographs – one of a building (apartment or office, it’s not clear, nor is it clear that Ramsay had anything to do with it), and the other of some dimly lit space in which “stuff” of some sort is strewn on the floor. Maybe it’s debris, and is supposed to represent ‘after the walls have caved in’. We don’t know.
The seven dancers initially move with their arms spread out and across horizontally or upward, as if they were measuring the space around them. Aside from that, there seemed nothing to connect the piece to the source art.
The choreography is not without merit – individual components can look impressive as discrete images, but they’re quickly buried. Dancers appear together as a group, or separately in trios or pairs (with other dancers flowing in and out of view) with some scenes reflecting no longer unusual gender role change from what used to be the anticipated “norm” (e.g., a lengthy duet with Lauren King and Ashley Laracey, in which King seems to partner Laracey, or vice versa; a segment involving Lauren Lovette, Isabella LaFreniere, and Hutsell, in which the women appear to partner each other). And solos are interspersed (including a particularly impressive one for Lovette). There’s lots of circular movement throughout, and although most of the dance is expressively monochromatic, there are occasional displays of emotional dynamics (as in a duet with Lovette and Coll) that add essential fire. Perhaps all of this is intended to reflect the lives and relationships of the people living/working in that building in the photo. If so, the concept is so unfocused as to be virtually non-existent. But even as a purely abstract ballet, overall there’s too much repetition of the same choreography: running and jumping and more running and jumping; turning and sudden changes of direction and more turning and sudden changes of direction, with insufficient variety.
And then it all abruptly ends – the music (by Ludwig-Leone) stops, the lights dim, and for a few seconds the dancers walk around aimlessly, as if in a fugue state. If this is supposed to lead one to conclude that life (in the building, perhaps) continues unseen, it failed to do so. If it is supposed to represent the impact of walls coming down, it failed to do that. It just ended. Like this review.