Ashley Laracey and Harrison Coll in Troy Schumancer's Dear and Blackbirds Photo Matthew Murphy

Ashley Laracey and Harrison Coll in Troy Schumancer’s Dear and Blackbirds
Photo Matthew Murphy

NYU Skirball Center, New York, NY
November 4, 2015

Jerry Hochman

A member of New York City Ballet, Troy Schumacher is also an emerging choreographer with two NYCB pieces already under his belt. On Wednesday, his company of seven NYCB dancers opened a brief run at NYU’s Skirball Center with four of his ballets, two of which were world premieres.

Schumacher describes his five year old company, BalletCollective, as a collaboration among artists, inspired by what he calls ‘source art’. As he describes the process, “We find someone whose work resonates with us; we meet with them and discuss overarching themes and points…; we ask them to create original work which we can use as a jumping off point….The art provides a bedrock upon which the choreographer and composer build original choreography and music. From then, whatever happens, happens.”

Much of what subsequently happens is many degrees of separation from the source art and the dances ultimately stand, or move, on their own. But somewhat generally problematic is that at this early stage in his choreographic career, a lot of his movement quality, however visually appealing it and the staging of it may be, tends to look similar from piece to piece. That’s not unusual for relatively new choreographers (or even more experienced ones), but it was particularly apparent in several works on the program, and diminished the impact of each. Perhaps for that reason, the dance that I found most enjoyable was Dear and Blackbirds, the one most choreographically different. It’s also the one with the clearest connection to its source art.

A duet that Schumacher created last year, Dear and Blackbirds draws its inspiration from a commissioned poem by Cynthia Zarin which is included in the program. One can see how Schumacher took the poem’s imagery and metaphors and created a pas de deux that is equally beautiful, but considerably less opaque.

Flawlessly danced by Ashley Laracey and Harrison Coll, the piece depicts a relationship evolution – from dalliance and mutual interest that the two dancers try to ignore or suppress, to recognition that the relationship reflects something more enduring. This sort of thing has been done, and Dear and Blackbirds is not as deep, lyrical or passionate as many others. But that’s what makes this duet particularly interesting to watch – it’s different in significant choreographic ways.

Meagan Mann and Ashley Laracey in Invisible Divide Photo Matthew Murphy

Meagan Mann and Ashley Laracey in Invisible Divide
Photo Matthew Murphy

The dance begins as an intriguing sparring match filled with pleasantly quirky movement, including Coll prancing around the stage and Laracey pecking at him with her hands and angular body motion (its derivation from the stereotypical movement of a deer and a bird was not immediately apparent – and though a clever idea, it doesn’t drive the dance’s impact). Despite some obvious connection between them, Laracey’s character initially wants the other to just go away (at one point she uses her hands to shoo him off). And then, magically and seamlessly, the warmth of a real relationship is there.

Schumacher allows their relationship to evolve smoothly, deftly repeating ‘before and after’ choreographic images that at first tickle, and then melt the heart. Early in the duet, for instance, Laracey places a hand on Colls chest and pushes him away; later, that same movement morphs into gently ‘grazing’ his chest (a quote from the poem) as if penetrating and drawing sustenance from his body and soul. It’s beautifully done.

Both dancers excelled, but Laracey was particularly intriguing as her character’s surface iciness and feigned indifference gradually disappear.

The evening opened with All That We See, and closed with the more significant of the two premieres, Invisible Divide. The two have an unfortunate surface choreographic similarity (though the staging is very different), but Invisible Divide is a more densely detailed piece and has a recognizable focus of attention – the central character’s angst. Whether the sense of distance from others is a product of being or thinking differently or independently, or of resisting the pressure to conform, isn’t clear. What is clear, and what does matter, is that the central character, Coll, is both tormented and imprisoned by his thoughts.

The dance’s connection to the source art (photos by Paul Maffi of men in differing states of emotional separation) is tenuous. Central to the theme, however, is the sense of internal conflict rooted in the score by Ludwig-Leone that includes a vocal component more significant for the way the words sounded than the meaning of the words themselves, which were difficult to decipher. The extraordinary vocalist was Vanessa Upton.

Upton, a Peruvian-American electronic musician based in Brooklyn, calls herself “Violetness” – which, if you consider ‘violet’ to be an emotionally imbued and powerful color, is singularly appropriate. Her voice has a pervasive haunting quality which penetrates the ambient air and infuses, complements, and enhances the stage action, sounding like the muted wail of some sort of cerebral wind buffeting Coll’s brain. And her presence was mesmerizing: I found myself watching her (she was ‘stationed’ in the orchestra pit) as much as the action on stage. As she articulated the distinctive sound, she appeared as tormented as Coll.

Four women in black walk onto the stage, align vertically, and then move sequentially. Coll emerges, also in black. As he dances solo, and then assumes a ‘thinker’ position, the women circle around him and dance as if visualizing the cacophony of his thoughts. After a series of episodes during which the women are joined by Taylor Stanley and David Protas, they all divide and subdivide, move on and off stage, and reassemble in various combinations. Particularly noteworthy are solos by Lauren King and Claire Kretzschmar, and duets by Meagan Mann and Laracey and Kretzschmar and Coll – which appear to demonstrate that everyone has struggled with, and overcome, the demons that plague Coll. Eventually, and with some reluctance, Coll’s character finally, and somewhat reluctantly, accepts that resistance is futile; he abandons his independence (or conquers his demons) and is integrated into the group.

Taylor Stanley and David Protas in The Last Time This Ended Photo Matthew Murphy

David Protas and Taylor Stanley in The Last Time This Ended
Photo Matthew Murphy

I’m of two minds about Invisible Divide. Displaying angst choreographically is hardly novel, and expanding it to epic proportions as Schumacher does here doesn’t make it more pleasurable to watch. On the other hand, abetted by Ludwig-Leone’s score (played live by Hotel Elefant, a group of eight superb musicians) and Upton’s vocalization, and even though I found the dance as a whole somewhat pretentious, there’s a lot of interesting stuff here including superb dancing by Coll and his colleagues.

All That We See is an abstract ballet with beautiful imagery and choreographic progression – but on the same program with Invisible Divide, it loses something in retrospect.

The penultimate dance on the program, the premiere of The Last Time This Ended, is a duet for Stanley and Protas inspired by three photographs by Israeli photographer Dafy Hagai which separately depict an entangled couple, a structure surrounded by trees in bloom, and an empty automobile with a floral wreath hanging from its rear view mirror. The piece has Stanley and Protas dancing briefly, leaping apart and then occupying separate spaces, coming back together, and again leaping apart until the score (by Mark Dancigers) stops. Like the photographs, the dance displays technical competence and at times visual interest, but aside from superlative execution by the two men, little beyond that.

Witnessing the growth of new choreographers is as interesting, and potentially rewarding, as watching dancers mature and expand their capabilities with each performance. Whether Schumacher’s choreography (and programming decisions) continue to evolve and improve remains to be seen, but the dances on this program, as well as those he’s created for NYCB, provide a basis for great expectations.