New York Live Arts
New York, New York

February 19, 2019
Birds of a Feather (world premiere); La Follia; Bachground; Hey, Wait

Jerry Hochman

I saw BalletNext, the company co-founded by former American Ballet Theatre principal Michele Wiles, for the first time a year ago. The group returned to New York Live Arts for a six-performance engagement last week. In the interim, much about BalletNext has changed, but much remains the same.

Although I found Wiles’s choreography in last year’s program to be generally pleasant, in my review I observed that there was limited risk-taking, an overall sameness to the program, and a dearth of choreographic novelty. This remains the case with respect to the two pieces that Wiles choreographed for this year’s program.

Of greater significance, however, is the change in the nature of the company. All the dancers who appeared with BalletNext last year (most of whom were then new or relatively new to the company) were professional dancers with considerable experience. Wiles now has changed the company’s focus to being a vehicle for introducing certain of her dance students at the University of Utah School of Dance to a New York performing experience. Except for Wiles and two guest artists, Amar Ramasar (who, in his return to the New York stage for the first time since leaving New York City Ballet, added a measure of class to the program) and Maria Kowroski (who, unfortunately, did not dance in the program I saw), all of BalletNext’s dancers are current undergraduate students in the University of Utah (“U / U”) dance program, apparently all pursuing degrees in other academic disciplines in addition their ballet studies.

This isn’t a bad thing, but it’s a different thing. These students, at least judged by those who danced in this program, are quite good, obviously very well trained, and filled with youthful enthusiasm that is abundantly clear to anyone watching them dance. But saying that they’re on a similar level to other soon-graduating young dancers from major ballet schools doesn’t advance the company ball – it just becomes something else. More significantly, perhaps because of their relative inexperience, the complexity of the dances they performed in this engagement is limited. It’s great fun watching them, and the dances, again, are certainly pleasant enough, but the choreography is not at the level one might expect from a company that’s been in existence for seven years, and from a choreographer with Wiles’s experience. Whether that’s because Wiles’s choreography is essentially the same as it was last year, or because she has wisely adjusted her choreography to match the capabilities of her dancers, is something I cannot determine.

The seven student dancers in the company participated in three of the four dances on the program, two choreographed by Wiles bracketing two choreographed by Mauro Bigonzetti. Both are the type of dances Wiles created in the program I saw last year.

(l-r) Tia Sandman and Amy McMaster in Michele Wiles's "Birds of a Feather" Photo by Eduardo Patino

(l-r) Tia Sandman and Amy McMaster
in Michele Wiles’s “Birds of a Feather”
Photo by Eduardo Patino

Although Birds of a Feather, the evening’s opening dance, lacks complexity, there’s nothing wrong with it, and these engaging young dancers do a fine job, displaying more exuberant energy in their fingertips than most people ever have.

The dance is choreographed to what’s unidentified only as “Haydn’s last piano sonatas,” and was played live by Dr. Vedrana Subotic, an Associate Professor-Lecturer at U / U who teaches in its piano performance program, holds five performance degrees, and has her own website. Obviously her position enables her to rehearse at the school with Wiles and her students, who performed with significant capability and enthusiasm. They quite obviously wanted to excel, and they did.

The piece opens with one young dancer kneeling at the side of the piano upstage right, being inspired by the music. Soon the other three young dancers in the cast join her, and they divide and subdivide and reassemble seamlessly. The flowing, hunter green-based costumes with white trim (designed by Stephanie Jones) emphasize the fresh air and seeming spontaneity, the sense of birds in flight (or the “flocking together” that birds of a feather do), complete with occasional fluttering hands, that the dancers are supposed to represent. The ballet ends with all four of these young dancers (Danielle Dreis, Amy McMaster, Tia Sandman, and Lauren Wattenburg), one of whom bears an uncanny resemblance to how Wiles might have looked in her late teens or early 20s, repositioning themselves at the side of the piano, as if the rest of these birds had been won over by the music as the first dancer was when the piece opened. Nice circularity. Aside from being too similar to what Wiles has choreographed before, it’s a pleasant enough opening piece.

(l-r) Tia Sandman and Amy McMaster in Michele Wiles's "Birds of a Feather" Photo by Eduardo Patino

(l-r) Tia Sandman
and Amy McMaster
in Michele Wiles’s
“Birds of a Feather”
Photo by Eduardo Patino

But midway through the piece, Wiles joins the group (my recollection is that one of the young dancers “invites” Wiles to join her on stage). This may have been intended to be what it looks like – students inviting their teacher to join them, perhaps to celebrate their accomplishment. But this wasn’t a curtain call. In the context of the dance, her brief appearance, lacking the freshness of the students, looked, at best, strange. She certainly looked as jubilant as her students, but the attitude looked forced. When she exited the stage and the piece continued with the young dancers, the freshness reappeared.

This reemphasizes my observation last year: if this company is to prosper in whatever form it takes, Wiles should consider limiting her dance appearances to contexts in which she’s supposed to stand out rather than artificially blend in. She can still dance, and her stage knowledge is undeniable and valuable, but the physical and experience-level contrast between her and her student dancers, particularly in a dance such as Birds of a Feather, is an unfortunate consequence which should best be avoided.

(l-r) Juliana Godlewski and Danielle Dreis in Mauro Bigonzetti's "La Follia" Photo by Eduardo Patino

(l-r) Juliana Godlewski
and Danielle Dreis
in Mauro Bigonzetti’s
“La Follia”
Photo by Eduardo Patino

The two dances choreographed by Bigonzetti that followed are both pas de deux. Neither appears to “say” anything beyond being movement to the accompanying music, but both are very fine examples of non-narrative choreography. La Follia, which means “folly” or “madness,” conveys neither in the choreography, but that’s not really significant. Created (and apparently commissioned) in 2011, BalletNext first presented it in its opening season in 2012 and again two years later, on both occasions danced by Wiles, but with different partners each year. I did not see those performances.

Here, the duet was performed by Dreis and Juliana Godlewski. Both are powerful dancers, but their youthful appearances and physical differences – in addition to the choreographic differences between the roles that make one (Dreis) appear more fluid and lyrical than the other – suggest that the dancers represent different, though complementary, forces. This provided the piece, which Bigonzetti choreographed to Vivaldi’s La Follia, with an “edge,” a sense of maturing growth and contradictory young adult impulses beyond the movement itself, which might not have been previously apparent. Perhaps as a result, La Follia was quite enjoyable, with a variety of movement within the brief duet that ranged from common ballet movement and partnering to more angular, intricate-looking combinations, and jagged hand motions that are more frequently seen in contemporary dance, ballet or otherwise. These hand motions appeared excessive at the piece’s outset, but I see them as being a component of the duality that Bigonzetti is presenting here, and that the two dancers communicated so well.

Danielle Dreis in Mauro Bigonzetti's "La Follia" Photo by Eduardo Patino

Danielle Dreis
in Mauro Bigonzetti’s “La Follia”
Photo by Eduardo Patino

Dreis, who appeared in each of the dances in which the student dancers participated – becoming a focus point and executing with exceptional command the difficult ballet combinations assigned to her (e.g., in La Follia, perfectly executing, unassisted, what appeared to be a double pirouette en pointe into attitude) – is already a distinctive dancer, not assignable to a particular type, and whose stage presence demands attention.

The four musicians who accompanied the dancers – Omar Abboud on piano, violinists Angela Kim and Stephanie Liu, and Eunhye Park on cello – added their considerable expertise as well as a valuable live musical atmosphere.

Bigonzetti’s second piece. Bachground, is also a pas de deux, but it’s of a far different character than La Follia. There appears to be no intent to assign a meaning in any broad sense to the piece, nor is it describable as a “relationship” dance, because there’s no “relationship” beyond the contemporaneous execution by the two dancers – here Wiles and Ramasar. It’s movement to music, nothing more or less, that displays the dancers’ extraordinary skill. And in that respect, Bachground is abundant with intricacy, with an edge of Balanchinian complexity, emotionless connection, and demanding technical requirements. In its Spartan and dramatic contemporary classicism, it reminded me of the central pas de deux in George Balanchine’s Agon. Ramasar’s presence, and the knowledge that Kowroski would join him in the piece for two performances later in the week, made the connection even more unavoidable. [I subsequently ascertained (there’s no reference to it in the program) that what was performed during this engagement was excerpted from a version of Bachground that BalletNext had previously performed. In context, the pas de deux might have made some thematic as well as choreographic sense beyond the pas de deux’s steps and combinations themselves.]

Ramasar’s return to the New York stage, however limited it was, serves to reemphasize how unfortunate his departure from NYCB is – for him, the company, and NYCB audiences. As demonstrated in Bachground, but which I’ve observed over the years with NYCB, he’s a supremely attentive, considerate, and capable partner who not only knows what he’s doing, he does it in a way that is somehow both invisible (in the sense of not being dominant) and ingratiating, with an enthusiasm that is palpable. He was popular at NYCB not because of his Bronx background, but because of his talent and personality. My understanding is that he is now a member (or perhaps guest artist) with Teatro dell’Opera di Roma, which had the good sense to invite him into their company. Perhaps the same will happen in the near future with a company closer to home.

Wiles here did a fine job with the intricacies of the piece, showing that she can still more than adequately handle the technical requirements of this and similar ballets. Although I think the combination of Ramasar and Kowroski might have appeared less arduous if for no other reason that that the two of them have a long partnering history together, that is not meant to demean Wiles’s efforts.

The evening concluded with Wiles’s Hey, Wait. Here again, however, as with Birds of a Feather, it was déjà vu all over again.

It’s no crime for a choreographer to revisit a piece of music, to revise a previously-performed piece of choreography, or to “steal” from a dance that he or she previously created. Or all three. Balanchine did it frequently. But looking overall like a copy or an unacknowledged update is a different matter.

Just short of a year ago, BalletNext premiered Wiles’s Vibrer at NYLA, choreographed to the eponymous composition by jazz trumpeter Tom Harrell. In my subsequent review, I described Vibrer as a neatly crafted dance in which ballet steps morph into “jazzy,” “slinky” movement and counterpoint reflecting the character of Harrell’s trumpeting and the accompanying jazz piano. The same description holds true of Hey, Wait, which was also created last year but is premiering now. There are obvious differences between the two (including Luis Perdomo accompanying Harrell on piano), and my memory of Vibrer isn’t keen enough to say with certainty that the same parts of the composition that Wiles used before were used here, or that the choreography itself was repeated. But the overall “look” is similar.

That being said, there are two obvious differences between Vibrer and Hey, Wait, in addition to those I may not have noticed. First, the costuming is more streamlined (the costumes were “coordinated” by Victoria Bek – no designer is indicated, but I suspect, like last year, the costumes were designed by Wiles): instead of pale orange tunics over a light blue leotard for some, with the garments’ colors reversed for others for no apparent thematic significance; here the dancers wear black leotards with a band of apparently embedded color, a different color for each dancer, again for no apparent thematic reason. In both cases, the costumes added a sense of vibrant fluidity to the piece. Second and more significantly, Wiles is not involved in it, and accordingly does not dominate, the dance – which was my observation last year. Focusing solely on the young student dancers (those already mentioned, plus Emma Anjali, Sydney May, and Sarah Murphy) makes the visual appearance of the dance more uniform, and the fine work by these young dancers more apparent. Complexity and inventiveness, or the lack of it, aside, it’s a fun piece to watch made even more enjoyable by these dancers’ competence and enthusiasm.

BalletNext (center, l-r) Dr. Vedrana Subotic and Michele Wiles, and (l-r) Sarah Murphy, Sydney May, Emma Watson, Tia Sandman, Lauren Wattenberg, Danielle Dreis, and Amy McMaster Photo by Eduardo Patino

(center, l-r) Dr. Vedrana Subotic and Michele Wiles,
and (l-r) Sarah Murphy, Sydney May, Emma Watson,
Tia Sandman, Lauren Wattenberg, Danielle Dreis,
and Amy McMaster
Photo by Eduardo Patino

However, aside from the opportunity the program provides for the young dancers to perform in New York and for New York audiences to see them, there’s an elephant in the room. Beyond having a stated focus on presenting contemporary ballet in a cooperative environment (nothing new there), BalletNext has been struggling with its identity for the seven years of its existence. It was last year, and it is now, albeit in a totally different way. While this is no doubt a wonderful opportunity for the U / U student dancers, and injects fresh and engaging dancing blood into the group, beyond that, how does it improve BalletNext, the company?

If the company is to be considered now a conduit for college ballet students who are “passing through” to something else, even if the “something else” is a career with a major ballet company, the composition of BalletNext will likely change from year to year. And according to a publicity release by the University, Wiles is a guest faculty member (she’s listed as a Visiting Professor on the faculty list). [The U / U dance program is directed by Luc Vanier.] I reference this not to denigrate Wiles’s contribution – whether solely her doing or not, and whether her position continues (and I have no reason to believe it will not), the student dancers she has presented are very good, and doubtless owe much of that to Wiles’s pedagogy. The important thing is that BalletNext appears to be transitioning not into something more stable, but less. While this might be irrelevant for a group of outstanding college students provided with a New York performing showcase, it makes BalletNext something different from what it apparently was intended to be. Moreover, based on this program, thinking that it will allow Wiles to demonstrate greater choreographic creativity, while certainly possible down the road, may be overly optimistic.

If this is the way BalletNext will evolve, that’s fine. In effect, its New York programs, assuming they continue, are the equivalent of an annual school performance by a high quality ballet school, or by the dance department (including ballet) of a college.

More concerning to me is the suggestion in an extensive program note that this is somehow a revolutionary approach to training ballet dancers: that, essentially, this U / U program allows potential professional ballet dancers to develop their minds as well as their bodies. The unstated implication of this is that these U / U students, because of the concurrent education they receive, are more intellectually well-rounded than other young ballet dancers who follow a different route, including those attending other college-level schools. While I cannot comment on any particular school’s programs, I can note my observation that a plethora of young professional dancers, at an age when many would be beginning college, pursue an academic education concurrently with their training and/or performing obligations, attaining degrees, including post-graduate professional degrees, in a variety of academic disciplines. Insinuating, even unintentionally, that the program Wiles has apparently launched at U / U’s School of Dance (which, to my understanding, already had a tie-in with Ballet West for many years) is somehow better or revolutionary or special, ignores schools where such programs already exist, and ignores the extraordinarily intelligent and driven ballet dancers who create and manage their own concurrent academic programs.

Be that as it may, if it returns to New York next year, it will be interesting to see whether, and how, BalletNext continues to evolve.