[Note – Photos from When We Fell will be added upon receipt.]

Bubbles, Baubles, and Diamonds in the Sky: Brilliant Choreography and One Unforgettable Performance

ABT Live From City Center: A Ratmansky Celebration
March 23, 2021
Bernstein in a Bubble by Alexei Ratmansky (World Premiere)
Performed by members of American Ballet Theatre

Youth America Grand Prix – YAGP Virtual 2021 Gala
March 31, 2021
Journey Uptown by Gabe Stone Shayer (World Premiere)
Performed by Skylar Brandt, Gabe Stone Shayer, and Matthew Whitaker

Nimbus Dance – To Ascend: The Power of the Female Dancer
March 31, 2021
Empty Place by Samuel Pott
Performed by Sarah Lane

NYCB Virtual 2021 Season
April 8, 2021
When We Fell (World Premiere)
Performed by members of New York City Ballet

Jerry Hochman

I recently viewed four new pieces of choreography, streamed “live” and on demand, that I never intended to review (as has been the case with most of the online programs that I’ve seen since the pandemic began). But each of these is so well-crafted, and so indicative of the breadth of the talents involved, that I couldn’t not review them. One is a further example of the choreographer’s superbly polished output; another is stunningly inventive. The other two are very brief, but they’re polar opposites in everything but quality. All are superb pieces of work.

I’ll consider them in order of increasing impact on me (not in date order), culminating with a discussion of the gut-wrenching performance by Sarah Lane, a guest artist with Jersey City’s Nimbus Dance, in Samuel Pott’s Empty Place. [I had also intended to keep any review I might write as brief as the dances. So much for good intentions.]

ABT Live From City Center: A Ratmansky Celebration
Gershwin in a Bubble

Alexei Ratmansky, ABT’s Artist in Residence for what seems like forever, created a new ballet during the Company’s Covid-restricted residency in a “bubble” space at Kaatsbaan in upstate New York. Appropriately titled Bernstein in a Bubble, the piece, for four men and three women, premiered on March 23 in an hour-long program:  “ABT Live from City Center | A Ratmansky Celebration.” The program also celebrated ABT’s heralded return to New York City Center, for many years the venue for its annual Fall seasons. Whether this signals a return to City Center for upcoming Fall seasons (or for other seasons also – ABT used to perform at City Center during other times of the year too) is unknown, but it sounds as if something’s afoot.

Tangentially, ABT at City Center represented a reunion of sorts for me. My first exposure to ballet other than in snippets occasionally seen on TV’s Ed Sullivan Show was an ABT program at City Center in late January or early February, 1972. That was a phenomenal program. This one wasn’t, but given pandemic restraints and the justifiable need to emphasize the financial crises common to all dancers, dance companies and performance spaces, I didn’t expect it to be.

The program included three excerpts from previously-performed Ratmansky pieces (The Sleeping BeautySeven Sonatas, and The Seasons), one of which I’ll address briefly later, but its capstone was the world premiere of Ratmansky’s latest. Bernstein in a Bubble isn’t one of his greatest ballets, but it doesn’t pretend to be. It doesn’t make you think, break choreographic boundaries, or make the viewer “feel” anything beyond appreciating choreographic quality. But it’s very good. Cerebral it’s not, but Ratmansky it is.

(l-r) Patrick Frenette, Skylar Brandt, and Tyler Maloney
in Alexei Ratmansky’s “Bernstein in a Bubble”
Photo by Christopher Duggan

The ballet is divided into eight fluid segments corresponding to the movements of its score, Bernstein’s “Divertimento,” which was composed in the last decade of Bernstein’s life (in 1980) after his more significant, and popular, creative period had passed, at the invitation of the Boston Symphony Orchestra in honor of its centennial. It’s a sequence of bagatelles – trifles; baubles; … bubbles – that encapsulated the celebratory mood. The sheer variety (and individual brevity) of these movements compels the same qualities in Ratmansky’s choreography, but the inventiveness evident in each of the ballet’s movements (double-meaning intended) is pure Ratmansky.

Except for the final movement, the titles of each segment of Ratmansky’s ballet are the titles Bernstein gave the movements in his composition. The opening movement, “Sennets and Tuckets,” with the full cast (Skylar Brandt, Catherine Hurlin, Cassandra Trenary, Aran Bell, Patrick Frenette, Blaine Hoven, and Tyler Maloney), does what opening movements most often do: it introduces the music and the cast, and sets the tone for what’s to come. To the extent there’s a dominant sense to it, it’s one of pride and accomplishment, emphasized by the dancers strutting their accomplishments (at times literally, but not at all in an arrogant or self-important way). “March” concludes the piece, with a similarly appropriate and perhaps even more expansive flourish as the dancers, as did BSO, march into the future. [This final movement was originally named “In Memoriam; March: The BSO Forever.” Ratmansky understandably removed the BSO reference, but he also deleted the words “In Memoriam,” although to my ears, and eyes, that section of this segment is still in the piece, danced with appropriate reverence (but no clear reason for it) sequentially by the three women.]

Catherine Hurlin and Aran Bell
in Alexei Ratmansky’s “Bernstein in a Bubble”
Photo by Christopher Duggan

In between are the ballet’s most significant components, in which Ratmansky’s ability to reflect and amplify, but at the same time be independent from, the music to which it’s paired is most evident. My favorites are “Waltz” (the second component), showing Ratmansky’s creative structuring, his ebb and flow of movement to music, at its best; “Turkey Trot” (the fifth component), a terribly clever and lightly humorous take on Bernstein’s score (as well as an opportunity for Brandt to hit it out of the park); and “Blues” (the seventh section), a showcase for Hurlin and Bell with a startling visual ending that takes Ratmansky’s choreography beyond the music.

Bernstein in a Bubble has no particular significance beyond being yet another example of Ratmansky’s choreographic brilliance (and a vehicle to highlight ABT’s “next generation” of dancers). But it’s more than Ratmansky blowing pretty bubbles in the air. It may not be his most memorable ballet, but it’s well worth seeing when ABT presents it again, which they undoubtedly will once live performances resume.

My only comment on the rest of the program relates to Brandt’s performance in the Rose Adagio from Ratmansky’s version of The Sleeping Beauty (she was to have debuted as Aurora during ABT’s aborted Spring 2020 Met season, and to my knowledge has not yet danced the full ballet). After seeing Brandt’s Giselle at The Kennedy Center in February, 2020, I commented negatively on her attempts to hold balances far longer than I thought they should be in the context of that ballet. The Rose Adagio is a whole other ballet game. Facilitated by having “princes / suitors” who knew what they were doing, Brandt put on a balance clinic. Had there been an audience, it would have gone wild.

NYCB Virtual 2021 Season
When We Fell

I consider Kyle Abraham’s The Runaway (created for NYCB in 2018) to be one of the landmarks of contemporary ballet choreography. He’s done it again – but in a different, more cerebral, way.

As with The Runaway, I didn’t like When We Fell initially, and didn’t “get” it at all. The assembled score, at least at its outset, was starkly contemporary in its desolation and isolation; somewhat like listening to time slowly pass without anything happening. [As I realized later, this was spot on.] The initial view of the NYC dancers (India Bradley, Jonathan Fahoury, Christopher Grant, Claire Kretzschmar, Lauren Lovette, Taylor Stanley, KJ Takahashi, and Sebastian Villarini-Velez), angled from the top of the DHK Theater Promenade down to its floor, made them look miniscule, like dancer-ants emerging from some hidden crevice. I couldn’t identify them at all, and I didn’t see the point. The choreography itself looked excessively mannered, ponderous, and controlled; the dancers looked like strangers in a strange land, at times like displaced celestial beings (during this “Promenade” part of the film, I fleetingly sensed Ashton’s Monotones). There was no improvement even when the camera’s viewpoint changed to the Promenade floor itself, although one could see the initial rigidity gradually yield to movement that became more fluid – from stiff to molasses to honey (particularly evident in a solo by Bradley).

Eventually, the location changed from the theater’s Promenade to its interior, to the theater’s stage itself. Here the dancers appeared to become more comfortable, seemingly energized; and the pace of the choreography quickened and became more contemporary-looking, almost Balanchinian (at several points I thought I saw nods to Symphony in Three Movements) even though some of the camera’s angles, again, at times were from the top down. The short sixteen or so minute piece concluded with a languid, lengthy, and exquisite pas de deux for Lovette and Stanley. Finally, as the two dancers walked off the stage, the camera panned upward, toward the DHK theater ceiling, eventually stopping when the chandelier that hangs over the theater’s center came into full view. And then, as the piece ended, I suddenly understood what Abraham was trying to do, or thought I did. [Better late than never.] And I wanted to scream because it was all so “right.” In an instant, it became memorable.

To me, When We Fell is an outstandingly original visualization of the impact of an era, brief (hopefully) as that era will be, on dancers who can no longer perform in a theater before an audience: dance in the time of Covid. It wears its inventiveness on its sleeve, but here that’s a good thing. And, significantly, it’s made for the screen (the film was co-directed by Abraham and cinematographer Ryan Marie Helfant). I doubt that it could be successfully converted into a live theater performance, not just because it would be impossible to recreate it the way it was intended to be viewed, but because it shouldn’t be.

The choreography – the individual dances and bits and pieces of movement that Abraham creates here – isn’t really that significant. That’s not to say that the choreography is in some way deficient; on the contrary, in hindsight it’s perfectly appropriate for what I think Abraham is trying to say. What’s most significant is the concept that informs Abraham’s choreography. Like stars fallen from the sky, the dancers in When We Fell have metaphorically fallen from their theatrical sky (ergo the overhead views). They look out of place because they are. Their movement, at least at the outset, appears awkward and unfocused because they need to adapt and change the emphasis of their art; they need to learn to dance again. And the ballet wouldn’t have worked as well as it ultimately did if the dancers hadn’t executed the difficult choreography optimally.

With the final set of images, Abraham doesn’t allow the viewer to forget that these dancers who’ve fallen from the theater rafters are more than fallen stars. I don’t yet understand whether their relearned art is intended to reflect a memory of the way things were, a forecast of the way things will return to be, or neither. But what is clear is that they’re not only fallen stars, but irreplaceable diamonds in the theater’s firmament.

YAGP Virtual 2021 Gala
Journey Uptown

The highlight of Youth America Grand Prix’s 2021 Virtual Gala on March 31 was the premiere of Gabe Stone Shayer’s Journey Uptown, to a commissioned score by 19 year old Matthew Whitaker (who plays his composition live during the performance). Shayer has choreographed before, but (to my knowledge) not to a great extent. Given what I knew about the ballet’s subject, I didn’t expect anything more than fluff, a bauble, but in every respect Shayer’s little bauble blew me away. What Shayer has accomplished here is nothing less than a notice to the dance community that he’s arrived as a choreographer.

(l-r) Gabe Stone Shayer, Matthew Whitaker, and Skylar Brandt
in “Journey Uptown”
Photo by Taylor Brandt

The music that Whitaker composed is a brief musical excursion to the excitement and allure that is New York City. Whitaker is blind, but that doesn’t mean that he doesn’t see; he “just” sees differently. I don’t pretend to know how he was able to create this magnificent sounding score, but I suppose it’s a combination of what he hears and feels of the ambiance of NYC. It’s a little Gershwin-y, a lot jazzy, and a lot bubbly and sparkly: it’s musical champagne. Like New York, it pulses and races and crackles and if I could think of additional descriptive words I’d use them. It’s less than six minutes of an idealized Manhattan. That ambiance is what the music is “about.” And that ambiance is what Shayer’s dance is about.

Journey Uptown, the dance, is every bit as exciting to watch as Whitaker’s music is to hear as New York City nightlife, real or imagined, is to experience. The piece is venued in some unspecified high-floored space (I recognize the exterior facing structure, but can’t quite place the particular building – perhaps it’s, appropriately, a rehearsal room at the Jazz at Lincoln Center space on Columbus Circle, or a similar space at or in the vicinity of the Lincoln Center campus itself) with a fabulous view of the glittering city at night. It begins with Whitaker slowly walking toward where he believes the piano is, sitting down, and playing his composition. Within seconds, Brandt and Shayer, who apparently were already in the room, start to dance. The music never stops, and neither do they.

Skylar Brandt and Gabe Stone Shayer in “Journey Uptown”
Photo by Taylor Brandt

A description of Shayer’s choreography might make it seem relatively simplistic – lots of turns, spins, lifts, jumps, and then more turns, spins, lifts, and jumps. The fact that it’s confined to a small area of the floor (the “dance” floor applied over the room’s “real” floor is, by my rough estimate, maybe 30’ by 10’ – which also, coincidentally, could approximate a carved-out segment of a New York City sidewalk) limits the limited movement further, restricting the two dancers to moving in one direction, then another, up and down, back and forth. But somehow there’s no sense of any “limitation” at all: Shayer has made each simplistic-sounding movement look as if every turn, spin, lift and jump had its own character. His dance bursts with variety, energy, and life, and it’s thrilling to watch Brandt and Shayer communicate that so effectively (as does Whitaker himself, who, seemingly motivated by the energy he’s creating, rises from his piano chair as the performance progresses because, well, with all this energy in the room he can’t just sit there). The joy is contagious.

What the piece lacks is anything beyond that, and I suppose some might feel that it’s not sufficiently relevant, and there’s no sense of personality or character here beyond what’s needed to show each dancer (and Whitaker) having a great time. But I’m aware from seeing other examples of Shayer’s choreography that in the appropriate context his choreography goes far beyond fluff, and here, anything more complex than crafting interesting choreography to music, and transmitting an ambiance that’s specific and real, as this ballet does, would be … irrelevant. Journey Uptown is worth the trip.

Mariinsky Ballet dancers Maria Khoreva and Kimin Kim
in an excerpt from “Le Corsaire”
shown at the YAGP 2021 Virtual Gala
Photo courtesy of YAGP

As for other components of YAGP’s virtual gala, it’s good to see The Mariinsky’s May Nagahisa and Victor Caixeta, and  Maria Khoreva and Kimin Kim, at any time and in any context, but what was shown were limited samplings, and I’m greedy – I wanted more.

Nimbus Dance – To Ascend: The Power of the Female Dancer
Empty Place

On another level entirely is Sarah Lane’s performance in Empty Place.

Lane’s guest artist appearance was on a program presented by Nimbus Dance, a Jersey City company that I should have become aware of sooner. [Yet another example of how much I don’t know that I don’t know.] The program was titled “To Ascend – The Power of the Female Dancer,” and was presented on March 31 in recognition of Women’s History Month. [One benefit of streamed programming is that I could see both of the March 31 premieres at, virtually, the same time.]

Aanyse Pettiford-Chandler in Dr. Pearl Primus’s “Strange Fruit,”
staged by Dawn Marie Bazemore for Nimbus Dance
Photo by Mark Smith

The hour-long program consisted of five brief, expressive solos performed by five women – four members of the company and Lane. The four solos by company members [Surface Tension, choreographed by the company’s Artistic Director, Samuel Pott and danced by Victoria Santaguida; Pott’s The Glare From These Horizons, performed by Isabele Rosso; Strange Fruit, choreographed by Dr. Pearl Primus, staged by Dawn Marie Bazemore, and danced by Aanyse Pettiford-Chandler; and Feeling Good, choreographed by Bazemore and danced by Leigh Ann Curd (whom I remember from her work with Inclined Dance Project)] were well-executed and powerfully delivered. However, I hesitate to review the dances themselves in any detail beyond acknowledging the unexpectedly (to me) high level of performance quality because three of them were excerpts and I prefer to know the context from which they were excised, and the fourth, Strange Fruit, is an iconic work that needs no elaboration from me. Suffice it to say that the company is now on my radar screen, and I’ll look forward to seeing future Nimbus Dance performances.

LeighAnn Curd in Dawn Marie Bazemore’s “Feeling Good”
Photo by Mark Smith

The program’s concluding solo was Empty Place, also choreographed by Pott. All five pieces accomplish what the program was intended to do: to illustrate the power of the female dancer. But Empty Place doesn’t just show you; it takes you there. And as she did in GiselleManon, as Odette in Swan Lake, in Ratmansky’s The Tempest and even as Anne Boleyn in Christopher Wheeldon’s VIII and so many other roles in which a character’s emotional state is a component, Lane makes you feel, not just see. At less than four minutes, the piece is even shorter than Shayer’s, but it left me breathless.

Pott is a former Soloist with the Martha Graham Company, so choreographed emotion in movement is not strange to him. But Empty Place isn’t Graham. I saw no contortions here (not that that’s a prerequisite); and if there’s fury in it, as there well may be, it’s beneath the surface. To the extent it awakens images of Graham at all, beyond a certain essential sensitivity common to most, if not all, of her choreography, it’s to the suffering and agony in Lamentation.

But there’s more to this solo than suffering and agony. Those emotions are a consequence of something far more significant, and, to me, far more difficult to convey successfully: loss and bewilderment.

The dance features Lane, wearing a patterned cloth dress that evokes simplicity and poverty, initially standing mournfully next to a bare-wood rocking chair that she gently pushes forward and back though no one but the occupant of Lane’s character’s memory sits there. She stops rocking the chair, eventually circumnavigates the chair and the shadow and light (as if from a window) that frame it, and slowly and relentlessly breaks your heart.

Sarah Lane in Samuel Pott’s “Empty Place”
Photo by Luis Ribagorda

There isn’t much here choreographically, but what there is is very fine work. It’s difficult to describe in detail – you have to be there – and it’s over in a flash, but many of its components are absolutely brilliant. For instance, on several occasions Lane’s character falls to the floor, broken down as if suffering under a terrible weight. She picks herself up, but not by lifting herself. Rather, she pushes herself, physically, limb by limb, one arm coaxing and gently pushing a leg to rise. Seeing the effort required makes the result that much more meaningful. The essential wail of despair is also there at repeated intervals, but it’s not demonstrated by excessive repetition and emotional fury – it’s more choreographically subtle, and more insidious. And although the character’s spatial range is limited to the area around the chair, there’s no sense here of unnatural or even metaphorical confinement (as with the restricting costume in Lamentation). On the contrary, to a large extent the movement quality that Pott’s choreography provides is balletic even though it’s danced barefoot, filled with soaring extensions that emphasize the centripetal force that keeps the character focused on the person who’s no longer sitting in that chair. Everything that the audience sees here is connected, and is intended to drive the point home: the bare set; the bare chair, the bare feet, the bare soul.

I don’t know whether this particular performance was the dance’s premiere (I saw nothing to indicate it). Regardless, as well-crafted as it is choreographically, I can’t imagine any finer or more compelling execution than Lane’s. Every movement, every motion, every moment counts. As Lane delivered it, I didn’t so much sense bits and pieces of Graham in the piece as echoes of Antony Tudor (e.g., Dark ElegiesJardin Aux Lilas). At one moment her movement is painfully sensual, at others it communicates utter despair, and at still other moments a fervent and puzzled plea to some extra-physical force to help her understand and to make the pain in her head and the ache in her heart go away. Her performance here rekindled memories of her gripping performances as The Young Girl in Kurt Jooss’s The Green Table, coupled with the bewilderment and sense of emptiness that’s a component of her “mad scene” in Giselle. Indeed, at one particularly compelling moment, and whether intentional or not, Lane’s hair hung down her face like a shroud as it did in her extraordinary Giselle during ABT’s Met 2019 season, both concealing and emphasizing her emotional and physical collapse.

Sarah Lane in Samuel Pott’s “Empty Place”
Photo by Luis Ribagorda

The accompanying score is a mashup of two impeccably selected pieces of music, one compounding the impact of the other. The dance opens with Qasim Naqvi’s “Artilect” sounding in the background. The composition is a set of measured and slowly building electronic percussive and buzzing sounds. At first you hardly know it’s there, but it gradually increases in intensity, like a brutal headache that reflects and continually aggravates the despair that batters Lane’s character.

Shortly after “Artilect” begins, the vocal sounds of “The Recruited Collier,” sung with deceptive stoicism by Anne Briggs, provide a contrary but somehow also complementary ambiance. I was unable to discern more than a word or two of the song’s lyrics (probably because of the quality of my speakers), so I looked it up afterward. “The Recruited Collier” is an old Irish folk song that recounts the enticement-by-alcohol and recruitment of a young Irish coalminer, “Jimmy,” by British Redcoats, told from the point of view of the young woman who lived with him, watched him morph into a soldier (with the bravado that goes with it), and now has been abandoned to await his return, to hear of his death, or to die alone. So Lane’s character’s “actual” loss and grief, at least based only on the song, is the personal consequence of a horrid political situation where one group can, and does, dominate the other without reason or care. Be that as it may, as choreographed and executed Empty Place has universal applicability. Grief is grief in any context; loss is loss. Here, as Lane performed it, the empty place is not just the empty chair; it’s her empty heart.

Sarah Lane in Samuel Pott’s “Empty Place”
Photo by Luis Ribagorda

Two final notes. The stark, simple lighting by HaeJin Han perfectly isolates the empty chair and at the same time Lane’s physical and emotional isolation. And a nod also to the videography by Luis Ribagorda. The care exercised in capturing and enhancing Lane’s gem of a performance is obvious and undeniable, and merits individual acclaim.

The dance ends where it began, with Lane collapsing to the side of the empty chair and gently rocking it forward and back, staring into her sadness. After I started to breathe again, I marveled at what Lane had accomplished here. Being able to stop an audience in its tracks in a matter of moments, to make the character’s emotions not just believable, but real, is a talent that few dancers possess no matter how perfectly they may execute a role and how compellingly they encourage an audience to watch them do it. At the Principal level, many professional dancers can dance the part and act a role (where appropriate) to make a performance memorable. But the ability to make an audience live what she lives on stage and feel what she feels, to silence an audience such that one could hear a pin drop – even when the audience is a virtual one, and to do it with unaffected emotional truth and physical grace, is rarer still. Lane’s Empty Place is not just memorable; it’s unforgettable.