The Miller Theater at Columbia University, New York, NY; January 18, 2015

Jerry Hochman

A year ago, American Ballet Theatre soloist Craig Salstein formed Intermezzo Dance Company, and presented its first program. Its second program, “From Myth to Philosophy”, with works created by five different choreographers was of varied quality, but was an earnest effort, performed at a high level by the fourteen dancers, several of whom are, or have been, on the rosters of ABT and New York City Ballet.

Of the five dances, the final piece, “Journey to Pandora”, created by Ja’ Malik, was the most entertaining, while “Mythology”, by Gemma Bond, the most concise and choreographically ‘tight’.

Mr. Salstein, who has excelled as a dancer both through the clarity of his execution and his intelligent character portrayals, opened the program by explaining that his goal was to create a company in which ranking and promotions weren’t paramount concerns, and that it is important for artists to create, rather than recreate. Both are commendable goals. But the subject of ‘mythology’, including its non-narrative relative ‘philosophy’, has been mined many times in many contexts, including in iconic dance pieces, so by deciding on a theme like “From Myth to Philosophy”, Mr. Salstein created a Sisyphean task for himself and the artists he invited to choreograph – which is a not particularly inventive segue into the first piece on the program.

In his “The Myth of Sisyphus,” Mr. Salstein goes beyond the myth itself, explaining, in the program notes, that the dance is based on an essay of that name by Albert Camus, and that the dance represents “the subjects of absurd reasoning, absurd man and absurd creation,” concluding with the myth itself. That’s a task beyond Sisyphean – it’s Herculean.

The piece is divided into segments presumably reflecting the referenced subjects, but the choreography does not distinguish between them sufficiently, and despite occasional varying degrees of emphasis in both, the emotional level of the choreography and the accompanying score (by Patrick Soluri) is too similar, with an overall air of low decibel level angst. That doesn’t mean that the choreography for the individual dancers (Amber Neff, Shoshana Rosenfield, Abi Stafford, Tanner Schwartz, and Mauro Villanueva) always looked the same, or that the presentation didn’t differ somewhat during each segment. But the focus kept changing from Ms. Stafford (whose choreographic assignment included occasional upbeat interludes) to Mr. Schwartz to Mr. Villanueva, which may have been the point (a sense of universality of experience). However, it made the piece diffuse, and at the same time look visually and emotionally monochromatic and detached – which might be an appropriate visualization for Camus, but doesn’t make for an interesting looking dance.

The final segment is considerably clearer in presenting the myth, but lacks a sense of power or determination. The ‘boulder’, a circle of four dancers holding hands presumably representative of challenges to overcome, was ‘pushed’ a bit by Mr. Villanueva, and then by Ms. Neff, again indicating, perhaps, a degree of universality. But the boulder, the challenge, is just ‘there’; a fact of existence, as challenges that must be overcome, but may never be, are a fact of life.

Gemma Bond has distinguished herself with recent choreographic efforts for New York Theater Ballet and others, and grown in experience and capability with each outing. Most recently, her solo for fellow ABT dancer Cassandra Trenary at ABT’s ‘Innovation Initiative’, called “Me and Mine”, was a knockout. “Mythology” is further evidence of her choreographic development.

Based on the mythological story of the Trojan Horse, “Mythology” is an abstract piece that has only tangential visual connection to the story. What there is, is considerable frenzy among the seven dancer cast, but it’s tightly controlled, and although the message isn’t completely clear (at one point I thought the dancers represented the ‘apprehensively celebratory’ people of Troy; at another the aggressive Greeks), it’s developed in a visually interesting way. It ends with the dancers gathering together to form an object – the horse, perhaps, but whether it’s being presented or received, or instead representative of a group of people looking at the horse from a promontory, doesn’t matter. Here, perhaps, the ambiguity is the message.

“Hera’s Wrath”, the dance that opened the second half of the program, relates an affair between Zeus and Semele, a mortal Theban princess; and the ensuing revenge by Zeus’s wife Hera. Choreographed by Cherylyn Lavagnino to Edvard Greig’s “Folkelivsbilder”, Opus 19, the piece was the evening’s only narrative dance. Ms. Lavagnino, a former soloist with the Pennsylvania Ballet and member of faculty at NYU Tisch School of the Arts, is Artistic Director of her own company, Cherylyn Lavagnino Dance. “Hera’s Wrath” was commissioned for Intermezzo.

The opening of “Hera’s Wrath” is strong, with a hint of the story distillation, individual character development, and stagecraft used by Jose Limon in “The Moor’s Pavane”. And some of the choreography, particularly for Zeus and Semele (portrayed by Alfredo Solivan and Temple Kemezis), is creative. Rina Barrantes, a tall and striking-looking dancer, commanded the stage as Hera. But although I appreciate the clarity of its presentation, and that emotional distinctions between the more expressive human and the more stoic immortals were appropriately made, it becomes too choreographically concrete. And its conclusion, the visualization of Zeus’s appearance to Semele as a god, and Semele’s resulting death from that exposure, fizzled.

I don’t know what to make of Adam Hendrickson’s “Black is the Colour of My True Love’s Hair”. A solo danced by Caitlin Gilliland, a former NYCB dancer who now seems to be everywhere at once, the piece has no program notes, and the title discloses little.

Nothing that Ms. Gilliland performs is danced less than superbly, and this is no exception. But it didn’t seem to be saying anything – until, Ms. Gilliland appeared to slap herself (apparently hand to leg, though I couldn’t tell clearly) with increasing frequency, and sliding a finger across her groin, then repeatedly maneuvering her hand from behind with obvious sexual connotations that signaled debauchery rather than passion (the action is similar to the interaction between the Prodigal and the Siren’s minions in “Prodigal Son”.) It looked completely gratuitous to me, and ruined what I thought was some sort of exploration into self-discovery. And I could think of no connection between this piece and the evening’s subject matter.

But then I noted the identification of the music to which Mr. Hendrickson, a former NYCB soloist, choreographed his piece. It’s cryptically written as “Oedipus; Music for a While and Black is The Colour of My True Love’s Hair”. Oedipus was a rock band; “Music for a While” is the second of four movements to a 1692 composition by Henry Purcell of incidental music to accompany the play, “Oedipus”, by John Dryden and Nathaniel Lee; and “Black is the Colour of My True Love’s Hair” is…an Appalachian Mountain folk song derived from a Scottish folk song that has nothing, apparently, to do with Oedipus. But…“Music for a While” was included in a 2012 album by Garth Knox (with Agnes Vesterman and others) called “Saltarello,” which also included a recording of “Black is the Colour of My True Love’s Hair.” Perhaps that’s the connection – if there’s supposed to be one. A little research can be a dangerous thing.

Regardless, assuming the piece has some connection to the Oedipus myth, it makes the sexual references comprehensible. But the dance, other than those possible references, is opaque, and shows no other connection aside from, perhaps, Ms. Gilliland being seen as a passive object: it was danced flat, with no emotional gloss whatsoever. So the piece is a mystery to me. Evaluated on its own terms, it’s curious to watch but leaves no impact.

The program’s concluding piece, Mr. Malik’s “Journey to Pandora”, to Philip Glass’s “String Quartet No. 5”, is refreshingly candid about its intended mythological reference points and its structural and thematic nature. It’s described as “an abstract, non-abstract, narrative, non-narrative ballet, based off of a few mythological gods and goddesses such as the Fates, Echo, and Narcissus on a Journey to Pandora.” There’s no jar or box or allusion to one, and the only location called ‘Pandora’ that I’m aware of is the planet invented by James Cameron for “Avatar”. But the piece, a cohesive amalgam of images, pacing, and stage action, is fun to watch and works as a choreographic journey to some better place, wherever that place might be. Oliver Swan-Jackson and the choreographer (who has an extensive performing background) were the male anchors, but Ms. Graneiro, the company spark plug, and Nancy Richer were the individual focal points. Ms. Barrantes and Giselle Alvarez completed the engaging and capable cast.