Ailey Citigroup Theater, New York, NY
July 9, 2015
Ballet in New York City is often associated with such renowned large companies as New York City Ballet and ABT. But this past weekend, Ballet NY demonstrated instead how effective taking a smaller approach can be. The company’s 2015 Program was an engaging and wide-reaching evening of dance, showcasing an impressive diversity of styles in four short works.
Though Ballet NY’s mission is to “offer emerging choreographers the opportunity to create new works on accomplished dancers,” the program included several re-stagings of established works. Kicking off the evening was John Butler’s 1976 work Othello, which brings to life Shakespeare’s tale of Othello and Desdemona’s soured romance, as Iago manipulates him and instigates her tragic demise. The ballet consists primarily of a series of escalating pas de deux, segueing from a love duet between Desdemona and Othello to Iago partnering Othello and contorting him into believing his wife is unfaithful. This masculine sequence is an interesting interplay of strength and power, marked by Iago’s strong, slithering movements as he literally and figuratively manipulates Othello, forcing him to bend under his will.
As Iago, Brent Whitney brought a fittingly treacherous edge to his movements; Giovanni Ravelo’s Othello, meanwhile, felt a bit restrained and underplayed, fitting his role as Iago’s pawn. The piece, however, truly belonged to Coreen Danaher as Desdemona, who perfectly physicalized the character’s journey from lovestruck to desolate and afraid in her gentle yet expressively specific movements. At one point, Desdemona’s love for Othello is expressed as she lightly brushes each side of his face with her hand, and the elegant energy Danaher brought to this small gestural movement made the moment as electrifying as her more technically impressive steps.
William Forsythe’s Slingerland Duet was made originally for Ballett Frankfurt in 2000. Made up of big, precise movements, the choreography is full of thrillingly intricate dynamics; angular yet flowing, frantic yet controlled. Katie Gibson had strong poise and a pointed determination that especially shone through in the piece’s final moments, but also seemed slightly daunted by the frenetic complexity of Forsythe’s choreography. She was guided through this choreography well, however, by Whitney, who was a strong and assured partner.
Alongside these established works from elsewhere were dances choreographed specifically for Ballet NY, starting with the world premiere of What Ever, a contemporary ballet duet choreographed by company co-Artistic Director Medhi Bahiri set to Samuel Barber’s Concerto for Violin and Orchestra. The choreography has modern influences but retains a classical foundation, moving from precise, angular movements performed in unison to sweeping yet specific partnering sequences that have a heavier classical influence, but are also bold with strong lines and unexpected lifts that give the pas de deux an innovative edge.
This fluctuation between classical and modern in What Ever is aided by David Grill’s lighting, which was expertly designed throughout the entire program, but here felt particularly like an extension of the music that helped elevate and accentuate the piece’s changing tones. Bringing Bahiri’s movements to life were the strong and grounded Jesse Campbell and Xiaoxiao Cao. Cao is the perfect ballerina for the piece, with a grace that fits the choreography’s sweeping movements but the control and strength to ensure each bold moment in the piece is attacked sharply and accurately.
The program concluded with Stanton Welch’s Orange, a work for six dancers originally choreographed for Ballet NY in 2001. The piece, part of a series of works identifying with the colors of the chakras, is meant to signify maturity. This comes through in the choreography’s blend of assured playfulness and regally presentational movements, which match the alternating litheness and grandeur of the Vivaldi score. The work ended the evening on a high note, as each dancer seemed at their best performing Welch’s dynamic choreography, which includes a blend of group sequences and breakout moments for one or two dancers.
Though many of the pieces in the program, with the exception of Othello, focused on the female dancers, Orange did give the company’s male dancers more of a chance to shine as individuals. Of these performances, Whitney was the most vibrant, bringing a buoyancy and confidence to his movements.
Katie Gibson’s talents were also more boldly displayed here in her solo sequence packed with small, quick movements. She deftly navigated these steps and attacked each with poise and control, making it clear why she was selected to take on Forsythe’s choreography. The true standout of Orange, though, was Kate Ann Behrendt, the sole dancer to not have performed in any of the previous pieces. In her duet with Campbell, she was flexible and graceful yet assured enough to hold her own against his more broad and grounded steps. But she truly shone in her solo toward the end of the piece, as she exploded onstage with a striking grand jeté and launched into a sequence bursting with extraordinary vibrancy and electricity.
The range of choreographic styles, relationships, and tones ensured that Ballet NY’s short program consistently felt surprising and inventive, making for an engaging and diverse evening of dance. Thanks to the company’s small size, the program was also decidedly focused on the dancers themselves. Rather than relying on a few “star” performances to carry the show like larger companies, the evening retained an ensemble feel while giving each individual performer the chance to showcase their technical strengths. This unique and personal exploration of choreography and performance allowed Ballet NY’s 2015 season to not only be an entertaining evening of dance, but also a thoughtful consideration of modern ballet itself.