Steptext (dancers here: Dorothée Delabie and Raul Serrano Nunez) Photo Jaime Roque de la Cruz

(dancers here: Dorothée Delabie and Raul Serrano Nunez)
Photo Jaime Roque de la Cruz

The Joyce Theater, New York, NY; April 29, 2015

Jerry Hochman

The Lyon Opera Ballet was founded in 1969, but at least since 1984 its focus has been on contemporary choreographers. That’s admirable, but it also runs the risk of presenting dances that are of little enduring significance. In its program last week at The Joyce Theater, the company presented three works which ran the gamut from ok, to awful, to fabulous.

William Forysthe’s Steptext was fabulous. Forsythe’s ballets have never reached the level of appreciation in this country as they have in Europe, where his work is revered. Many pieces are iconoclastic, to be sure, but – and except for In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated, which is tame enough that many ballet companies perform it here – they’re nihilism overwhelms their creativity. Steptext, however, is not only different from classical or neo classical ballet, and includes the angularity, staccato phrasing, and other qualities that together characterize Forsythe’s work, but it’s also coherent, relatively accessible, and thoroughly exhilarating to watch.

Forsythe describes Steptext, which uses the chaconne from J.S. Bach’s Partita No. 2 for Solo Violin in D Minor as its musical foundation, as a “fugue of the mechanics of theatrical ritual,” and that it “suspends the major and incidental procedural mechanism of performance that have traditionally determined the structure of theatrical representation. The resulting series of dislocated musical, scenographic and danced suspensions creates a mood of charged narrative; for one woman and three men.” That’s an unnecessarily highfalutin mystification of what comes across as a series of pas de deux with differing narrative and emotional gloss provided in part by the choreography and in part by utilizing the same ballerina for the three distinct, but related, pas de deux, which is preceded by a relatively generic introduction in which the dancers are introduced and move on and off stage in varying combinations.

Essentially, Steptext, which premiered in 1985, is a choreographic examination of a ballerina and her different approaches to duets involving three different male dancers, and three different scenarios – perhaps texts for the steps. She’s the one in charge, as she accepts, rejects, or encourages her partners. But notwithstanding any narrative construction, the ballet works as a piece of abstract contemporary dance as well, because the movement quality is dynamic even in those rare moments when there’s little of it, and it has a structure and direction that makes sense.

Led here by Raul Serrano Nunez, Marco Merenda, Roylan Ramos, and Ashley Wright, the piece merges dramatic visual images and an aura of severity and stark contrasts (a product of the choreography itself and its counterpoint with the music, but also by the costumes – black tights for the men and a bright red leotard for the ballerina – which Forsythe designed) with a touch of comedy for balance. And although the men were uniformly excellent, the lady in red was superb.

The ovation that greeted the four dancers upon the ballet’s conclusion was in stark contrast to the reaction that followed the two pieces that preceded it.

Lyon Opera Ballet in Sarabande. Photo Michael Cavalca

Lyon Opera Ballet in Sarabande
Photo Michael Cavalca

The evening began with Benjamin Millepied’s Sarabande, which originally premiered in 2009 and entered the Lyon repertoire two years later. Also choreographed to music by Bach (extracts from Partita for Solo Flute in A Minor and from two Sonatas and Partitas for Solo Violin), the piece purportedly is inspired by A Suite of Dances, a solo Jerome Robbins choreographed for Mikhail Baryshnikov in 1994, and created for the latter’s White Oak Project. Perhaps Millepied’s piece combines some sort of homage to that with one to Robbins’s 2 & 3 Part Inventions which he created the same year for the School of American Ballet, and in which Millepied danced. Regardless, although it has some merit, it lacks Robbins’s soul.

As A Suite of Dances had its solo dancer inspired by the concurrent playing of an on-stage cello, Sarabande begins with a solo dancer, Julian Nicosia, inspired by the concurrent playing of an on-stage flute. Nicosia swings his body to the music of the flute (to the Sarabande from the flute partita), swings his arms around while holding his hands together, and punctuates the sashaying with episodes that include what appear to be random ballet steps, and by simply walking. To a second segment from the same partita, the Allemanda, the choreography has Nicosia use more of his arms and torso, as if propelled by his arms. These excerpts look disconnected (which is not surprising since they’re choreographed to musical excerpts), and have little of interest.

The dance picks up when the flute is replaced on stage by a violin, and Nicosia was joined on stage by three other men: Alexis Bourbeau, Adrien Delepine, and Matthieu Rouviere. To five excerpts from the violin pieces, the dancers initially seem to move in tandem, like the strings of a violin. Eventually, as the tempo of the music increases, the four separate into pairs and solos, run into the wings and come back out, and the piece becomes more choreographically interesting and varied. In its structure (particularly in the last few violin excerpts) and playfulness, and even though it’s all male and lacks any semblance of passion, the choreography is remindful of Millepied’s Without, which he created the previous year on a student ensemble, and which was performed by the Mariinsky Ballet at BAM three months ago.

Lyon Opera Ballet in Sunshine. Photo Photo Michael Cavalca

Lyon Opera Ballet in Sunshine.
Photo Michael Cavalca

Emmanual Gat’s 2014 piece, Sunshine, choreographed on the company with the support of a Rudolf Nureyev Prize for New Choreography, was created ‘parallel’ to the score (snippets, mostly from rehearsals, of Handel’s Water Music.

The ballet’s source of inspiration, according to Gat, was solely the people he worked with and the creation process itself. In other words, it was inspired by how he created it. If that sounds incoherent, it is. There may be the occasional lingering image or movement that relates to the ‘music’ (much of the piece is performed in silence), but that seems to have been accidental, as if positions were thrown together randomly and by happenstance a few images looked good. Nothing makes visual sense – though perhaps that’s the point. Perhaps to others it’s the essence of avant garde; but to me it’s simply a waste of time and talent, and too insubstantial to even get angry about (although there were a smattering of boos that penetrated the polite applause), or writing about. It might have been better had Sunshine never seen the light of day.

Lyon Opera Ballet has a solid international reputation, and in previous appearances in New York has received accolades. Except for Steptext, however, and although the dancers were all of high quality and capability, this program was apparently not representative of the best new choreography that Lyon has in its repertoire.