The Ailey Citigroup Theatre, New York, NY
October 24, 2015
Tucked away in New York’s nooks and crannies are an eclectic assortment of dance companies. Of varying quality, they are formed primarily to display the talents of their founding choreographer, to provide an outlet for young dance school talent, or simply to entertain people unable for whatever reason to attend performance of major companies in higher priced or more distant venues. Some of these are considered emerging, some just a gleam in their founding artistic directors’ (or collective collaborators’) eyes, and some like Neville Dance Theatre have been around a relatively long time but somehow remain under the radar.
It never ceases to amaze me how entertaining and accomplished some of these groups can be.
On Saturday evening, Neville Dance Theatre celebrated its tenth anniversary with a program of dances choreographed primarily by its founder, Brenda R. Neville. Based on this program, the company has an interesting and eclectic repertory, and is comprised of competent, well-trained, and engaging ballet dancers with considerable performing and teaching experience.
The evening had a rocky start. That’s a pun. The program description of the opening piece, Terra Nova, made me concerned. More often than not, dances based on geological events or properties, as this clearly was, signal experimentation and structure rather than varied movement and choreographic imagination. And the first of several images projected against the back stage wall, of rock striations, reinforced that.
But then the dancing began, and I recognized that there was considerable intelligence at work in all aspects of this ballet – from the music choices to the costumes, the choreography and the execution. In the first section, Shift, six women gradually gather on stage, all dressed in identical yellow/ochre colored full-length dresses, matching the primary color of the projected earth. Eventually they form diagonal lines, which roughly but uncannily match the striations in the projection. At first there’s a sense of harmony: the movement is lyrical. Then the diagonal lines gradually form and re-form, the dancers swivel and swirl sequentially, gather the fronts of their flowing dresses and wrap them around their backs, tightening what had been the gentle visual flow. It’s all lovely to watch – but there’s a sense of energy conversion.
Almost unnoticed, the projection changes ominously. Dark blotches appear in the rock; the lighting changes to a red-orange color. And then, seamlessly, the section titled Flow begins. To pulsing music by Philip Glass, three dancers in short black dresses with red trim overtake the stage, and the relative calm is replaced by more frantic activity and a sense of upward and outward movement. Three more women emerge from the wings, dressed in black with long capes that are converted vertically on the stage floor to ‘rivers’ of dark lava. The black capes are then discarded, revealing black shorts and sand-colored tops. Four more women join across the back of the stage, and in the section titled Rise, the process of regeneration begins. The choreography is still fast-paced, but it’s a different energy, with the dancers echoing the projection of new growth that now blankets the back of the stage.
All this might sound simplistic, but it doesn’t come across that way. It’s a vibrant dance that doesn’t just convey the energy of eruption and flow, but evolves into it. And although Neville’s choreographic vocabulary is relatively limited, she maintains the viewer’s interest throughout. The ten dancers (there’s some overlap among the sections) executed with obvious competence and commitment.
Excerpts from larger pieces are problematic to me, and Pendulum, from a 2015 piece, Lament to Obstinancy, choreographed by company dancer Michelle Siegel, is an example. I appreciated the complexity of the pas de deux’s choreography and the execution by Siegel and Maurice Dawkins, although at times I thought too much movement was squeezed into it. But overall it was very well choreographed and danced. The difficulty I have with Pendulum is a thematic one: the duet is not a narrative, but it obviously depicts an unhealthy, perhaps abusive relationship. In addition to physically manipulating her, at various points Dawkins’s character digs his foot into her back, and covers her mouth and eyes with his hands. Visualizing an abusive relationship is fair game, particularly within a larger context, but I didn’t sense any time in this duet when the ‘pendulum’ swung the other way – and out of context I don’t know what else Siegel, who has a lengthy and varied dance performing background, had to say. But she has obvious choreographic competence as well as performance capability.
As if to emphasize the variety of her company’s repertory, Neville next presented the Grand Pas de Deux from The Nutcracker. The Petipa choreography was a stretch for Tanya Lynn Trombly and Malcolm Jones, but that’s not a bad thing. Although they looked understandably apprehensive, they got through it well. Trombly has an extensive ballet background, and she delivered both the steps and the lyricism. And although his partnering was tentative and, perhaps understandably lacked confidence, Jones is a strong dancer who executed the lifts with particular skill, and his solo was powerfully delivered.
Following intermission, the company presented three more of Neville’s pieces, each of which, like the first, can fit within the general category of ‘concept’ dances. The first, Banter (2014), is a pleasant ballet in three segments. It opens with Adagio, an interestingly-choreographed section for two men and three women. Neville, whose choreography displays an admirable sense of musicality, has her five dancers – Ally Taylor Sacks, Yeongju Son, Dona Wiley, John Raffles Durbin, and Dawkins – divide, subdivide and re-form in different combinations through the course of Zoë Keating’s accompanying score. As the title would indicate, the pace is relatively slow, but it’s not ponderous. The piece segues easily into a gentle duet, well-executed by Sacks and Durbin. The final segment, titled Jackets – was perplexing. The dancers pulsate to percussive music by Brian Eno and David Byrne, the men wearing jackets, but the segment has no apparent connection to the other two.
Night Movements, created in 2008, is a moody dance for four women who are intended to represent nocturnal animals. Costumed identically in black tops and shorts, and black mesh in between, they initially appear on the stage floor, gradually rising up and reformulating within the somewhat gloomy atmosphere. Between the costumes and the undulating quality of much of the movement, the piece has an intriguing, sensuous ambiance.
The program concluded with Bodies, a multi-sectioned work that Neville choreographed in 2012 and 2013, each section visualizing different operations of the body: the brain (Hemispheres), nervous system (Nerve), muscles (Brawn), and circulatory system (Pulse). The final segment, to music by Swedish House Mafia, was a rousing, pounding, exhilarating visual feast that had the full house audience cheering.
Companies like Neville Dance Theatre fill a void that regular ballet audiences may not see. That they may not be at the same level as larger New York companies isn’t the point – they deliver creativity, ability, and enthusiasm to eager audiences. For its size, scope, and probably budget, they are a particularly accomplished example; a group that merits respect, gratitude for an artistic job well done, and an opportunity to emerge from New York’s nooks and crannies.