New Chamber Ballet
Mark Morris Dance Center
Brooklyn, New York
November 18, 2022
Secret Place (world premiere)
It was the coldest night of the season (so far) in the New York area, but it’s been awhile since I last saw New Chamber Ballet, so I reluctantly took the opportunity to attend its November 18 performance at the Mark Morris Dance Center in Brooklyn – a world premiere by the company’s Artistic Director and choreographer Miro Magloire, titled Secret Place.
It proved well worth the effort. Secret Place is unusually accessible, extraordinarily lyrical, and one of the highlights of the dance year – although getting stuck in an elevator as I was leaving was more than I’d bargained for.
I first saw New Chamber Ballet (NCB) in February, 2019, after it had already been a going dance concern for roughly 15 years. I recognized immediately that Magloire’s choreography was marked by originality, ingenuity, a sense of mathematical precision, and a measure of quirkiness sufficient to be distinguishable from the output of other relatively small-scale companies. Beyond that, there’s obvious creative intelligence underlying his work, even if I can’t always determine exactly what, if anything, Magloire and his company are trying to communicate.
One of the most important qualities of his choreography is the musically-based focus of his pieces, a product, in large part, of his distinctive background. Magloire was born in Munich, Germany, and was trained there and at the Cologne Conservatory of Music as a composer. Although his compositions achieved a measure of success in Europe, he decided to forego further composing and emigrated to New York to obtain training in dance, supporting himself in large part by being a dance class accompanist. [In 2000 he created a highly-regarded album of ballet class music, titled “Ballet Music for Class,” by which many in the ballet-world continue to recognize his name even if they’re not familiar with his choreography.] In 2004 he founded New Chamber Ballet, and over the years since has created nearly a hundred pieces for his company (as well as for the New York Choreographic Institute, the Sarasota Opera, and the American Academy in Rome).
What Magloire brings to his choreography, aside from obvious innate ability, is a familiarity with ballet technique combined with his experience with contemporary classical composition, primarily from German sources. This – as well as by limiting his company to women with extensive ballet training – enables him to present ballet differently. Components of this different approach also include a regular group of artistic associates and performing his dances in a small space and in the round (actually a square / diamond shape), which creates a close-knit environment literally as well as figuratively – audience members have to refrain from stretching their legs lest they get pounded by pointe shoes.
At times, based on prior views, Magloire’s choreographic movement includes female / female partnering, not only in the routine course of exposition, but also in lifts. The sight of one ballerina lifting another and carrying her to different points on stage may be considered groundbreaking, but it also can be seen as awkward, with lifts not fully executed or grips not holding as they should. Secret Place, however, keeps such heavy lifting to a minimum, relying instead on a pervasive balletic lyricism that retains the lifts but minimizes their quantity and diminishes their relative significance, and which now can be seen more as a connected part of a whole. The result presents Magloire’s technique in a different and more fluid way.
But Secret Place is more than its technique.
Magloire here uses for his score a set of five compositions by two German composers: primarily Reiko Fueting (Füting), who is represented by three pieces, and Johann Paul von Westhoff, whose music provided the final piece. Fueting was born in 1970 just outside of Berlin, studied composition and piano at the Academy of Music Carl Maria von Weber in Dresden, and, after moving to the US, has been a faculty member at Manhattan School of Music since 2000, teaching composition, music theory, and music history. He is currently MSM’s Dean of Academic Core and Head of Composition. Von Westhoff was a 17th Century German Baroque composer and violinist, one of the highest ranked violinists of his day, who also composed some of the earliest known music for solo violin.
As you may be able to discern, part of the magic of what Magloire has created is based on connections between musical periods, which is reflected in connections between ballet forms. In no way does it resemble Jerome Robbins’s monumental masterpiece The Goldberg Variations, but its spirit, the connection and continuity between past and present, is similar.
The four pieces that Magloire has assembled are identified in the program [in order: “Five Meditations on Music from Luigi Rossi’s Collection”; “passage; time (copy)”; “light, asleep”; and von Westhoff’s “Imitazione della campane” (Violin Sonata No. 3], but their titles alone provide no clue as to the nature of the music. Perusing Fueting’s web site and von Westhoff’s Wikipedia description aren’t helpful – although Fueting’s notes describing the genesis of his pieces are revealing in their sterility: essentially they’re meditations and/or commentaries on other compositions, isolated quotations, or a song title. And that’s the way I felt listening to them as brilliantly played (live) by Doori Na on violin and Miles Walter on piano: that they were a collection of relatively sterile sounds as well as high-falutin albeit highly virtuosic violin screeches. Upon reviewing the compositions later, I could recognize surprising (to me) connections between the contemporary pieces and the Baroque that I didn’t appreciate as I listened to them in the context of the dance. That’s a good thing. Magloire obviously had to have been inspired by this music and recognized the connections, but his choreography here is not bound to the score. On the contrary, to this viewer the choreography overwhelmed it in a positive way. For the audience (at least this member of it) the music provides an unusual but not determinative background for the dance.
Providing a more determinative background are the costumes, designed by Sarah Thea Craig. They’re gorgeous: each dancer wears a tan/sand colored top and skirt, with a delicate, diaphanous flowing floor-length fabric on one side running from the waist to near the floor and a turquoise sash adding color to each (one of the sashes looked green; another blue, but that may have been a result of the way the lighting hit them). These costumes establish a context that complements the choreography and make the whole look even more lyrical that it may have otherwise. Indeed, based on the costumes and the choreography, the piece has the atmosphere of another Robbins piece: Antique Epigraphs, except here, among other differences, the focus is on the group as a collection of individuals with a common purpose rather than on individuals within a group.
To a large extent Secret Place resembles an earlier Magloire dance, The Night, but it’s tighter, less bound to its score, and less reliant on those idiosyncratic lifts.
The ballet begins slowly as the five dancers (Anabel Alpert, Megan Foley, Nicole McGinnis, Amber Neff, and Rachele Perla) enter the stage area one by one, led by Neff, the company’s senior member. She focuses on the center as if knowing it’s a gathering point, maybe the group’s “secret place” of the title, kneels on the floor and rolls, sort of, to her side. She’s followed by Perla, McGinnis, Foley and Alpert. Once assembled, in addition to occasionally holding hands, they frequently gently touch each other’s foreheads as if ceremonially communicating some knowledge or sensibility or confirming a common purpose. A viewer’s thoughts at this point might evoke images of a benign coven-like event – like the Scottish folk-based ritual (Samhain) danced by a group of druids within a circle of Standing Stones that was part of the opening sequence for the STARZ TV series, Outlander – a quality I observed in The Night as well. But Secret Place has no such pretensions; it’s just dances at a different kind of gathering.
I’m aware that I’ve just made three references to Jerome Robbins. Secret Place isn’t at that level, but the sense of humanity that Magloire and his dancers display here is as strong as it is in most of Robbins’s pieces; and, except for some difficulty executing without strain some of the more complex, almost acrobatic, movement that the choreography occasionally requires (which adds a visual sense of risk and drama that may not have been intentional), is presented with a level of fluidity common to Robbins, and not as evident in Magloire’s previous pieces. Secret Place evolves as smooth as silk.
Giving a blow-by-blow as to what happens following the ballet’s introductory segment isn’t helpful. Suffice it to say that choreographic variety, complexity, intensity, and apparent difficulty increases incrementally – but never loses its sense of unspoken emotional community, of liquid movement, and of ritual. At first, after the five women assemble in the circle, one separates out and dances a sequence of steps clockwise as she circles the circle, touching each of the other dancers in the process. When she completes her circle, another rises, and does the same thing, until all five have completed the series. Although this might sound staccato, it’s seamless. Then another sequence begins that adds a level of complexity to the prior sequence. And then another. At some point the interaction at each station of the circle involves an additional level of physical contact – rolling over the shoulders of each of the other dancers, or at one point, seemingly merging headstands (without breaking the circular stride) supported by the dancer on whose limbs she momentarily balances. The circle – the process – is organic.
Thereafter, and, as I recall, reflecting an increase in the pace of the music, the piece takes on added life both choreographically and emotionally. The nature of the choreographic movement becomes more wide ranging, eventually including more indicia of body-body balancing, beautifully executed leaps, and impressive pointe work that reminds a viewer (as if a reminder were necessary) that these NCB dancers are accomplished ballerinas.
Yet more significant is the choreographic patterning that Magloire begins to interject into the piece. With the increase in activity the dancers, sometimes in pairs sometimes singly, emphatically crisscross through the circle, rearrange themselves into different patterns (quite an accomplishment considering that there are only five dancers), and thereafter regroup into the circle. As at the beginning, this sequence is repeated several times with increasingly passionate movement – and with certain individual dancer’s movement phrases no longer being repeated by others.
Above and beyond all this is an aura of ceremonial and spiritual ecstasy.
In the course of the dance and under the radar, Magloire’s choreography also is emphasizing the seamless integration of older dance forms with newer (e.g., his lifts and balances), thereby displaying a generation-spanning stylistic unity, much like the unity evident in his assembled score.
Lastly, I must recognize NCB’s dancers. Neff (the company’s senior dancer), Perla, Alpert and Foley I recall from prior performances; McGinnis is the new ballerina on the block (at least to me – she joined the company two years ago). All danced exceptionally well, and with a sense of camaraderie and awareness of physical space both onstage and with the audience. Most surprising (and somewhat unnerving, though in a positive way) is that they – or at least some of them – often made clear eye contact with the audience. Usually dancers, even in an intimate space such as is the case here, stare into space as they perform, aware that the audience is within touching distance but focusing on the choreography they must execute. Here (and from my point of view particularly with respect to Perla and Alpert) they frequently looked directly at the audience. This generates a sense of intimacy beyond what the physical space itself provides, and takes the performer /audience connection to a higher level, which with respect to this dance is not at all inappropriate.
Overall, Secret Place is a wonderful ballet, one that I can highly recommended seeing should it return – which, based on prior NCB scheduling, is not unlikely. If and when it does, and if the hosting site is the same as it was for Secret Place and will be for other NCB programs this year, upon exiting … consider taking the stairs.