New Chamber Ballet
New York City Center, Studio 5
New York, New York
September 13, 2019
The Night (world premiere)
For the first program of its Fifteenth Anniversary season, New Chamber Ballet (“NCB”) presented the world premiere of Artistic Director and Choreographer Miro Magloire’s The Night. It’s a difficult piece to like on a number of levels, but Magloire and his dancers and musicians ultimately pulled off a stunning achievement. As the ballet progressed and I began to see what Magloire was attempting to do, I overlooked initially perceived flaws, and The Night became more than the sum of its parts.
The program, at New York City Center’s Studio Theater, which has been NCB’s home for much of its life, was also the first in a series of programs devoted to the music of contemporary German composer Wolfgang Rihm, under the collective rubric “Strange Scenes.” That title fits The Night also: the ballet is a series of strange scenes that seem meaningless, but gather meaning as it progresses. Indeed, one of the hurdles that, rightly or wrongly, I overcame, was Magloire’s insistence, expressed in the accompanying program notes, that the ballet doesn’t have a story line. To my eye, it does have a story line of sorts, and the story, as Magloire and his dancers present it, is visualized in a compelling way.
I had two initial concerns as I began to watch The Night evolve, both of which eventually became unimportant.
The first relates to the music. [As a preface, I’m not familiar with Rihm, and don’t consider myself an authority with respect to music in general or contemporary music in particular, so save your emails.] In the same program notes, Magloire states that “‘Romantic’ music was far from the cliché sweetness that we know today. It had a dangerous, subversive quality” that he found in Rihm. That was a troubling statement to me. I agree that Romantic music has the qualities he indicates, but I never thought of Romantic music – the music of Liszt, Berlioz, etc. – as being sweet (or Romantic ballet for that matter, though I suppose some people could think that). So, I thought, maybe he meant Romantic “popular” music. Regardless, as the Rihm music used in the ballet evolved, I sensed moments of excitement, but nothing that I would describe as Romantic. To my ear, it was much too contemporary sounding to be considered Romantic.
So I checked, and found nothing in descriptions I found of Rihm’s music (admittedly not exhaustive) that applies that term. Rather, his style was most frequently described as expressionist, but uncomplicated, which fits what I heard at the performance. [Again, save your emails. Sounding uncomplicated does not mean the absence of complexity.] I suppose, though, that expressionist may be considered another side of the same Romantic coin. In any event, The Night’s score was not a unified Rihm composition, but was comprised of four distinct Rihm pieces, which perhaps Magloire assembled as he did in order to make his Romantic point.
I guess that’s a roundabout way of saying that as skillfully executed as it was (by Doori Na on violin, and Melody Fader on piano), and it certainly was, I had to fight to keep what I heard from imposing itself on what I saw. I did, however, recognize that Magloire had curated an arc of sound out of the assembled Rihm compositions, moving from calm to unsettled to highly expressionist contemporary screech, and eventually back to calm – an arc compelled by, and matching, what I saw as Magloire’s concept.
The second concern was with the choreography. My first exposure to NCB last Winter was memorable, and I looked forward to seeing the company again. At first, though, in its repeated couplings, it seemed too remindful of the previous program, which also featured the female / female interaction (partnering, which is how Magloire describes it, isn’t exactly the right word, at least within a ballet context) that I was introduced to in last Winter’s program. And here, at least initially, it looked forced.
After a languid, almost dreamlike introduction with three of the dancers (Amber Neff, Rachele Perla, and Megan Foley) eventually taking positions lying prone, face up, on the stage floor, and reaching out and eventually grasping each other’s hands, the “coupling” began, with one women hoisting another above the floor, then maneuvering her up and over her own body (this is a general, not a blow – by – blow description), and then the process is repeated, sometimes in reverse (the hoister becomes the hoistee) or with the third dancer joining. These interactions are comprised of intricate balances and weight-shifting and supremely careful positioning that enables the women to bear each other’s weight. At times one dancer would separate out and circle around the floor, pausing to observe the couplings of the other pair at stage center, and then she’d replace one of the women at the center and change the pairing (ie., instead of A and B, with C watching, C would join, then A would leave, and the pairing would be B and C), but the intimate physical interaction between the women would essentially be the same. And I don’t mean by this summary to minimize the strength of the dancers – what Magloire has them do is more than only the product of weight-shifting and balance.
But unlike the examples I saw at last year’s program, here this interaction is the dominant form of movement. And it’s hardly easy – if it was meant to be fluid and seamless, as ballet partnering should look, it didn’t come across that way. These maneuverings were difficult to execute, and looked awkward: you could see the effort in the women’s faces, the strain on their bodies, and the difficulty maintaining their positions on the stage floor.
It bears emphasizing that this isn’t Pilobolus-like weight shifting. There’s no sense of trying to create a particular image or make a statement by the acts of weight-shifting and balance themselves. And … after awhile I got used to it, and I accepted it not as some test of female strength or a choreographic shtick, but as an aspect of Magloire’s choreographic style (ballet lyricism being another). And as the piece continued to evolve, I came to see these couplings on a more profound level – as representative of interconnection on an emotional rather than just physical level.
In the end, it’s this emotional connection, evidenced by the story that isn’t there, that makes the ballet. From the outset the piece is filled with emotional gloss, and has a sense of time, place, and purpose that ultimately takes it to a higher level. It may not be a story with a defined narrative, but it’s connected choreographed snapshots in time that, together, create an ambiance and set of images that are clear and … Romantic. What’s happening here, if you don’t dwell on the nature of the music or the nuts and bolts of weight-shifting choreography, is a typical Romantic-tinged examination of women gathering together in some private recognition of kinship, not so much a coven as a ritual, quasi-religious presentation of like-minded female bodies and souls which an outsider observes and perhaps joins only after a lengthy period of emotional and spiritual probation. Seen this way, as I grew to see it (whether I’m right or wrong), The Night gradually becomes a profound experience. [And yes, as it evolved, I had visions of women ritually gathering around sacred stones, as depicted in the cable television (Starz) series, Outlander, complete with its opening theme (“Sing me a song….”): Bear McCreary’s adaptation of Scottish folk songs and Raya Yarbrough’s haunting vocals.]
Following the initial ritualistic (not just my term – Magloire uses it in the program note) display and the couplings / interconnections / partnering indicated above, which is intense but not visually emotional (on the contrary, the demeanor of all three is relatively stoic), another woman (Anabel Alpert) approaches the group, and joins the others, being lifted and carried by them (one at a time, or occasionally with a third, while a fourth watches), and participating herself on the same level. While on the surface the equilibrium doesn’t appear impacted, it is. In addition to hearing what I thought was a rise in the emotional tenor of the score, the intensity displayed also increased – primarily by Alpert, whose wide, piercing eyes seemed to require, demand, and/or insist on being admitted into the group. I’d not previously seen Alpert, and the degree of intensity she displayed may be her typical demeanor, but to me it was noticeable, unavoidable, and added to the tenor of the dance.
This was followed by the entry of a fifth woman (Madeleine Williams) – who, to me, clearly was intended to be the leader of the group. She entered regally, proceeded toward the stage area (the entry was between sections of seating in the “theater-in-the-diamond” shape of the performing area) as if the earth shook under her feet, imposed a measure of authority as she paraded around and over the prone bodies and outstretched arms of the other four. It appeared to me – though at this point perhaps I was reading things into it – that she was objecting to, or at least wary of, admitting the novice to the group. Eventually, she retreated part way up the entryway, and watched the group, at times covering her face with her hands – perhaps directing the others to “feel” or “sense” what’s right (she retreated completely at some point thereafter). [An aside: Williams is noticeably pregnant, and Magloire’s utilization of her, in addition to being commendable and perfectly planned and executed, added immeasurably to the impact of the dance, contributing a sense of sensuality and mystery (a perfect Romantic combination) that the piece up to that point lacked.]
And subsequently, this is what the group of four ended up doing, with their hands touching their faces in pairs spread across the stage, sequentially, and then with pairs approaching the center and one pair facing and joining each other at the forehead (leaning into each other as they do), followed by the next pair doing the same thing, but this pair had their backs to each other, leaned backward, and intertwined at the neck. The pairings continued to alternate, until the piece ended with all four women intertwined, then holding hands, as at the piece’s beginning. For every movement, it seemed, there was an equal and opposite movement that had been present throughout the dance, but wasn’t apparent (at least to me) until the ballet’s closing segment.
On final nod to the costume designer Sarah Thea, whose spartan but dramatically highlighted costumes complemented and enhanced the atmosphere.
The Night is a long piece: an hour and five minutes, and may require more than the usual effort to appreciate. Sometimes it feels longer, as the women try mightily to execute Magliore’s interconnections. But watching all the pieces gradually and ingeniously come together into a meaningful, and meaningfully visualized, whole, ultimately makes the effort – by the dancers and the audience – worthwhile.