New Jersey Ballet
MAYO Performing Arts Center
Morristown, New Jersey

November 19, 2022
“New Direction” Program: Hallelujah Junction, Purcell Suite (world premiere), Who Cares?

Jerry Hochman

Saturday night’s 2022-2023 season-opening performance by New Jersey Ballet was a milestone for the company, and for ballet in New Jersey. It wasn’t just that Lauren Lovette and Carlos Gonzales were guest artists in Peter Martins’s Hallelujah Junction, as fine as those performance were, and it wasn’t just that the company unveiled the world premiere of New York City Ballet soloist Harrison Ball’s Purcell Suite, as brilliant a piece as that turned out to be. And it wasn’t that the company superbly executed Who Cares?, a multifaceted and complex piece by George Balanchine that’s a staple of NYCB programming as well as great fun to watch. It was far more than that. It was the inaugural performance of a company reborn.

At least based on this program, given the appropriate rubric “New Direction,” New Jersey Ballet (NJB) is a different entity than it was a decade ago, or even five years ago. First, it has a new Artistic Director, former NYCB Principal Maria Kowroski. A greatly admired and respected former NYCB Principal, Kowroski has brought to the company more than just her ability as a dancer: she’s imported her knowledge of NYCB repertory, a sense that she wants NJB to emulate NYCB and the repertory with which she’s familiar (the extent to which remains to be determined), and NYCB connections. The result, effectively, was NYCB across the Hudson, with an audience not only comprised of enthusiastic local ballet audiences and a phalanx of ballet students (most of whom appeared to be part of the company’s school), but that was chockablock with NYCB dancers past and present, including its former Ballet Master in Chief and choreographer of the program’s first piece, Peter Martins.

Even more significant in the long run, however, is the manifest change in the caliber of NJB’s dancers, as a group, from the last time I attended a NJB performance over five years ago. NJB is now a youthful, vigorous company bursting with talent, and with this program the NJB dancers had an opportunity to show themselves off – which they admirably did. I’ll highlight a few of NJB’s dancers in the course of this review, but it takes a village, and I must reemphasize that the course and quality change I observed is company-wide.

Because all components of this program were successful, I’ll consider them in program order rather than emphasizing one over another.

Hallelujah Junction is an example of Martins’s choreographic oeuvre being better than he’s been given credit for. The piece premiered with the Royal Danish Ballet in 2001, and with NYCB in 2002. I first saw it several years later, and found its complexity and choreographic balance riveting.

Choreographed to an eponymous 1996 composition by John Adams, Hallelujah Junction is a Martins black and white ballet that, at least in its NYCB incarnation, features interlocking music emanating from two pianos positioned above and to the rear of the action and performed live. Here, on the much smaller MAYO PAC stage, that positioning would have been problematic – for this particular piece the stage looked cramped even without the pianos (e.g., at one point I noticed one ballerina gently and momentarily bounce off another; definitely not part of the choreography). Nevertheless, the company pulled it off admirably.

Lauren Lovette and Carlos Gonzalez
in Peter Martins’s “Hallelujah Junction”
Photo by VAM Productions

Led by a principal couple in white and a third, male, dancer in black, they are joined by four women (in black) and four men (in white) who eventually pair up and surround the leads, at times reflecting their movements and at times dancing discrete duets. The beauty of the piece is its varied movement quality – slow, fast, jazzy, explosive. It’s an abstract piece, with no emotional gloss whatsoever, which could result in a delivery, however well-executed it might be, as being somewhat cold and impersonal. That being said, guest artists Lovette and Gonzales provided a technically nuanced performance that managed to avoid any such impression (and with Lovette, a “cold-looking” performance is not even a remote possibility).

Lovette delivered the exquisite and thoroughly committed execution that she was known for with NYCB (and that she still demonstrates), and Gonzales proved to be an excellent partner and danseur in his own right. The adagio pas de deux that Martins incorporates into the piece, with over-the-shoulder lifts that appeared unusually precarious, was a highlight, and a motif he repeated.

Akira Iida in Peter Martins’s “Hallelujah Junction”
Photo by VAM Productions

But the piece is more than that pas de deux. Akira Iida, whom I’d not previously seen (which is the case with all the NJB dancers save one) danced the man in black, and looked unusually powerful as a counterpoint to the lead couple, and as a center of gravity throughout the piece, particularly in his solo. The four corps pairs (Catherine Whiting and Da’ Von Doane, Yuiko Honda and Erick Rojas, Eunice Suba and Francis Lawrence, and Emily Barrows and Felipe Valentini) helped make the lightning-fast piece translate as less impersonal and icy than it sometimes does.

Harrison Ball’s world premiere ballet has no such issue.

Purcell Suite is quite an impressive dance – all the more so because it’s Ball’s first choreographic effort. Although the choreography – specifically the steps – is not particularly complex, everything else about the piece is, rendering this a minor and totally irrelevant concern. A more significant concern might be that the dance, with its nine segments, is difficult to follow as a narrative – possibly because, as a curated selection of excerpts (denominated by “Z” number, from the Zimmerman catalogue) from English Baroque composer Henry Purcell’s extraordinarily prolific output (“Dido and Aeneas,” “Distress’d Innocence,” “Bonduca,” and “Timon of Athens”), there isn’t one.

But I think there is one, one that Ball creates on his own terms, and which involves as much if not more atmosphere than chronicle. And part of the difficulty here (again, in context this is not in any way problematic) is that Ball has the audience see what narrative there may be through the eyes (performances) of what essentially is a Greek Chorus of women reacting to outside events, at times looking as if they’d emerged from a frieze. That I couldn’t clearly decipher what those events are is also irrelevant.

New Jersey Ballet in Harrison Ball’s “Purcell Suite”
Photo by VAM Productions

The dance’s complexity and inventiveness is demonstrated in the choreographic flow that goes beyond steps, beyond its magnificent staging, and beyond even the company’s impressive execution. There’s an ebb and flow to it, a pulse, that’s consistent and quite extraordinary to watch evolve. In concept and execution it’s organic. And although each segment has an operatic quality to it (a natural consequence of Purcell’s music), each is individually kinetic – at times even cinematic, and each is consistent with the dance’s thematic continuity and sense of ritual, and an essential component of the ballet’s overall gestalt. The resulting atmosphere (abetted by Zach Posen’s profoundly simple and gorgeous costumes, and the lighting by Brian Coakley and Jesse Campbell) is not only reactive, but meditative and mesmerizing.

Purcell Suite’s cast of twelve of the company’s ballerinas (including one apprentice and one trainee) appear either as subgroupings or the complete ensemble, with some segments featuring one or more individual dancers who emerge from that particular segment’s group. I won’t attempt here to analyze Ball’s movement flow here based on only one view. Suffice it to say that it largely consists of the entire ensemble or individuals therein moving into and out of a circular shape – perhaps representative of the dance’s symbolic altar, or, metaphorically, its heart – although there’s no one static visual image. The ballerinas’ arms, legs, feet and torsos, though often communicated in broad strokes and divine-like visions, seemingly never stop moving, much of the time in remarkably effective unison.

Individually and as a group the NJB dancers executed Ball’s choreography not just flawlessly, but passionately. Normally I would not identify each member of such a large cast individually and seriatim, but in this piece no one dancer stood out from the others, and all deserve to be recognized. They were: Barrows, Honda, Lilli Etheredge (the apprentice), Se Hyun Jin, Ilse Kapteyn, Raleigh Ledford, Risa Mochizuki, Denise Parungao, Abigail Robison, Suba, Whiting, and Caroline Baggs (the trainee). The enthusiastic standing ovation that greeted the cast upon the ballet’s conclusion was well-deserved.

Denise Parungao and New Jersey Ballet
in Harrison Ball’s “Purcell Suite”
Photo by VAM Productions

Purcell Suite is unusually satisfying both intellectually and emotionally, and is a dance highlight of the year. It would be extremely unfortunate for it not to return in a future NJB program. Alternatively (and though in no way should this performance be considered some out-of-town dress rehearsal), my understanding is that the ballet is a product of NYCB’s Choreographic Institute or other such NYCB incubation and nurturing opportunity, so perhaps it will eventually resurface as part of NYCB’s repertory – but I suspect it might look different, and maybe less impressive, encased in NYCB’s more expansive Koch Theater stage. Regardless, whenever and wherever it does return, see it.

There’s no way that Who Cares?, Balanchine’s salute to the music of George Gershwin, could, if capably performed, fail to impress and thoroughly entertain an audience. Although at this point it must sound like I’m overstating what by now should be obvious, the NJB dancers performed it not only capably, but with a level of elan that shouldn’t yet be within their reach, but which they’ve already grasped.

Consisting, at least in this iteration, of dances choreographed to fifteen Gershwin songs, nearly all of which are familiar, the dance glides through each stopping only to blink an eye. The piece is, or should be, familiar to most balletgoers, so I’ll limit my discussion here to the performances – except to note that the wonderful NYC skyline backdrop, uncredited in the program, appears to have been borrowed from NYCB (although the costumes, by Peggy Casey, were not). Also “borrowed” was the top-flight staging by former NYCB ballerina Deborah Wingert, who, in addition to staging Balanchine ballets across the country under the aegis of the George Balanchine Trust, currently is on faculty at the Juilliard School, Head Faculty at Manhattan Youth Ballet, and teaches company class at NYCB, among other ballet-oriented activities. Based on this performance, hers was a job well done.

Denise Parungao and Jonatan Lujan
in George Balanchine’s “Who Cares?”
Photo by VAM Productions

The performance was led by six of the sixteen dance cast: Parungao, Kapteyn, Mochizuki, Jonatan Lujan, Iida, and Doane (the one NJB member whose performances I’d previously seen when he was a Principal with Dance Theatre of Harlem; his familiarity with Balanchine choreography is undoubtedly a NJB asset).

I’d heard of Denise Parungao previously, but this was my first opportunity to see her dance. She did marvelous work with “Fascinatin’ Rhythm,” a fast-paced crowd-pleaser; her delivery limited only by the width of the stage. Her performance here approached the quality of those NYCB ballerinas I’ve seen in the role – two of whom (at least) were in the NJB audience for this performance. And together with another company standout Jonatan Lujan, the two wowed the audience with a superb rendition of “The Man I Love.”

But excellence in this piece wasn’t limited to them. Following the rousing ensemble opening to “Strike Up the Band,” Barrows, Honda, Jin, Ledford, and Suba sailed through the bubbly “Somebody Loves Me.” Later in the piece, Kapteyn excited the audience with “I’ll Build a Stairway to Paradise”; Mochizuki danced a particularly captivating “My One and Only,” and, with Doane, an engaging “Embraceable You.” But this just scratches the surface. They and their cast colleagues (Alberto Andrade, Jackson Hafenbreadl (an apprentice), David Lopena, Iido, Lawrence, and Valentini did marvelous work as well. As I recall, after each segment I sat shaking my head in disbelief that the company not only was able to pull this off, but did it so well.

Let me be clear. As fine as they proved themselves to be in this program, NJB’s dancers are not (yet) at the caliber of NYCB’s. But watching them perform, at least based on this program, provided more than an opportunity to appreciate technical accomplishment: for the dancers as well as the audience, it was a joyous experience. And it’s particularly noteworthy for New Jersey ballet audiences. NJB, as well as one or two other NJ-based companies that I’ve reviewed previously, now provide certain audience members with a viable and satisfying alternative to trekking into NYC.

The remainder of NJB’s season schedule, except for its final Saturday performance in May, 2023, looks more like the repertory that dominated NJB’s repertory for years – but it would not surprise me in the least if NJB’s new faces provide even “standard” story ballets with new energy. The new New Jersey Ballet is a company worth seeing – even if one must cross the Hudson to do it.