New Jersey Ballet
Mayo Performing Arts Center
Morristown, New Jersey

May 20, 2023
“Spring Forward” Program: Purcell Suite, Spring Waters Pas de Deux, This Bitter Earth, Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux, Not Our Fate

Jerry Hochman

In case you were wondering whether the transformation of New Jersey Ballet that I described in my review of its November 19, 2022 program was real, based on the program I saw this past weekend, be assured that it is.

There was little that was new to a regular balletgoer in this program, titled “Spring Forward.” Far more important was that the NJB dancers brought the same level of competence and excitement to the pieces that were new to them as to the one program piece the company danced previously. Everything that these NJB dancers needed to bring to their execution, they brought, with a level of enthusiasm that made up for their lack of experience with these pieces. That they seemed to enjoy the challenges was a bonus.

I’ll consider the program in the order presented.

Following the premiere of former New York City Ballet Principal Harrison Ball’s first choreographic venture, Purcell Suite, in NJB’s November program, I wrote that it would be extremely unfortunate were the ballet not to return in a future NJB program. One didn’t have to wait too long. Since I reviewed it in depth following its November premiere, I’ll keep my comments to a minimum.

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

Purcell Suite was a noteworthy success in its debut performance; on this viewing, my initial positive analysis was reinforced. This is a remarkable first effort, in large part due to Ball’s choreographic restraint. Purcell Suite doesn’t bowl one over with its choreographic complexity or its depth of meaning; it does so by its measured clarity and the variety of expression within that context, coupled with the NJB dancers’ (all of the company’s complement of ballerinas) commitment to it. The dance’s nine segments, what appear to be a disparate assortment of excerpts from a variety of Henry Purcell music, hold together because there’s a common sensibility that Ball himself created that supersedes whatever themes there might have been in the original compositions. The presentation is a unity, with a Greek Chorus-like assemblage of dancers embodying or enhancing some compelling although unknown underlying event.

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

Any suggestion in the comments above that Purcell Suite is somehow monolithic would be wrong. Although generally the ensemble moves in unison and, with the identical stunning classic black costumes designed by Zac Posen, looks solid, Ball beaks the ensemble into various component parts as the ballet’s segments evolve, starting out with seven, breaking that group apart and reassembling it in a slightly different form and with a subset of dancers, then adding another  group of five and breaking that up in similar fashion, ultimately combining the two into a living ensemble that breathes with vitality as well as consistency. And periodically the ensemble’s seeming uniformity would be accented by individual dancers who break apart from the whole as if to add emphasis to the event(s) being lamented, remembered, or commemorated.

Following intermission, the program segued to three very different pas de deux that shifted the evening’s focus to the company’s most accomplished dancers, that highlighted their strengths and that pushed them way out of their comfort zones.

The first pas de deux, and in a backhand way the most endearing, was the Bolshoi Ballet warhorse Spring Waters. Asaf Messerer’s choreography (to Rachmaninov) is relatively unexceptional until it suddenly explodes into a running backward jump onto the danseur’s right hand, which he thereafter converts to a one-armed dead weight overhead bicycle lift, and then parades around the stage. It’s spectacular when done well.

Catherine Whiting and Akira Iida
in Asaf Messerer’s “Spring Waters”
Photo Courtesy of New Jersey Ballet

One would think that this kind of bravura classical choreography might have been over their heads, but Catherine Whiting and Akira Iida did deliberate, but fine work with it. The jump onto Iido’s shoulder-high hand was one of the most careful I’ve seen – no sense of youthful abandon appropriate for the piece – as if the pair had rehearsed it endlessly to achieve the essential timing. Careful or not, it worked quite well. The bicycle lift was another matter. Iida, who was impressive in the November program, succeeded in lifting Whiting, but as he paraded around the stage the balance looked increasingly precarious. To their credit, both Iida and Whiting appeared confident throughout, even though to me he seemed to race toward the wing as she started to tilt. If this sounds like a criticism, it’s not intended to be. On the contrary, that they attempted and pulled it off at all was quite an accomplishment. Perfection might take a little more time, but it’s within arm’s reach.

Christopher Wheeldon’s This Bitter Earth pas de deux premiered at NYCB’s Fall 2012 Gala. I enjoyed the piece a great deal then (much more than the complete ballet from which it was excerpted, Five Movements, Three Repeats, that I saw later), and still do.

Denise Parungao and Joshuan Vazquez
in Christopher Wheeldon’s “This Bitter Earth”
Photo Courtesy of New Jersey Ballet

With Nina Simone’s rendition of the song as its score, This Bitter Earth is a hauntingly evocative dance. At its premiere, Wendy Whelan captured and reflected the suffering, as well as the determination to endure and overcome it. [The program includes a quote from Wheeldon that seems to deny this, essentially saying that the piece is not bitter earth, but the perfect earth. To me, if that quote is accurate, it’s highly disingenuous – maybe intended to increase the piece’s receptivity by an audience not inclined to recognize its obvious theme. The pas de deux works as well as it does because it shows its female protagonist overcoming the bitterness that surrounds her and her partner, not by somehow celebrating its absence or creating something “perfect.”]

I wouldn’t have expected Denise Parungao to have equaled Whelan in emotional intensity, and she didn’t. But she and her partner, Joshuan Vazquez, did more than just dance their way through Wheeldon’s choreography. With her as the dance’s moving force (essentially personifying Simone’s words), Parungao delivered more than just stoicism in the face of adversity. She was determined – to reflect the grit required by her character, but also to convey the truth of Wheeldon’s choreography. She succeeded in both respects, and the performance represented a qualitative barrier broken.

Risa Mochizuki
in George Balanchine’s “Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux”
Photo Courtesy of New Jersey Ballet

Similarly effective, and maybe more surprising, was Risa Mochizuki and Iida’s performance of George Balanchine’s Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux. A NYCB staple, and by now a familiar piece world-wide, it’s a choreographically complex and endlessly exciting work of choreographic art that is usually reserved for dancers who’ve already achieved a certain level of competence – certainly more than one might have expected from these relatively inexperienced NJB dancers. But Mochizuki and Iida surpassed expectations, delivering the basic choreography, and the spirit, that the pas de deux requires. While not at the level of, say, Tiler Peck, who has converted the piece into an iconic personal exhibition, one never would have expected that. But short of needing to work on the choreography’s built-in timing extensions (which she achieved during a rehearsal clip I viewed, but which was absent here), Mochizuki delivered a thoroughly credible, and authentically exciting, performance, which Iida’s performance echoed. And like everything else on this program, it signaled a level of capability one never would have expected from the “old” NJB.

This level of capability was displayed yet again in the company’s performance of the evening’s closing piece, Lauren Lovette’s Not Our Fate.

Not Our Fate was the second piece that Lovette choreographed for NYCB, and I was present at its September, 2017 premiere. It presented a much tougher road to hoe than her initial piece the previous year, For Clara, because the pulsing, repetitive music (three movements from “Prospero’s Book” by Michael Nyman) provided little in the way of tempo variation and seemed inherently difficult to choreograph to, and the dance’s subject matter was more nebulous. For Lovette, at the time, Not Our Fate was a stretch, and one that she reached and ultimately exceeded.

Similarly, for NJB, Not Our Fate represented a stretch that the company’s dancers reached, and ultimately exceeded. The dance, like its accompanying score, is non-stop movement, although Lovette manages to inject significant choreographic variety within the score’s repetitive framework. It’s theme, as I recognized at its premiere, is that individual differences, racial and sexual, are not to be hidden or shunned but to be celebrated; and that the decisions to hide or to be recognized as one is, and to love or not, are choices, not fate. Although there are some moments of reflection, there’s little if any negativity in the piece, and no pain. Rather, the dance is a clarion call to let the sunshine in. [At its premiere, Lovette added to the program a poem written by one of her NYCB colleagues, Mary Elisabeth Sell, from which Lovette drew inspiration for her dance. It’s unfortunate that that poem was not included in the program here.]

New Jersey Ballet in Lauren Lovette’s “Not Our Fate”
Photo Courtesy of New Jersey Ballet

While Not Our Fate isn’t choreographically complex, it’s thematically alive with ideas that are essential to communicate without looking like they’re anything that require specific communication. What’s displayed is intended to be natural (albeit delivered at a sizzling pace). NJB’s greatest success here is not just that they got through the piece as well as they did, but that they communicated Lovette’s intent as well as they did. For example, the extended periods of male / male duets, delivered by Da’ Von Doane and Forrest Rain Oliveros, was performed with the requisite naturalness and joy that the dance required. [Former NYCB dancer Preston Chamblee, who was a member of the premiere cast and danced the described duets, staged the piece.]

Not Our Fate is a continuous energy pump, one which the company seemed to know was quantitatively (as well as qualitatively) different from anything they’d previously attempted. When it concluded, the piece’s ten dancers (Se Hyun Jin, Gustavo Ribeiro, Emily Barrows, Raleigh Ledford, Yuiko Honda, David Lopena, Eunice Suba, and Erick Rojas, in addition to Doane and Oliveros) knew that they’d accomplished what may once had seemed outside their reach. They radiated accomplishment during the bows, and afterward one could hear the exuberant cheers from behind the curtain.

With these achievements under their collective belts, NJB’s 2023-24 season is something for New Jersey (and nearby New York) balletgoers to look forward to.