New York Theatre Ballet
New York Live Arts
New York, New York
March 1, 2017
She Holds Out Her Hand, La Chatte Metamorphosee En Femme, Pas de Deux from Such Longing, L’Apres-Midi D’un Faune, Tickling Titans (Parts II and III) (world premiere), Light Moving (world premiere)
For the benefit of those who’ve been hiding under a rock for the past several years, New York Theatre Ballet is a chamber ballet company with an enviable reputation for programming and execution far beyond its size. Under the leadership of Founder and Artistic Director Diana Byer, the company has an established record of mining dance archives and memories to find and revitalize dances that have been neglected or forgotten, of procuring fine examples of contemporary dance, and of nurturing emerging choreographers. In recent years NYTB has presented ballets by Jerome Robbins (Antique Epigraphs), Agnes de Mille (Three Virgins and a Devil), and Antony Tudor (Jardin Aux Lilas) and dances by Jose Limon (The Moor’s Pavane), Merce Cunningham (Cross Currents), and James Waring (An Eccentric Beauty Revisited), among others; by contemporary choreographers including Richard Alston and Pam Tanowitz; and by then nascent choreographers including Gemma Bond, Antonia Franceschi, and Milissa Payne Bradley.
For its current program at New York Live Arts that began on Wednesday, Byer secured a plum catch: Nijinsky’s original 1912 version of L’Apres-Midi D’un Faune, reconstructed from his own system of notations by Ann Hutchinson Guest and Claudia Jeschko and specifically revived for NYTB’s principal dancer, Steven Melendez. The program also included the world premieres of Melendez’s Tickling Titans (Parts II and III) and Tanowitz’s Light Moving, the return of Franceschi’s She Holds Out Her Hand, a revival of Sir Frederick Ashton’s La Chatte Metamorphosee En Femme, and the pas de deux from Richard Alston’s Such Longing. Regardless of the success of each component, the program’s breadth alone, for a dance enthusiast, is remarkable.
While the program was undeniably interesting and each dance well-executed, individually it was a mixed bag – which is not a criticism. When you take chances, as Byer does, a mixed bag is a successful evening. Of the two most anticipated pieces, at least by me, I held out little hope for Melendez’s new piece when I read details of it in the program – the atonal music of Arnold Schoenberg can be challenging to listen to, and I suspect can be even more challenging to choreograph to. [I know that the word “atonal” may not be completely accurate, but as a shorthand term it’ll have to do.] But I enjoyed it a great deal. The revival of L’Apres-Midi D’Un Faune, on the other hand and to my surprise, left me cold.
Sometimes there’s a reason not to revive legacy works of performance art in their original form. The result can look petrified, which to some extent this revival does. It’s two-dimensional, which is the way it’s supposed to be, but it’s not supposed to be distant, which this version is. And perhaps its greatest failing is that it feels small. Compared to the revival of it presented by the Joffrey Ballet (while it was still based in New York) on an “Homage to Diaghilev” program with guest artist Rudolf Nureyev as the Faun and Charlene Gehm as the lead Nymph, which looked and sounded magnificent notwithstanding its two-dimensionality (and which I still recall vividly after some 40 years), this one looks and sounds like an elaborate experiment. Even though this may indeed have been the impression Nijinsky wanted to convey, that may make it valid, but doesn’t necessarily make it good.
I must emphasize at the outset that my quibble with this version has nothing to do with the resurrected notation (which was first performed in 1989) or the performances by Melendez as the Faun or Elena Zahlmann as the lead Nymph. Both did fine work (and Zahlmann deserves a medal for thinking on her…feet, and as I’ll explain later, rescuing the performance from near disaster).
My problem is that the piece, despite its brevity, looked far better in a large venue, with brighter colors, and with Debussy’s full orchestration rather than the piano arrangement for four hands by Ravel (although Michael Scales, the pianist and NYTB’s music director, and Zheng Ma played infallibly). It needs space to breathe and give the sense of a forest glade, as well as to visually offset the limited movement framework. Other large-scale dances that have been chamber-sized have been well-served by the intimacy that a chamber production provides (evidenced by NYTB’s masterful presentation of Tudor’s Dark Elegies), but instead of being a revitalization of Nijinsky’s original, this one looked more like the product of an archeological dig, complete with metaphorical layers of dust and faded colors that come with the passage of time.
One aspect of this revival that I did find impressive is that here there seems to be more drama simmering beneath the semi-frozen façade of the lead Nymph. Whether this is a reflection of the original choreography or Zahlmann’s execution I cannot say, but this performance had a modicum of emotional depth that I don’t recall in the Joffrey revival. [Details and texturing of the nymphs’ movements and positioning are also supposed to have been improved by utilizing Nijinsky’s notation, but my memory of those details from the Joffrey revival isn’t quite that good.]
And this added (and not unwelcome) sense of drama is apart from Zahlmann’s aforementioned heroics. In this version (and perhaps in all others as well), layers of the lead Nymph’s costume are removed as she parades and displays herself in front of the Faun. Zahlmann had some apparent difficulty removing each layer, but the final layer, which was essential to remove because it serves as the Faun’s tangible memory of her after the Nymphs depart, couldn’t be. As the audience (or at least I) sat there watching her unsuccessfully struggle to unfasten the attachment mechanism, Zahlmann eventually decided to lift that part of her costume up and over her head. It might have broken the choreographic line for a moment, but her quick action saved the performance.
Despite my reservations about it, this incarnation of L’Apres-Midi D’un Faune is well worth seeing if for no other reason than to see what the original was like, and Byer (and of course Hutchinson and Jeschke) deserve kudos for making this possible.
A year ago, Melendez co-choreographed a piece (with American Ballet Theatre dancer Zhong-Jing Fang) titled Song Before Spring. It was a relatively lengthy, gangly dance that was enchanting and original and it turned out to be that program’s pleasant surprise.
Melendez is on a roll.
Tickling Titans (Parts II and III) is a solo, danced at this opening performance by Maya Oguri. [The program is silent as to the whether there’s a Part I, whether this is a work in progress, or what “Tickling Titans” means (maybe a Part I, if there is one, is choreographed to a composition by a different “titan” composer).] But it’s a work of considerable intelligence, and it brings visual substance to the Schoenberg composition.
That last statement requires some elaboration. The music, Drei Klavierstucke op. 11, No. 2, is atonal (an early attempt at it – it was created in 1909), and to me the music is academic, ascetic, grating and distant, but it’s not without form or substance. Each musical phrase is tight and chilling, but to the untrained ear the music also sounds somewhat inexact; blurry. Melendez converts this into a visual mélange of precision steps that appear similar to each other but vary in stress, meter and shading. Inspired by the music, the steps serve to reinterpret it in movement, and then regurgitate it visually such that it has a similar impact…but necessarily a different one, and consequently the choreography becomes a valuable visual adjunct to Schoenberg’s score. There’s not much choreographic variety here, but there isn’t much tonal variety in the Schoenberg composition either, and Melendez avoids the temptation to choreograph to each musical phrase and punctuation.
Oguri sliced her legs through the air with staccato precision – but slowly (to the music’s tempo), as if performing complex surgery with her feet. She looked in deep concentration throughout – despite the choreography’s apparent simplicity, much of piece requires meticulous timing and includes extensive pointe work – but she got it done magnificently, and she’ll probably look less uncomfortable after additional performances.
In addition to Melendez’s choreography and Oguri’s execution, what makes the piece is the lighting, designed by Alex Vasquez Dheming. Oguri’s moving image is replicated by her enlarged shadow displayed on the rear stage scrim. But through skillfully placed light sources, more than one such shadow image may be seen at a given time, and the angles of each of these shadow images are different (reflecting the different positioning and angling of the light sources). The impact is that Oguri and her shadows replicate the subtle shading and tonal overlap in Schoenberg’s score. The “blurry” sound (like notes stepping on each other’s aural toes), is duplicated by Oguri’s multiple and concurrent, but not identical, images. It’s a knockout.
Franceschi’s She Holds Out Her Hand, which premiered at NYCB’s Fall, 2016 Danspace Project engagement (but which I’d not previously seen), represents a significant choreographic refinement over her prior NYTB effort. It’s a “big” ballet that utilizes eight dancers (Amanda Treibor, Amanda Smith, Joshua Andino-Nieto, Daniel Salas, Carlos Alonso, Guyonn Auriau, Alexis Branagan, and Carmella Lauer), and it fills the stage, but it’s well-balanced and vibrant. I don’t get the supposed haiku connection that the program notes emphasize (and from which the title is derived) – except perhaps (though I wasn’t counting) for the form of the subgroups created during the course of the piece. Nor did I sense a sense of loss (supposedly derived from Francheschi’s vision of T-shirts adorning the graves of children who died from gunshot wounds), but the dance works quite well regardless.
La Chatte Metamorphosee En Femme, which followed Franceschi’s on the program, is a curious solo for a ballerina (Zahlmann) costumed like a cat, in white fur and complete with steely cat whiskers. The piece purportedly is Ashton’s take on the original 1837 dance choreographed by Jean Coralli, which Ashton reimagined for Merle Park to perform at a 1985 Viennese gala in honor of Fanny Elssler using music from Jacques Offenbach’s 1858 one act comic opera of the same name (the music for Coralli’s piece having been lost). It’s cute, an Ashton amuse-bouche, the joke being that here’s a ballerina costumed and moving like a cat (ergo she’s a cat); a mouse suddenly sprints across the stage, but instead of doing what a cat would do to it, the cat ballerina acts like…a squeamish woman (translated – the way a stereotypical woman would supposedly act when confronted by a mouse). The cat morphs into a woman. Zahlmann does a super job with it, but the piece is so…quaint; so….Ashton.
The pas de deux from Richard Alston’s Such Longing, which was actually a solo that segues into a pas de deux, was gloriously performed by Melendez and Treibor. Melendez, who has grown remarkably as a performer and technician since I first saw him with NYTB about five years ago (a turning point was his extraordinary effort in the difficult reconstruction of Waring’s Feathers), was dominant both on his own and in his partnering; and even though it’s an excerpt, his and Treibor’s performance of Alston’s thrillingly engaging contemporary choreography was a highpoint of the evening.
The program closed with the premiere of Tanowitz’s Light Moving. To an eponymous composition by David Lang, Tanowitz has choreographed a pas de trois for Treibor, Zahlmann, and Andino-Nieto that is sprightly and, as usual with NYTB, well-executed, but visualizes the music without enhancing it. As I watched it, I thought that the dancers perhaps were intended to be visualizations of moving points of light – a sense abetted by the unusual-looking costumes by Tristan Raines, which consist of a basic white leotard to which blotches of color are affixed (leggings, sleeves, neck) of black, blue, red, and yellow (different for each dancer), suggesting the refraction of “white” light through a glass prism. I’ll reserve judgment on it, though, because Tanowitz’s pieces have tended to grow on me with repeated exposure.
Although I did not enjoy all aspects of this NYTB program, it’s a fine example of the company’s eclectic style and spirit. As I’ve previously written, missing one of their programs is unthinkable for anyone even remotely interested in where dance has been, and where it’s going.