[additional performance photographs, if any, will be provided on receipt]

Sara Mearns: Piece of Work
The Joyce Theater
New York, New York

March 8, 2022
Opulence, carefully (film), On the Margins, JoycEvent, SSSARA, Spir

Jerry Hochman

This review is a challenge. What do you do when a program is clearly the product of considerable time and effort, was executed well by all involved, but failed even remotely to live up to expectations? Well, you duck – and accentuate the positives.

There are positive comments to make about Sara Mearns’s program that opened Tuesday night at the Joyce Theater. She appeared in every piece (five dances plus a short film) and, to the surprise of no one, performed superbly, as did her on-stage colleagues; the Merce Cunningham dance, JoycEvent, was interesting, with significant movement variety within the Cunningham framework; based on the piece he created in this program, On the Margins, Vinson Fraley Jr.’s choreography bears monitoring; and Guillaume Côté’s choreography, Spir, was a breath of fresh air, until that fresh air became a windstorm.

Sara Mearns in Beth Gill’s “SSSARA”
Photo by Steven Pisano

That being said, although all of the pieces were polished, professional-level dances, none was an unqualified success. It happens. But here, as I’ll elaborate on below, the negatives far outweigh the positives.

The program Mearns presented was not unexpected – advance publicity materials indicated that it was to be something new for her, and part of her voyage of self-discovery. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. All of the dances were modern or contemporary, and the film might be considered borderline experimental. There’s nothing wrong with that either. But a program of dance that at most displays the same virtuosic ballerina dancing in pieces seemingly far removed from her usual New York City Ballet repertory (although nothing in the program was beyond the scope of what Mearns has previously and quite successfully assayed) makes it more about Mearns’s choreographic choices rather than about her as a person – which, based on the inner turmoil she verbalizes in the course of the program (and that’s referenced in the title) is what Mearns intended to reveal. But for one possible outlier (an unexceptional dance that may have been created to reflect her highly personal issues), the program merely exchanged one performing facade for another.

Reportedly in the planning stages for over two years, the program consisted of five dances and one film. Four were world premieres: On the Margins, SSSARA, Spir, and the film, titled carefully; one, Opulence, was a New York premiere; and JoycEvent was an event-specific dance that included curated excerpts from various Cunningham dances. Entwined throughout were pre-recorded “audio interludes” spoken by Mearns – directed and edited by Ezra Hurwitz – that were piped through the theater’s speakers.

I’ll consider the program in the order presented, and follow this with comments addressed to the highly revealing comments she made.

Opulence, choreographed by Jodi Melnick, is a duet for her and Mearns that was originally presented in 2019 at Jacobs Pillow. Essentially, to a musical score designed by Tei Blow [a performer, educator, and media designer based in New York, who’s work incorporates photography, video, and sound reportedly culled from found materials and mass media] that includes sounds of drums by Kid Millions (John Colpitts) and guitar by Zach Lehroff, the dance consists primarily of Melnick and Mearns mimicking or mirroring each other’s movement. The choreography is just “there” – it doesn’t even clearly complete a choreographed phrase, much less lead anywhere.

(l-r) Jodi Melnick and Sara Mearns in “Opulence”
Photo by Steven Pisano

The dance doesn’t have to “lead anywhere”: it can exist and be successful on its movement quality alone. But Opulence doesn’t do that either. For example, much of the movement quality begins the way much of Twyla Tharp’s movement phrases begin (something of a slouch, then pushing the arms somewhat nonchalantly outward from the body) – but unlike Tharp, Melnick here doesn’t do anything with it: it’s there, then it’s gone. [As I learned later, Melnick once danced with Tharp’s company.] At most, Opulence reflects a friendship; a relationship of some sort between one dancer and another; maybe one learning from the other – but that’s a stretch since there was no clear indication of any of that in the dance. Melnick is an award-winning choreographer / teacher of significant repute, so this piece may be an unfortunate example of her choreographic abilities.

It also wasn’t anything new for Mearns. She’s danced to Melnick (and to Tharp) previously. In 2016 she appeared in one of the Guggenheim Museum’s Works and Process programs in a Melnick piece in process. I didn’t see the finished piece, but based on an excerpt captured on YouTube, the choreography there looks considerably more varied and interesting than in Opulence. And as recently as five months ago Mearns appeared at a City Center tribute to Tharp, dancing in Tharp’s Pergolisi in a role that Mikhail Baryshnikov had originally performed in an earlier incarnation of the piece. To me, it was one of her finest performances.

Opulence, however, came across as performance by rote, and was thoroughly uninteresting to watch. From my vantage point, the opening night audience (often such audiences are unreasonably effusive) responded politely, but far from enthusiastically. It was a dull and somewhat pretentious way to open the program.

Things didn’t improve with the film. careful, directed and choreographed by Austin Goodwin, displays bits and pieces of a relationship (apparently a developing one) between the two dancer characters, Mearns and Paul Zivkovich. It’s beautifully filmed in an equally beautiful venue – a mansion-like space, and the colors and close-ups are as visually opulent as the previous dance wasn’t.

careful is more like a series of moving or still paintings than a dance. There are moments of the two dancers getting together and then moving apart, mini duets repeating the same sequence in different ways, but the film emphasizes as many solo moments as those performed together. It was all toward illustrating that the two parties were being “careful” about entering into (or continuing) their relationship. The ending focuses on an extended close-up of Mearns’s emotionless face, without even a hint of inner turmoil, given the film’s apparent premise, within that vacant exterior.

But building some sort of narrative is not what the film is about. Essentially, careful is a video jigsaw puzzle showing pieces of the puzzle, sometimes from different camera points of view. That sort of thing has been done before. The distinction here, however, is that it’s edited as if the puzzle pieces were cards in a deck that had been shuffled and reshuffled. The result was interesting-looking, but in an enigmatic rather than intellectual way. Overall, I found careless to be as sterile (though gorgeous looking) as the opulent but vacant space in which it was filmed.

Sara Mearns and Vinson Fraley Jr in “On the Margins”
Photo by Steven Pisano

Things picked up considerably with the next piece, On the Margins, choreographed by Vincent Fraley Jr. The title says it all, sort of, but it’s far more significant as a curious but interesting work that introduces (for those of us who hadn’t seen any prior examples of his work) a promising choreographer.

Fraley is a veteran of both A.I.M (Kyle Abraham’s company) and the Bill T. Jones / Arnie Zane Company, with apparently more limited choreographic experience than other choreographers on the program. Maybe that’s a good thing, since he doesn’t seem yet to be bogged down conforming to a particular style. Perhaps as a result, On the Margins was the most exciting-looking dance on the program.

Choreographed to an original score by Rahm Silverglade, On the Margins begins before it begins with interesting stage preparation. In front of the audience, the stage’s black backdrop is broken down and removed, revealing what appears to be the stage’s back brick wall. Within this wall and at its center is a recessed space roughly 6-8 feet wide and maybe 12 feet high. The piece begins with Mearns and Fraley appearing within (or jumping onto – I don’t recall) the recessed space, with Mearns on the left and Farley on the right and with their backs to the audience, obviously trying to break through or climb out of the confining space. They fail, and the stage goes dark.

The rest of the piece, until the end, is difficult to describe because there were a lot of images that didn’t appear to follow a particular pattern, and I may be describing them out of order.

Sara Mearns and Vinson Fraley Jr in “On the Margins”
Photo by Steven Pisano

Shortly after the space goes dark, dots of light appear, which are soon revealed to be flashlights held by each of the dancers. The audience can track the dancers’ movements by their flashlights as they edge close to and then separate from each other, never quite crossing the boundary between them – first an invisible one, and then a line of light running from upstage center to downstage center, perhaps angled toward orchestra left (it was difficult to tell from my viewpoint). Thereafter, there’s a lengthy period within which the two walk in a rectangular shape around their separate perimeter spaces, the margins, of their respective sides of the stage, mimicking or mirroring each other, gradually increasing speed, and gradually coming closer together. At some point thereafter, the two cross the boundary that separates them, and dance together (partnering, not just dancing together in sync), tentatively at first, but eventually leading to some intricate and close-quartered partnering. Eventually, the pair separate again, and reappear within the recessed area of the back wall, but this time in reversed position – Mearns on the right, Fraley on the left – again appearing to be trying to break out of their imprisoning boundary.

To me, the piece is a novel way of showing two people, or people of different backgrounds (racial or otherwise), overcoming their boundaries and coming together, while the boundaries that kept them separate remain unchanged in the real world. It sounds simplistic – but to me the dance had a particular meaning, and this was the logical one.

But the meaning isn’t the only quality that makes On the Margins click, and perhaps there was no intended “meaning” at all. Rather, the novelty of its visually interesting component parts, all of which have been seen before in one way or another but not together in a presentation like this, combined with both dancers’ flawless (though also emotionless) execution, made this dance stand out. In its own unique way, it was a beautifully strange, and strangely beautiful, dance.

Apparently I wasn’t the only one who felt that way. The audience as a whole exploded when the dance ended.

Following intermission, the next piece was the Cunningham dance, JoycEvent. Like other such curated examples of Cunningham’s choreography, this one is an agglomeration of some of the “best of Cunningham.” It still consisted of an overabundance (to me) of emotionless posing in place for no particular reason beyond occupying space before moving on to occupy another space, but here the overall movement was far more interesting than in other Cunningham pieces I’ve seen, and included a semblance of pairing and partnering, as well as a sense of overall balance. Granted the partnering was sterile (no emotion), but seeing one dancer lift another over his head and then slide her (first Jacquelin Harris; later Mearns), upside down, down his back and down one extended leg, was so unusual (in context, and for Cunningham choreography) that it was exciting to watch – as was seeing Mearns execute it so well (although this is nothing new; my understanding is that Mearns has danced Cunningham pieces previously). The Cunningham event was arranged and staged by Rashoun Mitchell and Silas Riener, and performed by (in addition to Mearns and Harris) Burr Johnson, Chalvar Monteiro, NYCB’s Taylor Stanley, and Melnick.

But … (there’s always a “but”) excising the good in this curated sampling isn’t easy, because its score, titled “100tone-candles 2022,” played live by John King, is exasperating. There’s no indication whether this music accompanied the original incarnations of these Cunningham dances (which were assembled primarily from another such “best of” events: “Night of 100 Solos: A Centennial Event”), and the dance as presented here mercifully isn’t bound to the score – rather, the score provides an annoying ambiance. Regardless, the score consists of carefully composed electronically augmented scratches and screeches that were painful (literally and figuratively) to listen to. I glanced over to King, stationed at the foot of the stage (orchestra left), intensely concentrating as he switched from one machine (maybe a piano, maybe a synthesizer, maybe something else – I couldn’t see clearly) to another (a violin) with no clue why, in terms of the dance or musical quality, he was doing what he was doing. Take my reaction with a grain of salt – I usually react negatively to such music, and I know that there are others who, for whatever reason, are enamored of it. But this was a particularly aggressive and uncomfortable example of it that distracted from the purity of Cunningham’s choreography. It may also have served to emphasize that purity, but that’s a backhand compliment.

Sara Mearns in Beth Gill’s “SSSARA”
Photo by Steven Pisano

SSSARA, choreographed by Beth Gill, is a solo for Mearns to an original score by Ryan Seaton. Not surprisingly, given its title, it appears intended to reflect Mearns’s emotional “journey” visually. Mearns writhes upright, on the stage floor, and in between, and the movement repeats in different but similar ways until, as the dance ends, stares out to the audience and into the future. At times Mearns freezes in place, but only very briefly, and then only to highlight in physical rather than emotional terms (e.g., arm positioning rather than in any change of facial expression) some inner conflict.

There’s nothing wrong with this, and it was choreographed and performed well. But dozens of dances relate to the same journey in a similar way – there’s nothing in SSSARA beyond Mearns’s performance of it that makes it in any way special to Mearns.

Sara Mearns in Beth Gill’s “SSSARA”
Photo by Steven Pisano

But the dance, and Mearns’s execution of it, comes closer than any other on this program to picturing Mearns in crisis based on Mearns’s own words (as I’ll discuss below); Mearns as she ‘really is’ and as she now is. The images are snapshots in time and don’t last long, but within that broader context, they’re revealing.

The program’s concluding piece was its most accessible (that is, it’s more akin to dances Mearns is usually seen dancing). But “more akin” is relative. It’s not ballet; it’s all barefoot, but its liquid movement and increasingly complex and intimate partnering to somewhat soothing-sounding music (“Corn,” by Nils Frahm, and “Winter Morning I”, by Woodkid & Nils Frahm) feels comfortable to watch. Essentially, the piece visualizes Mearns being rhapsodically swept off her feet and over and around Côté’s shoulders. Repeatedly. But about two thirds of the way into the relatively short piece, Spir grows increasingly complex, intimate, and almost frantic, sacrificing its fluidity for more agitated, almost hectic-paced “windmill” partnering and to more daring “holds.” Maybe this was intended to visualize an intensely evolving relationship, but it came across as unnecessary, and detrimental, excess.

Sara Mearns and Guillaume Côté in “Spir”
Photo by Steven Pisano

Côté was a highly regarded Principal with the National Ballet of Canada (and occasional guest artist with American Ballet Theatre). In 2013, in addition to performing, he became an NBC Choreographic Associate. Last year, Côté formed his own company, Côté Danse, reportedly focused on presenting multidisciplinary works in order to make dance seen and experienced differently. With Spir, the first example of his choreography that I’ve seen, Côté shows considerable promise as a choreographer, although it’s too limited in scope to demonstrate much more than that. But Spir also shows a failing common to many relatively new choreographers: not recognizing that less is more. Although his execution (and Mearns’s) was dedicated and admirable throughout, the piece crossed the line, delivered too much of what initially was a good thing, and overstayed its welcome. And the dance’s title, Spir (in the program, sometimes it’s capitalized, and sometimes it isn’t), has no meaning that I was able to discern.

It’s not unusual that celebrated ballerinas at a certain point in their careers choose to try-on more contemporary choreography to see how it fits and feels, and possibly to extend their performing careers. But this program isn’t that (and Mearns has already done that, quite successfully). Essentially, the program is, or is supposed to be, the visualization of Mearns’s state of mind – and of her mid-career personal crisis. [Normally I would not directly reference Mearns’s (or any dancer’s) specific confessionary statements, but here it was broadcast to a full house audience, so I don’t feel constrained.] Mearns states at one point: “I’m a mess.” That’s a far cry from what most dancegoers would have expected her mental state to be, but I don’t in any way doubt that that’s the way she feels. The program’s title (Sara Mearns: Piece of Work), seen in this light, says it all.

Sara Mearns and Guillaume Côté in “Spir”
Photo by Steven Pisano

But although intended as being fiercely personal, the program didn’t come across that way. Even though it was about her, the program and its dances didn’t reveal anything about her; about the way she feels about herself. There was nothing special or novel about any of it. It was just more of what dancegoers already know that she’s capable of.

More illuminating than her personal thoughts about herself are other comments Mearns made in the course of her audio interludes. At one point, Mearns states, effectively (I’m not a stenographer, and couldn’t transcribe all her words verbatim), that she was uncomfortable in ballet feeling that she had an obligation to satisfy audience expectations and to live up to her image. That’s not a particularly unusual comment – but hearing it come from as much of a ballet “star” as Mearns is, is as revealing as it is unexpected.

Even more revealing was her statement that when she dances to choreography created by others, she feels compelled to do what the choreographer wants, as opposed to being free to put her own stamp on a role. That explains a lot – particularly why it’s so rare to see Mearns express any emotion while executing NYCB repertory; she always seems controlled, and bound not to express anything unless the choreography allows or compels it. The result is what I’ve frequently observed: more often than not, she’s too stone-faced, too sad, and more dour and deliberate than seems appropriate – which I now understand is because she’s imprisoned by her own expectation of what she’s supposed to be doing. Curiously, despite it being about her, this program was no exception. The dances here were all choreographed by others – and not once, until the curtain calls, did I see Mearns change her facial expression. Here again it looked like she wouldn’t allow herself to be herself.

But even Balanchine recognized that different dancers will bring their own personalities to roles; it’s also why more often than not one can distinguish one ballerina’s performance from another, and why balletomanes see performances of the same ballet by different casts. That Mearns doesn’t seem to understand or accept this is not a criticism of her, but an explanation of why we (or at least I) see her performances, as superbly executed as they usually are, as not being as special, and as individual, as most of them should be.

When Mearns next attempts a program such as this (she’s tried different types of choreography and styles before, to great success; I expect she will continue to do so), hopefully it will include choreography she actually enjoys rather than just venerates or which artistic management and audiences expect to see from her. And I hope (and I say this with the greatest respect for her manifest and undeniable talent) that in these programs she removes the emotional constraints that bind her unless the choreography explicitly demands otherwise, takes off her performance veneer, and just lets herself go.