Danspace Project, New York, NY
October 2, 2015

Jerry Hochman

Steven Melendez and Elena Zahlmann from A. de Mille Suite Photo Richard Termine

Steven Melendez and Elena Zahlmann in A. de Mille Suite
Photo Richard Termine

It was wet and gloomy in New York last Friday, but the frightful weather outside was countered by the spirited performance at Danspace Project – the second of New York Theatre Ballet’s 2015-2016 Legends and Visionaries programs.

Danspace Project is located in the historic St. Mark’s Church in-the-Bowery in New York’s East Village. The performance space is the church itself, with its stone walls, stained glass windows, and soaring nave. To those for whom attending dance performances can at times be akin to a religious experience, as well as to dance novices, it was not only an unusually dark and stormy night but also an inspirational one.

The venue is particularly appropriate for the concluding dance on the program, a compendium of excerpts from Agnes de Mille’s Broadway choreography titled A. de Mille Suite. As tenor Darren Chase, a guest artist, opened the piece with Rodgers and Hammerstein’s glorious Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin’ from Oklahoma (accompanied on piano by NYTB’s Musical Director, Michael Scales), the space magnified his already rich, crystalline voice. The song was transformed from the signature anthem it was (and still is) into a canticle captured by and redirected from some heavenly repository.

No less of a divine experience were the subsequent dances. The piece, also known as Agnes de Mille’s Broadway Suite, was staged by Gemze de Lappe, who was associated with, and danced for, de Mille. The authenticity shows.

What strikes immediately is not only the American idiom that permeates de Mille’s dances, but their deceptive simplicity. The movement isn’t flashy by contemporary standards, but it’s true.

Typical of NYTB, the excerpts are not necessarily the most familiar of de Mille’s Broadway choreography. In addition to parts of Oklahoma’s The Dream Ballet, the suite includes Elena Zahlmann’s turn as Jean Maclaren in the less familiar wedding dance from Lerner and Lowe’s Brigadoon and ends with Zahlmann and Mitchell Kilby leading the company’s rousing delivery of the Hornpipe dance from Carousel (preceded, respectively, by Chase’s splendid renditions of Come to Me, Bend to Me and Blow High, Blow Low).

The most unexpectedly moving dance was sandwiched in between the excerpts from Brigadoon and Carousel. I had not previously seen the duet from Lerner and Lowe’s Paint Your Wagon (to the song Another Autumn, with additional music by Trude Rittman), and was unprepared for its intense purity. De Mille’s choreography captures the essence of the characters and their emotional journey, and Zahlmann and Steven Melendez captured the essence of de Mille’s dance. The duet was a singular achievement within a dance suite already blessed with living reconstructions, instead of reverential preservations of de Mille’s Broadway choreography; and with the advantage of the spiritual space, one sensed that de Mille was not only present, but beaming.

From left: Joshua Andino-Nieto, Mayu Oguri & Steven Melendez in Pi r2 Photo Richard Termine PHOTO CREDIT - Richard Termine

From left: Joshua Andino-Nieto, Mayu Oguri & Steven Melendez in Pi r2
Photo Richard Termine

The first half of the evening included four pieces. Two Timing is one of four dances choreographed by David Parker based on Steve Reich’s Clapping Music. Parker, a 2013 Guggenheim Fellow for choreography, co-founded The Bang Group, a rhythm-based dance company. Here, he divides Reich’s clapping between two characters: one, guest artist Jeffrey Kazin (the other co-founder of The Bang Group), who does most of the clapping, while Zahlmann punctuates parallel to the claps (and contributed some clapping and body slaps of her own). The piece doesn’t just mimic the clapping sounds, but enhances them immeasurably. And Zahlmann, who had quite an evening, looked every inch the ballerina as she pranced percussively, primarily en pointe, throughout the piece – in her purple toe shoes.

Lois Bewley had an extraordinary career as a ballerina (including with American Ballet Theatre and New York City Ballet), director, choreographer, and professor. Although I’ve never seen her dance and had never before seen any of her choreography, apparently, she was also something of a comedienne. Her Pi r2, to Poeme Electronique by Edgard Varese, is a superb little comic ballet – as dry and classy and rich and indulgent as brut champagne topped off with extra dark chocolate. The two relatively deadpan and self-absorbed male dancers (Joshua Andino-Nieto and Melendez) manipulate the even more deadpan and self-absorbed ballerina (Mayu Oguri, who has grown exponentially as an artist within the past year). It’s not an exercise in contortion, though Oguri’s body is pulled and stretched and contorted like a pretzel, but a serious send-up – classical ballet in extremis. It’s a tribute to Bewley’s choreography, the staging by NYTB’s Artistic Director Diana Byer, and the dancers’ capable execution that for a brief while it’s not clear whether Pi r2 is a strange ballet or a diabolical comedy.

The program was completed with repeat performances of Merce Cunningham’s Cross Currents and Nicolo Fonte’s There, and Back Again, which are reviewed here (September) and here (February). Reminiscences of de Mille and her contemporaries by Theodore S. Chapin (President and Executive Director of Rodgers and Hammerstein: an Imogen Company), joined in discussion by Byer, Zahlmann, and Melendez, topped off the evening.