The Joyce Ballet Festival
The Joyce Theater
New York, New York
August 6, 10, 13, and 16, 2019
Program A: Asphodel Meadows Pas de Deux, Dance of the Blessed Spirits, Concerto Pas de Deux, Within the Golden Hour (Two Duets), Obsidian Tear (excerpt), Qualia Pas de Deux, Jojo, Five Brahms Waltzes in the manner of Isadora Duncan
Program B: Darl (world premiere), Seventy Two Hours (world premiere), Two Sides Of (U.S. premiere), Reverie (world premiere), Dialogue Dances (world premiere)
Program C: Then and Again, Song of a Wayfarer, Elite Syncopations (Divertissement)
Program D: Qualia Pas de Deux, Assume Form (world premiere), All My Song (world premiere), 3 With D, Cristaux
Remember when August in New York was a relatively dead month for ballet? Not anymore.
The Joyce Theater has presented an annual summer ballet festival for several years utilizing various formats, and it has proven to be a wonderful addition to New York City’s summer dance landscape. This year, the festival focused on stars = primarily from The Royal Ballet, abetted by dancers from American Ballet Theatre and New York City Ballet – and consisted of four distinct programs, each related in one respect or another to The Royal Ballet. Program A, comprised of solos and duets, was curated by The Royal Ballet’s Director Kevin O’Hare, and featured dancers from his company. Program B, curated by Royal Ballet Principal Dancer Lauren Cuthbertson, featured pieces by emerging choreographers, most of whom have a Royal Ballet connection. Program C was the conception of frequent Royal Ballet designer Jean-Marc Puissant, and Program D was selected by another Principal Dancer with the Royal Ballet, Edward Watson. The gravitational pull and relative rarity of the stars on the Joyce stage (or any stage in New York) filled the theater with ballet glitterati, regular ballet attendees who rarely venture south of City Center, and a panoply of dance critics.
Many of the dances on these programs were top flight examples of the choreographers’ craft, although too many of them were excerpts, and out of context they have limited significance. My discomfort with some of the pieces (I saw the opening performances of each program) had nothing to do with the dancers, who were fabulous in whatever they performed. Rather, I found much of the “new” choreography, and some of the old, to be either unmemorable or uninspired, a consequence of limiting most of the dances presented to solos or duets.
But there were glorious exceptions, most significantly Arthur Pita’s Cristaux and much of Program C, including a performance of Maurice Bejart’s Song of a Wayfarer by David Hallberg and Joseph Gordon that ranks with the finest performances I’ve seen of anything.
Normally I’d consider the festival’s dances in order of presentation. But for reasons which may later become evident, I’ll deviate from that somewhat here.
Arthur Pita’s Cristaux
Based on those pieces of his that I’ve seen, Arthur Pita is one of the most inventive of contemporary choreographers. He takes risks – not so much with choreography – which is blessedly free from the quirkiness that infects much of contemporary choreography, but with concepts. Sometimes they work; sometimes they don’t, but his dances are never dull. Cristaux is one of his finest.
The word “cristaux,” translated, means crystals. Describing the ballet as being inspired by crystals would not be far wrong. The costumes for each of the dance’s three segments (each segment by a different designer) feature one dancer costumed to one extent or another in silvery crystals. But as Balanchine’s Jewels is more than an homage to gems, Cristaux is far more than a paean to crystals – and it’s also far more than being crystalline in its choreographic or visual presentation, which it is. These crystals don’t just glitter.
The ballet premiered in 2016 with Ballet Black in London. As far as I can tell, however, that premiere performance included only what is now the first section of Cristaux. As presented here, Cristaux now has a more cosmic meaning.
In the opening segment, subtitled “cristaux – a,” a man (Robbie Fairchild) lies prone on the stage floor. Soon he’s joined by what can only be described as a celestial presence, Sarah Lamb, wearing a glittering silvery leotard and tutu with crystal accents (costumes here designed by Yann Seabra), who bourrées onto the stage from the upstage left wings. Behind them both is an image of an impossibly large, full moon and, as I recall, an overhead dome of light emanating from the rafters. Lamb is a stunning apparition, both physically and as an emotionally detached lunar goddess who could have been carved from molten marble.
After a period of solo dancing (mostly en pointe) to the aptly titled “Dreaming and the Upward Sky” by Frank Moon, she entices Fairchild to rise, and they dance an eloquent pas de deux in which Lamb’s power and influence over Fairchild is apparent, as is Fairchild’s adoration of his “dream”: he doesn’t really look at her, he appears as if in a daze, mesmerized. During their dance, Lamb is frequently positioned behind or in front of Fairchild, with their arms intertwining, bringing to mind representations I’ve seen of a Hindu goddess. This section ends with Lamb returning to the wings, and Fairchild to the stage floor.
As Fairchild rolls toward the stage right wings, “cristaux – b” begins. Maria Kowroski enters from the stage left wings, as had Lamb, but downstage – preceded by bright light emanating onto the stage from the same wings. Her costume, a dress of shimmering crystal designed by Les Brotherston, combined with the light (the lighting in both segments was designed by Carolyn Wong – in “a” a redesign of the original by David Plater) and her stage presence made her appear both majestic and radiant. She dances solo, until she sees Watson, who had replaced Fairchild in Fairchild’s initial position and location on the stage. Watson may have had desires of his own, like Fairchild, but Kowroski, the sun goddess, has desires as well, and hers is for Watson. But the choreography – and the music – makes it clear that it is the glittering sun goddess here who is dreaming an impossible dream: the song is “Sunlight / Impossible Human” by Bev Lee Harling, and as Watson withdraws to the wings, Kowroski mourns the loss of her “impossible human.” [It bears keeping in mind that mythological gods and goddesses frequently mated with humans.]
The third segment is choreographed to the adagio from Bizet’s Symphony in C. [This is a double dose of Pita cleverness. Symphony in C has an obvious relationship with this being the “c” section in Cristaux, and is why the segment is subtitled “cristaux in c” as opposed to “cristaux – c.” Yet more clever is the fact that the original title of the piece that Balanchine choreographed to Bizet’s score, now known as Symphony in C, was Le Palais de Cristal.] When this segment begins, Watson reappears, again initially lying on the stage floor midstage right. As he rises, the audience sees that he’s wearing a silvery crystal hood that covers his entire head. Eventually Watson wrestles the hood from his head, and, seemingly dazed, walks to the edge the stage, drapes his legs over the proscenium, lowers himself to the floor, and walks up one of the theater aisles, still seemingly in a daze and not knowing what he’s to do. He turns his face to the stage, and, to his apparent surprise, sees Lamb and Fairchild, and Kowroski by herself, moving as they did in the dance’s prior sections. To him, they must appear to be apparitions. He reaches out toward them, with a gaze of knowing uncertainty, as if on the verge of deciding whether to emulate one, the other, or both.
Clearly, there’s more going on here than a mesmerizing and intriguing ballet about crystals. Pita’s ballet is about dreams and desires, ideals and idols, adoration and reverence and worship, and deities and our relationship to them and their relationship to us. Its three-part structure reflects, to me, a lunar based ideal, a solar ideal, and an Apollo-like birth of what may become an ideal, who takes his inspiration / education from the prior visions. And I may be far off base, but I doubt that the title’s similarity to Christ is accidental – not in the messianic sense, but in that there’s an historical / biblical connection between the two words related to a power of healing.
While Program A cannot exactly be described as retro, its purpose was to present an eclectic assortment of representative dances, or excerpts from them, that O’Hare, in a program note, described being created by choreographers “directly associated with the Royal Ballet since its inception.” Two were pieces choreographed by Sir Frederick Ashton, The Royal’s Director from 1963-1970, two by Wayne McGregor, its Resident Choreographer since 2006, and one each by Sir Kenneth MacMillan, the Royal’s Director from 1970-77, and Principal Choreographer from 1977-1992, Liam Scarlett, Christopher Wheeldon, and Charlotte Edmonds.
The program opened with a pas de deux from Scarlett’s Asphodel Meadows. The full ballet, Scarlett’s first for The Royal, premiered in 2010, featured 20 dancers, and was an instant success. I’ve not seen it, but from what I’ve discerned this pas de deux (one of three in the full piece) exemplifies the classical fluidity that reportedly characterizes the complete ballet, with a sense of contemporary romanticism that distinguishes this pas de deux from others. Choreographed to music by Francis Poulenc (played with sensitivity and flair by pianist Kate Shipway, who handled the piano accompaniment for several other dances in the Festival), and danced by First Artist Romany Pajdak and First Soloist Calvin Richardson, this pas de deux is lovely, with intricate partnering, complex lifts, and the sense of a connection ultimately missed, and it provided a fine introduction to the two dancers.
That Ashton was a choreographer of undeniable significance is not debatable. But as the years have passed, many of his dances have lost significance to me. As I’ve written previously, in recent years I’ve found many of his pieces to be fussy and prissy, and somewhat dated. Dance of the Blessed Spirits (from Orpheus and Eurydice: Dance in the Elysian Fields), which Ashton choreographed toward the end of his career (in 1978) for Sir Anthony Dowell, is unsettling in a different, albeit related way – at least as performed here by Joseph Sissens.
The dance is intended to show Orpheus in the Elysian Fields of Hades. The usual story is that this happened after Orpheus’s mutilation, when he and Eurydice were reunited in death, but some versions have it as the place where he meets Eurydice when he’s first allowed to enter Hades. Regardless, it’s appropriately prayerful and joyous reflecting the circumstances, and musical and lyrical reflecting Orpheus’s talent. Many consider it a masterwork.
But there’s a hitch. I’ve read that by 1978 Ashton felt comfortable choreographing for men without making them appear stereotypically powerful. I don’t know if that’s true, but, at least based on the performance by Sissens, that’s what was presented.
To me, in order for Dance of the Blessed Spirits to work, a balance between the strength of a god and the joy of frolicking in the fields needs to be maintained. I never saw Dowell’s performance, but David Hallberg’s portrayal (reportedly taught to him by Dowell) is memorialized online, and he did exactly that. Although admirably fluid, there’s a power in Hallberg’s fluidity that’s not just captivating, but commanding. If only one quality is visualized, the portrayal becomes considerably less potent.
It’s inherently unfair to compare Sissens, a member of the Royal Ballet corps, with the far more advanced Hallberg, and with his tall, long-limbed presence, there’s no question that Sissens at least executed the choreography adequately – that’s not the issue. It’s the way the movement was executed, and the character he conveyed to accompany the movement that’s … unsettling. This portrayal was a little too lanky, too loose, too … androgynous. This Orpheus was not at all in command; on the contrary, he came across to me as somewhat pixilated when he’s not visualized as deep in thought or giving thanks. If one assumes that this is what Ashton wanted to display, Sissens succeeded too well.
Later in the program Sissens appeared in Jojo, a solo choreographed by Charlotte Edmonds. The movement quality, matching the music (“Pandi Groove,” by Chinese Man), was unfortunate, because it served only to reinforce, but in a much more distilled and pronounced way, the same qualities that I found unpleasant in the Ashton piece. At least Ashton’s dance had a larger message and a creative force, albeit one that, as performed, I didn’t like much. This piece was an embarrassment.
Ashton’s second program piece, which closed the evening, was Five Brahms Waltzes in the manner of Isadora Duncan. Pajdak, who joined The Royal Ballet in 2004, did a fabulous job executing Ashton’s choreography. Had I not seen Sara Mearns’s portrayal of Duncan in a piece choreographed by one of Duncan’s disciples / students (once removed), Lori Bellilove, I might have appreciated it more. But compared to that piece, Ashton’s dance is far more strident and artificial-looking than the “natural movement” evidenced in Bellilove’s recreation and Mearns’s execution. I don’t know which interpretation more accurately reflects Duncan’s movement quality, but from everything I’ve read and seen, and notwithstanding the fine choreography and execution, I don’t think Ashton’s does. On the contrary, it seems a parody of it.
Curiously, Duncan reportedly choreographed to the same Gluck composition that Ashton used for his Dance of the Blessed Spirits. Perhaps that’s the reason behind O’Hare’s selecting them for the same program.
McGregor’s two pieces are excerpts: a male duet from his 2016 Obsidian Tear, and a male / female pas de deux from Qualia. As I’ve previously written, of those pieces of his that I’ve seen, I’m not particularly enamored of McGregor’s choreography. With one exception, which for non-choreographic reasons should never have seen the light of day, I find his work to be dark (no matter how bright Lucy Carter’s lighting may make it appear), emotionless, aggressive, ascetic, borderline exploitative, and very 21st Century in a way that makes the 21st Century look more bleak than it already is (a neat trick). There’s no denying his admirable craftsmanship, however, and these excerpts exemplify his style.
The duet from Obsidian Tear, performed by Sissens and Richardson, is both lighter and darker than his usual (again, of what I’ve seen). Performed by an all-male cast of nine, the full piece, according to The Royal’s web site, “is both archaic and futuristic in its exploration of the tribal behavior of its all-male group.” The duet excerpt has notes of these qualities, provided by the costumes (by Katie Shillingford) that are part pants / part skirts (beneath the men’s bare chests), and by the dynamic tension between Sissens (who appears to be the novice, in the red costume) and Richardson (his mentor, wearing black). The dynamic is carried out by dervish-like swirls of movement, upside down falls, and parry and attack, and pushing air (and each other) during which the two of them size each other up. But there’s also a sexual undertone here that, in context, while not surprising, was unwelcome. I’ll reserve further judgment until I view the entire piece. Both Sissens and Richardson executed the excerpt admirably.
The Qualia pas de deux is a very good example of much of what I’ve seen of McGregor’s work. Again, I’ve not seen the complete ballet (created in 2003, McGregor’s first for The Royal), but I have seen this pas de deux previously, performed by Eric Underwood and Melissa Hamilton at a Youth America Grand Prix gala in 2015. I disliked it intensely then; now, I’m a little more used to it, and even though I find nothing likeable about it, that’s the way it’s supposed to be. A 21st century encounter of dancers in their underwear (the theory, I suppose, being that dance is about bodies, so might as well show as much as you can get away with) that sublimates eroticism to aggression – to the characters’ mutual satisfaction. It’s a stunning display of McGregor’s penchant for body manipulation for seemingly no purpose other than because his dancers can do it. But I’ll concede that Qualia, according to that Royal website, means “a raw and sensory experience,” and there’s no question that that is what this pas de deux provides – while giving the audience a voyeuristic experience as well. In my review of that gala performance, I described Hamilton as probably having had to endure a painful deboning process in order to perform the piece. I had no such feeling from Lamb, and unlike the 2015 performance, I did sense some connection between her and Watson, who originated the role at The Royal (then partnered by Leann Benjamin).
The remaining two pieces in Program A immediately preceding intermission, both excerpts from larger pieces, were the evening’s best.
Christopher Wheeldon’s Within the Golden Hour, originally created for the San Francisco Ballet in 2008, features seven couples. This program presented two of the duets: the first for Sissens and Richardson, the second for Lamb and Marcelino Sambé. My understanding is that the dance’s duets have individual characters (beyond the differences in choreography) relevant to the whole, which I cannot glean from these two duets, but the two are very fine examples of Wheeldon at his best.
In the first duet, Sissens and Richardson, wearing identical costumes (by Jasper Conran) flaked with gold, burst onto the stage, jump, leap, run, and barely interact – but it’s an exhilarating display of controlled power (and Sissens’s best performance of the night). Lamb and Sambé’s duet was the opposite: slow but not in the least ponderous, airy, heartfelt, and remarkably passionate (without being florid) and fluid, with Sambé’ (recently promoted to Principal) and Lamb also wearing costumes flaked in gold (Lamb’s embedded in her shimmering, diaphanous skirt). Some might consider the choreography here to be repetitious, but in context, the echoing movement simply created enhanced meaning. I sensed that this meaning was somewhat bittersweet, but could not discern anything more concrete than that. It was a beautifully sensual piece of work, exquisitely executed.
I’ve seen MacMillan’s Concerto Pas de Deux previously, but this performance by Lauren Cuthbertson and Nicol Edmonds took the piece, and the program, to a higher level. Without the histrionics that percolate through many of MacMillan’s ballets, this duet simmers with measured passion and uncomplicated and understated, but relatively complex movement, with partnering (including impossible-looking upside-down lifts) that Edmonds pulled off effortlessly. I missed the intensity inherent in some of the other duets on this program, but this was as a different kind of piece, with a different kind of passion.
Cuthbertson returned to lead Program B, appearing in all but one of the program’s dances. She was superb in the solo pieces, but though good vehicles to display her performing virtuosity, these dances left no lasting impression. The more impressive dances (though not always successful), were those in which she was paired or as part of an ensemble.
Darl, choreographed by Jonathan Watkins, is an extended conversation with movement that goes nowhere in particular, but provides some smiles during the journey. Cuthbertson first appears as if dressing for some performance rehearsal, tying her pointe shoes. It’s all very casual. During the process, a score of sorts (titled “Rethinking Bolero” by Hannah Peel after Ravel, with audio by Watkins and Cuthbertson), which may be Cuthbertson’s memory of an “actual” conversation or one she’s having in real time in her mind, accompanies what movement there is. Either way, the dialogue is sometimes funny though rarely enlightening (Watkins casually references Cuthbertson as “darl” which is either his pronunciation of “doll” – as in “hi, doll” – or a short form of “darling”), and it’s fun to watch Cuthbertson carry this fluff off, but no more than that.
Reverie is choreographed by Stina Quagebeur, a member of English National Ballet, to an eponymous score by Claude Debussy. The piece begins with Cuthbertson prone on the stage floor, slowly moving an arm consistent with the meandering pace of the music. But Reverie abandons any such sense of minimalism quickly, with attempts at natural movement a la Isadora abused by unspecified frenzy. Cuthbertson’s character always seems to be looking for … something – her future?, her past?, an exit? – but not finding it. It all seems thrown together to create some sort of mood (well, it’s a reverie), but it has no apparent reason for being, and little significance beyond being another well-executed dance that demonstrates Cuthbertson’s range and provides another opportunity for her to look wonderful executing most anything.
Gemma Bond, who recently retired from American Ballet Theater, contributed Seventy Two Hours to the program – the connection to the Royal (not that there needed to be one) being that she danced for The Royal before joining ABT. Choreographed to an assemblage of music by Rachmaninoff and performed by ABT Principal Devon Teuscher and newly-promoted Soloist Aran Bell, the ballet presumably illustrates events that occur over three days in the course of a relationship. It’s not Bond’s best, but it’s a perfectly serviceable ballet (although there’s much too much arms-in-the-air that maybe was intended to indicate passion but comes across as low-level hysteria). But the subject’s been choreographically explored many times, and Seventy Two Hours isn’t distinctive enough from other dances that traverse the same emotional territory. Teuscher, who had a marvelous Met 2019 Season, displayed the requisite passion simmering beneath the surface both by her characterization and execution, but Bell, who also had a memorable season, looked more befuddled than emotionally involved: he may just be too young to get it.
Of the remaining two program dances, one was boldly epic and generally left a positive impression, the other was more narrowly focused and wonderfully done.
Two Sides Of was the latter. I’ve seen one other piece choreographed by Juliano Nunes: Nothing Left, a duet for two men that was presented at the 2019 YAGP Stars of Today Meet the Stars of Tomorrow Gala earlier this year at Lincoln Center. In a subsequent review, I described Nothing Left as the evening’s biggest surprise: I found it exhilarating, touching and tragic, and that Nunes’s ability to merge finely wrought choreography with equally expressive (but not intrusive) emotion was revelatory.
With Two Sides Now, Nunes shows that his success with Nothing Left was not an accident. Two Sides Now has a simple premise: take a piece of music (here “Bear Story II” by Luke Howard), choreograph to it, and then change the arrangement such that the music, though the same, sounds different, while at the same time modifying the choreographic “arrangement” to create a similar but very different impression from the first iteration. The result is a fabulous dance, executed to filigree perfection by Cuthbertson and Sambé.
The dance’s initial rendering is a simple love duet, gently executed to gentle music; the second is on a nearly (but not quite) completely different emotional level: sensual, romantic, passionate. With her long lines and perfectly timed execution, Cuthbertson looked gorgeous, and Sambé, who was highly impressive on first view (at City Center’s 2018 Balanchine Celebration), is even more so now. Tender one moment, explosive the next, and a fine partner.
Dialogue Dances is a fine dance with its heart in the right place, but it makes the voyage to a different culture somewhat of a guilt trip. Robert Binet, an Associate Choreographer with National Ballet of Canada who has choreographed for NYCB (The Blue of Distance) and other companies, here comes close to creating a truly epic, meaningful dance, but almost loses it with overblown (though understandable) reverence. The dance is inspired by the lost language of the Wolastoqiyik Lintuwakonawa, a Native American tribe that lived in an area in what is now Canada. The language has been reconstructed, in part, by Jeremy Dutcher, a member of another of Canada’s Native American tribes who has made a career of capturing and rebirthing the remnants of long lost Native American languages.
The idea behind Binet’s dance is to have a dialogue between the tribe’s ancestors / heritage and the current occupants of the land (whether Canadianized descendants or those with no such heritage, or both, isn’t completely clear, but is essentially irrelevant), using Dutcher’s reconstructed sounds, which are either uttered as words or expanded into repeated phrases as songs, as its score. The opening scene – in which NBoC Principal Xiao Nan Yu, in a pure white ceremonial costume, embodies the ancient tribe’s legacy, as well as ts heart, and soul, is intensely moving and beautifully executed, and to my mind created an ambiance similar to the aura of the ancestral tree (“Hometree”) presented in the film Avatar, except here the tree is a woman in reverential motion. And the closing segment, in which the dancers embodying the ancient tribal heritage are paired with, and exchange cultural information with, contemporary representatives, is also brilliantly done. In between, the dances and the interweaving of spoken / sung words are a bit muddier, but the overall sense of “Dialogue” is maintained throughout – with, to me, a bit too much emphasis on the cultural superiority of the way things used to be (the “dialogue” appears to go only one way). All in all, however, Dialogue Dances accomplishes what it sets out to do: to recreate memories, and to visualize a continuing, and necessary, connection between generations and cultures.
To the extent I had difficulty with it, it’s with the sense of blame and fault that also flows through the dance – although I admit that much, if not all, of that is the product of the brief introductory recitation of statements read by each of the dancers essentially apologizing for undermining the Native American culture that the dance attempts to replicate and celebrate, and thanking the Wolastoqiyik Linhuwakonawa for sharing their culture, as well as the local Lenape tribe on whose land the performance was taking place. The dance, and its intent, should speak for itself. And in its reverence for its subject, it does.
Aside from Pita’s Cristaux and a repeat of McGregor’s Qualia Pas de Deux (which at least provided another opportunity to see Lamb and Watson), the balance of Program D was memorable, but only in that little of it was memorable. I find it difficult to believe that Watson actually selected some of the pieces presented.
Assume Form, choreographed by James Alsop to a composition of the same name by James Blake, is a solo for former NYCB Principal Robbie Fairchild. All My Song, choreographed by Laila Diallo, is a solo for Lamb. The best of both is that they didn’t last long. And I suppose there’s an element of curiosity in scheduling them back to back, since they illustrate different views of being alone. Assume Form has Fairchild, in jeans and a white shirt, slinky, bored, and a little angst-ridden, assuming no particular form at all. And in All My Song, Lamb at least looks good, barefoot, in a silken white shirt and grey pants (her costume was designed by Program C’s curator, Jean-Marc Puissant – which begs the question why it was not planted in Program C, which he curated) as she appears to think about going out of her apartment, but then doesn’t, and snaps her fingers at the end as if that might make the entire dance go away – which it mercifully does. At least what she was thinking looked interesting.
I liked the only other piece by Javier de Frutos that I can recall seeing (Bandillero, by the Royal New Zealand Ballet in 2014 at the Joyce), but 3 With D misses the mark. The dance takes its name from its musical accompaniment – three songs arranged (and one that was co-written) by Don Gillespie Sells, which Sells performed live (accompanied by pianist Patrick Gallagher). It’s a gay love story, and the story of a doomed relationship. That wasn’t my problem with the piece – the choreography was. It was not without a sense of form (the movement clearly was intended to look as it did), but that form was a match for the bluesy music, making the entire performance look like slow-moving visual depression (which may also have been intended). This type of theme has been explored many times, and has looked better, and aroused at least some level of sympathetic interest, in these other pieces. This one eventually just died of lifelessness.
Had Pita’s Cristaux not ended the program, Program D would have been a waste of time.
The best overall program of the Festival, Program C included fabulous performances to match generally top flight choreography.
I was not impressed with Bond’s Then and Again when it premiered at the Joyce Festival in 2017. It’s still not without some of the flaws I saw two years ago, but Then and Again now looks more cohesive than I recall, so either some aspects of the dance changed, or my perception did (or both). Regardless, the piece now brings to mind remembrances of things past, and although it’s not as focused or as finely wrought as Sir Antony Tudor’s The Leaves Are Fading, it’s got Stephanie Williams as the dances central figure, whose performance is both stirring and accomplished.
Williams is at once a participant and an observer in the events she remembers, and the entire cast (six more ABT dancers, plus Erez Milatin, currently a member of New York Theater Ballet) weaves through the dance at pleasantly irregular intervals and in different formations, either as memories or as gatherings in real dance time. Since the dance’s six women all wear similar red dresses, It’s not clear whether the dancers (particularly Trenary and Katsnelson) are intended to be Williams as she remembers herself to be, or other people whose paths have crossed with Williams in Williams’s mind. I suspect the former, since at various points Trenary and Williams look at, or through, each other, and since the characters portrayed by Trenary and Katsnelson could be seen as Williams at earlier, and earlier still, stages in her life.
Of course, all this could be not at all what Bond intends here, and that’s fine: the dance’s structure is sufficiently varied so that even if was without meaning, it would still be interesting to watch. Zimmi Coker, Betsy McBride, Courtney Sheely, and Thomas Forster completed the cast, with Forster and Milatin (who has been an excellent, and intense, partner since his first appearances with Gelsey Kirkland Ballet) adding considerable flair.
Selected divertissement from MacMillan’s Elite Syncopations closed the program. To a score of pieces created by Scott Joplin and others just past the turn of the century (the 20th century), MacMillan’s dances are lively, exuberant, and wickedly difficult. Performed by five Royal Ballet dancers (Lamb, Pajdak, Richardson, Sambé, and Sissens) and Trenary, and featuring costumes by Ian Spurling that made this viewer giddy just watching the dancers move within them, the presentation was a colorful and exuberant way to close the Festival. And while Lamb and Richardson, and Sambé in a solo, were particularly outstanding, Trenary was as well, more than holding her own in her solo and in entire cast opening and closing segments with the Royal Ballet dancers for whom MacMillan must be part of their genetic material.
In between these two, Song of a Wayfarer received a miraculous performance by Hallberg and Gordon. Created by Bejart in 1971 for his company (Ballet of the 20th Century), set to a score by Gustav Mahler (an excerpt from Symphony No. 1, and a song cycle), and originally performed by Nureyev and Paolo Bortoluzzi (and since by a who’s who of male dancers), it’s a duet described by the Oxford Reference as portraying “a romantic youth who rages in despair but is soothed by the dark figure of Fate.”
Well, yes, but it’s far deeper than that. A wayfarer is a journeyman, or a simple traveler. Here, the journey is through life, with a young man (novice, student, disciple, acolyte) being observed, guided, corrected, taught, watched over, seduced) by an older mentor. Although it’s been around nearly fifty years, and has many YouTube iterations, I’d not previously seen it. What an eye-opener this performance was.
In many ways, Song of a Wayfarer reminded me of El cruce sobre el Niágara, choreographed by Marianela Boán in 1987 based on a 1969 play, which, performed by members of Acosta Ballet, was a highlight of last year’s City Center Fall for Dance. Like El Cruce, Song of a Wayfarer is about developing an interpersonal relationship, self-reliance and mutual-reliance, overcoming fear, and conquering some seemingly insurmountable divide, except here the divide isn’t the Niagara River, but life itself. Like El cruce, it also has spiritual overtones, although more mythic than any organized religion. And, somehow, it’s even more intense.
I’m sure that through its history Song of a Wayfarer has received many performances that convey this intensity, but I cannot imagine any being more intense than that by Hallberg and Gordon. It was one of Hallberg’s finest characterizations: commanding and authoritative, calm but feral, controlling but not coercing, it was breathtaking to watch. But Gordon’s portrayal was equally impressive, and more surprising. Promoted to Principal last year, Gordon has grown in stature to a remarkable extent since then. But nothing I’ve seen him do to date could have prepared me for his role here. On the surface, he was Hallberg’s opposite, youthful, impulsive, impatient, even revolutionary. But inside his and Hallberg’s characters were made of the same heroic stuff.
Words are totally insufficient to describe what Hallberg and Gordon accomplished, so I won’t waste any more time trying to describe their performance. I’ll note, however, that many times, if a performance or a situation is sufficiently moving, I have to fight back tears. Usually I’m moved to such an extent by performances by ballerinas whose plight I emotionally join, or whose performance is sufficiently luminous even absent an emotional component. I can’t remember ever being so moved by male dancers. Until now.
Lara Spencer and the wages of ignorance
Which brings me to my final point. Sometimes being unavoidably late writing a review brings side benefits. In this case, as I write, social media is buzzing with comments made by Lara Spencer on Good Morning, America this past Friday with respect to male dancers and the interest in ballet exhibited by a young member of the Royal family (not The Royal family, The Royal Family). Essentially, with one smug and thoughtless commentary made before a national, and as it turns out, international audience, she shamed boys who study ballet and enabled clueless bullies with incomprehensible presidential indifference.
I won’t repeat what’s already been said, but it’s apparent that Spencer either has no artistic appreciation, or has not attended a ballet performance. Clearly, she’s unaware of the athleticism and strength required. But too many comments have focused on this athleticism and strength: there’s that, but there’s far more to it than that. She, and others who have the same level of ignorance or who find her comments funny, need to be educated in artistry in general, and male artistry in particular. There are plenty of performance examples that would serve this purpose, but if there’s a recording of it, show her Hallberg and Gordon in Song of a Wayfarer.
Addendum: on August 26, on Good Morning, America, Spencer apologized, and appeared genuinely appalled at what she had so flippantly said three days earlier. I don’t know if this will have any impact on boy ballet bullies, but it’s a start.