Tom Gold Dance
The Kaye Playhouse at Hunter College
New York, New York

April 12, 2022
XV, Significant Strangers, A Felicidade

Jerry Hochman

Many choreographers use their creations to make statements, whether political, sociological, environmental, anti-war, race-based, gender-based, rights-based, or other contemporary topics of interest. That’s fine, as is the work of choreographers who tell narrative stories. Many examples of each category are dance classics, and for good reason. Other choreographers, however, use their skills to visually capture what the music tells them, enabling audiences to see the music in an abstract way. There are, of course, masterpieces in this category as well. Based on what I’ve seen of his work, Tom Gold is in the latter category. His ballets are abstract (though some, inevitably, include emotional gloss), but they’re complex without being gratuitously complicated, they enhance the music to which they’re choreographed, and they’re entertaining in a necessarily small-scale but classy kind of way. You can’t ask for much more.

Tom Gold Dance celebrated its 15th Anniversary last week at the Kaye Playhouse at Hunter College with three dances, one of which was a world premiere and another a stage premiere, that fit neatly within that description.

Befitting a former soloist with New York City Ballet, Gold still has something of a congenital connection with that company and to dancers in it – and to dancers in other major companies as well. Consequently, those who appear with his company are usually impeccably credentialed, and more than capable of delivering whatever Gold’s choreography demands of them. That was the case in this program as well.

All three pieces on the program merit praise. I’ll consider the two dancers that were new to me first, and follow that with further comments on Significant Strangers, which I’ve seen and reviewed previously.

Claire Von Enck in Tom Gold’s “XV”
Photo by Steven Pisano

XV, obviously titled in recognition of this being Tom Gold Dance’s 15th Anniversary, was choreographed to Mendelssohn’s “Variations Concertantes, Op. 17.” Performed by Uma Deming and Claire Von Enck (Von Enck is a current member of NYCB’s corps; Deming was formerly with NYCB, but will join Cleveland Ballet this summer), and Brian Gephart, a member of the Metropolitan Opera Ballet, the piece is light and cheerful, well suited for an anniversary celebration. It looks simple – but as with Gold’s other dances, that’s deceptive.

The music, which Mendelssohn completed in 1829, is a concerto for piano and cello (here played live by, respectively, Joseph Liccardo and Clara Abel) consisting of a theme and eight variations. Reflecting the transitional time between Classical and Romantic music periods in which it was composed, the piece has a traditional Classical theme, which is first stated and then repeated in various forms, many of which augment the Classical with Romantic drama and flourish.

In its way, XV does the same, with an emphasis on the classical ballet style that reflects the music’s Classical core. To that, however, every so often Gold adds sufficient texture via a different movement quality (e.g., undulation) that reflects the composition’s shift in stylistic emphasis.

The piece begins with the three dancers sequentially unfolding from fixed sculptural positions, then moving as an ensemble as the music’s theme evolves – although within the thematic repetition one of the three, though executing the same combination, might be aligned differently from the others. As the seamless composition progresses, one dancer might appear solo, with the others watching, or as a duo into which from time to time one or another is added.

The point of all this is not to be exciting, but to allow the audience to see the music in a visually consistent, but clever, way. As the music sounds different from movement to movement, and is never boring, XV is never visually boring – on the contrary, it’s filled with variety within the limited visual palette: something always changes. It’s what Balanchine did many times, but here it’s on a much smaller, chamber-sized, scale.

My only minor negative observation is that at certain choreographed punctuation points the ladies’ timing appeared slightly “off,” and I couldn’t tell whether this was because a particular set of combinations was supposed to have been executed in tandem, sequentially, or reflecting seemingly off-timing between the cello and piano that’s built into the music (as in Balanchine’s Concerto Barocco). I suspect, however, that it was simply an example of dancers being human. And I don’t understand the reason, if there was any, for Gephart to be costumed the same as the ladies, in something that looked like a short skirt, except perhaps to emphasize that gender here is irrelevant. Regardless, it was a distraction (albeit momentary), and something that needed to be overlooked.

As the final movement concluded, sounding almost wistful and unpretentious is if looking into an uncertain future (Mendelssohn’s composition was dedicated to his younger brother, Paul, who reportedly played the cello at the time –  but from what I’ve read drifted aimlessly, eventually becoming a banker), the choreography does too, as if Gold’s choreography, and the dancers’ execution, was something of a dedication too – perhaps to the audience as a recognition of the company’s celebratory occasion.

The three dancers merit recognition as well. Von Enck (who I’ve seen many times with NYCB) and Deming (who I don’t recall previously seeing) did excellent work, including particularly crystalline execution of what at times was rapid-fire choreography, and Gephart (who I’ve seen previously with a different group, and who currently is a member of Metropolitan Opera Ballet), handled his assignment, which included the more dramatic, romantic moments, well.

Shifting gears, the program closed with Gold’s A Felicidade. The piece was completed in 2020, and first presented in Summer, 2002 performances at Untermyer Park and Gardens in Yonkers, NY and Little Island in Hudson River Park. This was its stage premiere.

Roughly translated, “a felicidade” means “to happiness” or “to bliss.” It’s a worthy title for Gold’s piece, here danced by American Ballet Theatre soloist Luciana Paris and Jonatan Lujan, who has danced with a number of different ballet companies worldwide (and who I saw at a gala only two nights earlier partnering NYCB’s Megan LeCrone in an excerpt from Balanchine’s Who Cares?), each of whom was born in Argentina.

Luciana Paris and Jonatan Lujan
in Tom Gold’s “A Felicidade”
Photo by Steven Pisano

The program indicates that A Felicidade was choreographed to music from “Brasileirinho,” which translates to “Little Brasilian,” the title of a piece composed in 1947 by Valdir (aka Waldir) Acevedo, who specialized in the Brazilian musical genre “choro.” One of the most famous choros ever written, “Brasileirinho”  reportedly (per Wikipedia) is considered one of the most successful and influential choros of all time, and was voted by the Brazilian edition of Rolling Stone as the 53rd greatest Brazilian song. It’s been covered by a variety of artists ranging from Carmen Miranda to cellist Yo-Yo-Ma. The music excerpted here by Gold brings to mind the Brazilian bossa nova and memories of “The Girl from Ipanema” – a song written by Antonio Carlos Jobim that achieved international popularity. Coincidentally (or not), Jobim also wrote a song titled “A Felicidade.” [A little research is a dangerous thing, producing unnecessarily lengthy reviews.]

Gold has taken all this, and, together with the costumes by Marlene Olson Hamm, has created a buoyant, frothy, and festive duet that might as well have taken place on a Brazilian (or Argentine) ocean beach, and Paris and Lujan (who also danced the piece at its 2021 premiere) make the most of it, delivering a dance that visualizes an extraordinarily blissful relationship (albeit one “limited” by an intentionally faux brief reluctance). Structured like a classical pas de deux, the piece begins with the pair dancing together, a solo by each, and then the couple reunited – even though they’ve never really been apart, and it includes a rapid-choreographed tempo coupled with soaring, ecstatic lifts and simmering but joyous passion – appropriate for an exceptionally hot early April day in New York. It was a wonderful way to conclude the evening.

In between the two pieces that were new to me was Significant Strangers, which I saw at its April, 2019 premiere and subsequently reviewed in depth. I won’t repeat all that again here: suffice it to say that it remains one of Gold’s most polished pieces.

As I explained previously, the piece is choreographed to brief musical vignettes composed by Leonard Bernstein in small groups and over a substantial period of time (1942-1988), collectively titled “Anniversaries,” each one of which was dedicated to and/or reflected Bernstein’s impression of the character of people significant to him. From these 29 “Anniversaries,” some of which last only a matter of seconds, Gold has cherry-picked 14 that best fit his concept of the flow of a dance. The result is a suite of diverse images that are choreographically interesting and as distinct from each other as are the characters Bernstein celebrates.

As Bernstein did with each of his “Anniversaries,” Gold here focuses on differing the differing musical character of those 14 Bernstein vignettes. Each of the 14 components, some lasting a minute or less, exhibit differing musical, and consequently choreographic, character. They fly by in the blink of an eye – which, unfortunately, might make it difficult for an audience-member to discern the invention that went into it.

(l-r) Jules Mabie, Lauren Collett, Meaghan Dutton O’Hara,
and David Gabriel in Tom Gold’s “Significant Strangers”
Photo by Steven Pisano

Performed by a cast of four, the piece carries the theme of “significant strangers” from brief movement to brief movement, using the music in each section (the program, mercifully, notes the specific “anniversaries” that comprise Gold’s dance) to power a stage landscape of miniatures that may be humorous one moment, sweet the next, and featuring characters that may be dominant or submissive, caring or uninterested, male or female. Although when I first saw it I had no “favorite” vignette, I think that this year, as fine as each of them were, it was the last, described by Bernstein’s title “For my daughter Nina,” which visualizes a sort of celebration (like a child’s birthday … or, in this context, a company’s anniversary) after which, it seemed, Bernstein concluded the segment with “now it’s time to go to bed.” Gold’s choreography captured it all.

The four dancers at this performance were different from those I saw four years ago (the live pianist, Liccardo, was the same), and, although perhaps a product of the “most recently viewed” standard, I enjoyed this group more. The ensemble consisted of Lauren Collett, Meaghan Dutton-O’Hara, David Gabriel, and Jules Mabie, all members of NYCB’s corps. I’ve seen each in a variety of NYCB dances, with Dutton O’Hara being the most familiar over time, and Collett, whom I first noticed as a member of Gold’s company a year ago, is a NYCB ballerina to watch, gaining increasing confidence with each outing. All four delivered superior performances.

My only regret about the program is that, at a running time of less than an hour, it didn’t last nearly long enough.