“Why It Matters”
Produced and with Choreography by Lauren Lovette
New York, New York
July 16, 2021 (One Night Only Gala)
Diablo Rojo, Notes on a Canvas (world premiere), Start With the Bones, Win/win (world premiere), Manifest, Good Light, Dying Swan, “The Man I Love” (from Who Cares?), Not Our Fate (excerpt)
July 16th was one of the hottest days of the season this year in New York City – not only because of the outside temperature and humidity, but because of the quality of the program that Lauren Lovette presented that evening. Simply put, “Why It Matters” was without question the finest program of its kind that I’ve seen this year. That’s somewhat of a backhand compliment, considering the limited number of programs of this kind presented in 2021. So to put it in a better context, “Why It Matters” was one of the finest programs of its kind that I’ve seen … period.
Lovette never ceases to amaze, and to display her prodigious talent without the least bit of pretension. It’s that way with her dancing; and it’s also that way with her choreography. Just another successful day at her now moveable office (a New York City Ballet Principal Dancer, Lovette recently announced that she’ll be leaving NYCB after the Fall 2021 Season to focus on her choreography). That it also appeared to be fun (and exciting) for all the other dancers and the full-house audience of approximately 250 in the hastily assembled Spring Studios space (in Tribeca) was icing on the cake. All involved deserve to be congratulated.
Conceived as a combination gala, benefit, and clarion call heralding the return – and significance – of live ballet performances, produced by Festival Ballet Ensemble and reportedly organized, choreographed, and rehearsed all within three weeks of the performance date, “Why It Matters” featured choreography by Lovette (including two world premieres and at least two New York area premieres) and dancers from New York City Ballet, American Ballet Theatre, and one from San Francisco Ballet. Everything worked, and worked miraculously. And it proved to be important as well as fun not just because of her choreography, but because of the sense of inspiration and accomplishment that the evening presented.
After all that build-up, one might think that I’d now opine that Lovette here presented dance masterpieces or examples of cutting-edge choreographic technique. That isn’t an appropriate description of the pieces that Lovette presented here, although her dances are unusually (and extraordinarily) good and her choreographic ability is manifest. This was 21st Century ballet – contemporary ballet – that was a challenge to the dancers and that provided entertainment and visual stimulation for the audience without a pervasive agenda (beyond conveying the joy of ballet itself and Lovette’s choreographic accomplishments) or resorting to idiosyncratic movement quality for the sake of being different. It all made emotional and choreographic sense, and it was magnificent to watch.
Lovette deserves credit for putting her choreography up against that of George Balanchine, and congratulations, yet again, for demonstrating that hers could hold its own against that of a choreographic genius. The Balanchine piece, “The Man I Love” segment from Who Cares?, was impeccably executed by NYCB dancers Unity Phelan and Ask la Cour (who also will be retiring from NYCB after the upcoming Fall 2021 Season). Aided by the intimacy of the performance space, Phelan (currently a NYCB soloist, but that is likely to soon change) and la Cour made Balanchine’s flawless choreography real. By itself that’s nothing unusual – I can’t think of any of the many performances of Who Cares? I’ve seen where that sense was not adequately conveyed. But here this excerpt, with its unpretentious movement quality and endearing humanity, highlighted the exceedingly minor negative observation I can make of some of Lovette’s choreography here – that she should keep in mind that sometimes less is more.
That having been said, being slightly outclassed by one of (if not the) greatest choreographer of the 20th Century isn’t exactly a criticism. On the contrary, having Balanchine choreography on the program only made Lovette’s choreographic contributions to “Why It Matters” all the more impressive.
Lovette’s choreography comprised six of the nine pieces on the program. Two (Start with the Bones and Good Light) were first presented at the Vail Dance Festival (perhaps in slightly different form); two were identified as world premieres (Notes on a Canvas and Win/win), one was an excerpt from a piece Lovette premiered with NYCB in 2017 (Not Our Fate), and one’s performance pedigree was not indicated (Diablo Rojo).
Each of her dances was relatively brief, and either was abstract or conveyed more emotional gloss than specific plot (although I suppose that’s debatable). Consequently, giving detailed descriptions of each is as unnecessary as it is unwise. However, several factors evident in Lovette’s choreography here are particularly noteworthy: the sheer visual variety of the pieces she choreographed, their exceptional musicality (she not only enables a viewer to “see the music,” her choreography enhances it), and her accomplished facility with moving bodies in space regardless of the number of bodies involved. Perhaps none of these characteristics is unusual for experienced choreographers, but given Lovette’s level of choreographic experience, it’s shocking. She’s not an “emerging choreographer.” She’s already there.
Diablo Rojo opened the program with a bang. To the eponymously titled acoustic guitar piece by the Mexican duo Rodrigo y Gabriela, Lovette’s choreography for four dancers – Indiana Woodward (who anchors and illuminates whatever dance she’s in) and Laine Habony from NYCB, and Remy Young and Patrick Frenette from ABT – converted the dominant Spanish / somewhat flamenco-ish flair of the score into universal movement qualities that made optimal use of the devilishly wicked music without limiting the music’s value to its cultural component alone. The women’s costumes – all billowy and all red – accomplished the same thing. Lovette’s piece pulsed to the music to be sure, but it also flowed to the music’s interwoven melodies, maintaining the music’s excitement without making it hard-edged. It was an invigorating way to open the program. [It’s intellectually tempting to see the three women as temptresses to Frenette’s character (sort of a twist on Agnes de Mille’s Three Virgins and a Devil), but that’s not developed here – if it was on Lovette’s mind at all.]
After Diablo Rojo, the evening settled into a series of duets and solos before closing with another ensemble piece.
The first of the Lovette world premieres, Notes on a Canvas is a “traditional” romantic pas de deux performed by Lovette herself and SFB’s Julian MacKay to a specially-composed score by Mexican-born classical pianist Jorge Villadoms. Lovette here exposes emotional nerves that a romantic pas de deux is supposed to expose, but does so with a sense of excitement amplified by the complex partnering and the breathtaking but smooth-as-silk lifts (that MacKay made look effortless) that punctuate the dance at several appropriate points. There’s not much of a “story” beyond that – whatever the relationship is is evident from the beginning, and then it suddenly ends with Lovette leaving the stage and MacKay emotionally devastated within the emptiness that remains. Although Lovette comes perilously close here to overdoing the lifts, she never allows her choreography to go over the top.
The other world premiere, which closed the first half of the program, is similar – but only by the fact that the dancers are male and female (Lovette and her NYCB colleague Gilbert Bolden) and by the choreographic intricacies that Lovette creates. Win/win is no romantic pas de deux; indeed, the fact that the dancers are different genders is almost irrelevant. Rather, Lovette and Bolden here are two entities – animal, vegetable, mineral – or alien – that interact to an assortment of unspecified curated music by Benjamin Toth, Professor of Percussion at The University of Hartford’s Hartt School; Fernando Meza, a Costa Rican percussionist and Director of Percussion Studies at the University of Minnesota School of Music; and Serbian / German percussionist and composer Nebojsa Jovan Zivkovic. Not surprisingly, the music accompanying Win/win is overwhelmingly percussive (and I think to some extent electronic). The consistent pulse and its variable timbre give the sound a distinctively primal feel, and Lovette uses the music as a template for relentlessly “primal” choreography that radiates in intensity and complexity until it ends in an explosive flourish. Bolden deserves combat pay as well as recognition for the quality of his execution, and Lovette’s performance and choreography take risks that pay off. Win/win is ballet as Olympic contact sport, and it’s fabulous.
In between the two world premieres was Start With the Bones, a duet for Phelan and NYCB’s Preston Chamblee. Again, this was a completely different visual experience. The choreography, reflecting the original music by Kate Davis and Caroline Shaw (performed live, and impressively, by both these respected young musicians), is introspective rather than physically expressive, and highly emotional without being in the least melodramatic. It’s clearly “about” something, but what that is is elusive. Suffice it to say it visualizes a mutually supportive relationship that goes beyond “I’m ok; you’re ok” to acceptance without condition, and touches the right chords without overplaying its hand. As executed by Phelan and Chamblee, it was wonderfully understated.
Lovette’s other new (for the New York area) piece, Good Light, was presented in the program’s second half. This duet describes an “awakening” type of relationship between Habony, playing an emotional magnet or instigator (it’s not clear) and Young, the apparent “novice” dealing with unfamiliar and initially unsettling emotions. There’s an obvious sexual component between the two women here, but it’s not explicit, and it may exist only in Young’s character’s mind (Habony exits the stage at its conclusion, leaving Young alone but in a state of contemplation or acceptance rather than despair). The two (especially Young) delivered sensitive performances that complemented Lovette’s sensitive choreography.
These two pieces, at least as presented here (they may have had an expanded presence in Vail), emphasize one of the qualities that I appreciated about this program: although Lovette is making statements, she’s doing it in a way that is comfortable for an audience to watch rather than didactic. There’s a place for creating intellectual and emotional challenges for an audience, and dance can be at the forefront of such visual explorations, but here it was unnecessary – at least in theatrical terms, these battles have already been won.
In that respect, Lovette’s Not Our Fate, an excerpt from which concluded this program, was stronger in its emphasis when performed in its entirety. But the excerpt presented in this program, while maintaining “different” connections among its dancers (Woodward, Bolden, Habony, Young, Chamblee, Frenette, and NYCB’s Victor Abreu and ABT’s ever-radiant Zimmi Coker (few dancers can light up a stage just by being on it – she’s one of them) presented it so matter-of-factly that it was almost imperceptible. As I recall this is a rousing conclusion to the full piece; here it was a rousing conclusion to a rousing evening.
The remainder of the program featured solo performances by two ABT Principal Dancers: Herman Cornejo and Hee Seo. Cornejo opened the second half of the program with a piece he choreographed, titled Manifest (to music by the JP Jofre Hard Tango Chamber Band (the specific composition or one from which parts were excerpted was not indicated), and Seo danced Michel Fokine’s classic Dying Swan. To me, both pieces stuck out like sore thumbs in the overall program, but there’s no denying that they rounded out the program and that many in the audience appreciated the bravura display (by Cornejo) and the technical perfection (by Seo). I have additional observations about both these solo performances, but this isn’t the proper context for that.
Rather, the emphasis here should be on celebrating what Lovette and her colleagues (including Brandon Stirling Baker, who provided the lighting for all the pieces, and Morgane Le Fay, who designed the costumes) accomplished here. In every conceivable way this was a wonderful evening of ballet that served to highlight not only Lovette but also ballet and live performances of it – which is what “Why It Matters” was about. And as somewhat of an aside: it’s a good thing that Lovette intends to continue dancing. Her execution in the two pieces in which she danced was both galvanizing and sublime, and not being able to watch her physically perform in the future would be an incalculable loss.
In her welcoming remarks, Lovette stressed how important it was for the dancers to perform in front of a live audience; to dance for them; to create and display their energy for them. She stopped there (I suspect at that point that she had one or two other things on her mind). While what she said is undoubtedly true, it’s only part of the story. What’s also significant is the energy the audience creates for the dancers. Ideally these two components of live theater feed off each other, and create additional energy in the process. This was demonstrated here by the invisible but ever-present positive vibes that filled the air in the Spring Street studio, by the vocal recognition of the choreographic and performance quality at each dance’s conclusion, and in the extended standing ovations the dancers (and live musicians) received when the performance concluded.
I’ve grown accustomed to viewing performances virtually, which the pandemic compelled, and I’m grateful for the chance to get acquainted with companies, programs, choreography, and dancers I might not otherwise have been able to see. I hope these opportunities continue, and expand, in the future. But there is no substitute for the “give-and-give” of a live theater performance by live dancers in front of a live audience. “Why It Matters” proved that that is why it matters.