Bourrée Girl

Friends in high places

Posted in Avi Scher & Dancers, Contemporary ballet by bourreegirl on April 16, 2010

When Avichai Scher, twenty-six, took the stage on April 4 to introduce the second performance of Avi Scher & Dancers in its debut season at the Ailey Citigroup Theater, he explained that this new company aspired to present top quality dancers at affordable ticket prices. Encouraged by names like Marcelo Gomes, Veronika Part and Abi Stafford, close to three hundred of us (a theaterful) had plunked down $20 and were about to be rewarded with an intimate view of these stars of American Ballet Theatre and the New York City Ballet. (We missed the advertised Sara Mearns, but Scher gave us four excellent NYCB dancers in addition to Stafford, and a total of four from ABT.) In that respect, at least, Scher accomplished what he’d set out to do. What I began to wonder as the performance went on was how on earth he had managed to do it.

Young companies don’t usually have the funding to employ top dancers. Being able to include famous names in your advertising material projects the beneficial implication these artists are lending you their talent and their glamour because they believe in your work and want to help bring in audiences to see it. If Scher, an alumnus of the School of American Ballet, the Joffrey Ballet, Washington Ballet, and others, instead engaged these dancers by actually paying them a fair rate, that’s hardly a crime. Surely we all support the idea of paying top dollar to top artists, almost as much as we support the idea of bearing as little as possible of that cost ourselves. Or it’s possible that Gomes & Co. made the time to work with Scher out of friendship, or that they possess that fabled, insatiable need to dance that is simply not satisfied by their busy schedules at America’s best companies. What I would have trouble believing for the most part is that they are also fans of Scher’s work.

Maybe they’d seen Touch, the most successful piece, at the Manhattan Movement and Arts Center last year (listed as the premiere on the company’s website). Arron Scott enacted the rapid pulse of the electronic music by “Alles Wie Gross and Alarm Will Sound after Aphex Twin,” if that means anything to you, circling Veronika Part, who unfolded herself languorously to slower-moving tones like a swan queen taking a bath. Eventually she joined Scott in his frenetic motion (and was forced to do some awkward bourrées in open positions). But in a trio for Ralph Ippolito, Eric Tamm, and Savannah Lowery, the expression of contrasting musical elements had more extended play. Lowery danced agitatedly during a slow pas de deux for the two men, then chose a partner, whereupon the remaining male took over the angsty movements. Then she switched partners, leaving the first one moving measuredly and beginning a sharper duet with the other.

It’s a simple concept, but good execution made it effective. The movements, reminiscent of the perpetual flutterings of Amelia, the dance film by Edward Lock and La La La Human Steps, were both beautiful and logical, a puzzle whose pieces locked together. The only other piece that offered this kind of consonance was “Feeling Lucky” (the first section of the three-part Little Stories), a bouncy duet for Jennifer Goodman and Robert Colby Damon to the music of singer-songwriter Jason Mraz. Scher realized this sunnier piece of music with joyful energy and a literal cuteness that tumbled over the line between dance and mime, but with a winning performance it was just adorable enough to be forgivable.

Since “Feeling Lucky” didn’t include much ballet, it can’t really (with the exception of Robert Colby Damon’s brisés volés) be used as evidence of Scher’s ability to convince audiences that his chosen music—usually electronica or pop—is ballet-appropriate. When not aping modern dance with ugly demi-pointe bourrées (or taking them up on pointe into awkward stalking steps), many ballets seemed to be built on the credo “when in doubt, do a circle of piqué turns.” Too often, Scher dressed classroom ballet in casual clothes and divorced it from its supportive structure (the architecture of classical music and harmonious staging) but failed to shape it into new expressions. If this music speaks to Scher as a choreographer, he needs to develop a language that allows him to share what it’s telling him. The pieces I’ve named seem to be creditable forays in this direction. Unfortunately, they constituted less than a third of what was on the program.

In contrast, dances such as No Matter What (music by Aphex Twin and Adam Lewis) and Mystery in the Wind (music by Rachel Portman), and the rest of Little Stories, represent Scher’s musical sense as chiefly a rhythmic sense, so that he keeps pace with the music but neglects its structure (and, when available, its lyrics). The few interesting moments in these ballets were the momentary pauses that pointed up the power in a dancer’s decision to join or resist this rhythmic stream. Even the Rachmaninoff ballet Utopia, danced with great verve by Ashley Bouder and Marcelo Gomes, came off as independent of the music, failing to illuminate it or to bring anything original to a familiar scenario. Solo piano and flowing purple costumes alone cannot be relied upon to create a meaningful experience (especially if the piano prompts comments like the one I overheard, “They should take up a collection to get a better piano—that one’s from Grandma’s basement”). In fact, you’d better be doing something innovative if you’re going to use those things, because they’ve been used quite a bit already, by other people.

One element of the program that you probably haven’t seen anywhere else, and if you have I sympathize, is a stringy, bright-eyed young girl standing on stage in pointe shoes, singing into a microphone. The final ballet, Inner Voice, began with a solo danced by the painfully trusting- and hopeful-looking Genevieve Labean to the accompaniment of equally earnest and vulnerable vocals. Perhaps this was a coltish teenage student Scher had recruited to match the youthful and innocent sound of the singer? As it turned out, the singer was Labean herself, a former NYCB dancer in her late twenties. After dancing to her own recorded voice, Labean left the stage and took the microphone, returning to sing live with her pianist, guitarist, and percussionist while the other dancers engaged in a lengthy waste of talent that had nothing to do with Labean’s lyrics. “I want to live my whole life unscripted,” she sang as everyone onstage paused (not so interestingly this time) in the same pose. (When she returned to this line later on, the dancers obligingly reprised their positions.) The lament “Alone again, why am I alone again” introduced not a solo but a tender pas de deux. “Emptiness, nothing but emptiness,” Labean crooned as the couple embraced sweetly. Not that I don’t appreciate an embrace when I’m staring into the abyss, but neither the valiant Abi Stafford nor her partner looked even the slightest bit worried by Labean’s scenario. If Stafford, Lowery and friends can’t make these dances work, I doubt anyone can.

That being the case, Scher could have hired less expensive performers and spent a little more for a good costume designer. The dancers in the first ballet, No Matter What, wore cutoff unitards that created the effect of long torsos, plush hips and short legs. The “undershirt theme” of Little Stories worked well enough with the first duo’s red shorts, soft slippers, and, for Goodman, pigtails, but when Kelsey Coventry entered for the next pop-music pas de deux with her hair slicked into a French twist, a chiffon skirt floating around her hips, and … a white ribbed undershirt, one felt there had been a mistake, or several. In the third section, Savannah Lowery and Christian Tworzyanski flung themselves and each other passionately about for several minutes, until finally Tworzyanski stripped off his white undershirt and handed it to Lowery, who, understandably but not very politely, grimaced. Inner Voice used clothing from American Apparel: sundresses for the women and polo shirts and jeans for the men. Fresh-faced American teens in dappled light: one last hopeful cliché.

Of course, to have presented these ballets without any of the big names in American dance might seem a failure of the company’s mission. But if this three-day debut season taught the audience anything, it must be that it matters very much what is being danced. I love to watch Sara Mearns, but I wouldn’t have wanted to watch her suffer through Utopia. How wonderful to see Savannah Lowery devouring the stage, eating men like air—but how disappointing to observe that it wasn’t going to mean anything. It’s no joy after all to see fine artists prostitute themselves.

Scher is a developing choreographer and has obviously managed to attract some support; he just needs to do some more developing before it will be time to dedicate an entire program to his work. (The company’s website lists two other choreographers, which indicates an intention to vary things somewhat for the audience, and there may be any number of reasons that didn’t happen for this debut season. Or perhaps it did, and the program accidentally omitted the choreography credits, and no corrective announcement was made. Though that would be strange.) In any event, Scher promised us only stars for low prices. Good choreography, we might be justified in thinking, costs extra.