Bourrée Girl

Best bourrées? Ballet Builders

Posted in Ballet Builders, Contemporary ballet by bourreegirl on May 3, 2010

This April 9–11, New Choreographers On Point presented the annual Ballet Builders showcase at the Ailey Citigroup Theater. Since the program’s inception in 1990, choreographers have auditioned before a panel of judges to have their works presented to a wider audience, including potential funders, colleagues and supporters. But the prize may be more of an acknowledgment than a launching pad: all of this year’s five winners have built substantial résumés in North America and Europe, and some of the featured works (which could be up to three years old) had already had their New York premieres. Since I had missed Harlem E-Stage Moves 2008, Dance on Camera 2009, and a lot of other things for reasons I’ll go into another day, this was my first look at all of them.

Most of the ballets were set on New York dancers, but one choreographer, Deanna Carter of the University of Iowa, arrived with eight of her own dancers from Ballet Quad Cities. (Can you name the Quad Cities? It might be worth your while.) In Ash to Glass, to music from Garry Eister’s Quintet for Glass and Strings and Ezio Bosso’s Io Non Pura, Carter’s Midwesterners took on the air of magical beings. Costumed in pale blue-green and lit by underwater shimmers, they seemed at first to be merpeople guided by the flow of the tides. Later they manifested the effortless beauty of a sculpture park come to life: embodied spirits of classicism, pure but never cold.

Carter showed full mastery of space and numbers, always giving us more dimensions to look at, more dancers bubbling up out of nowhere or somehow melting away as our eyes were diverted to the next entrancing moment. Most admirably, without conscious virtuosity or intrusion of personality, the cast achieved the spellbinding effect of service to a single ideal. They danced from necessity, as if being breathed by one spirit, serenely independent of any observers’ gaze. It’s not the kind of effect that draws violent applause (I was sorry to observe); it just created a world, a time, and a Way.

For his Triptych, John-Mark Owen set Bouzignac’s Salve, Jesu Piissime, a section of Biber’s Violin Sonata in F, and “Blazhen Muzh” from Rachmaninoff’s Vespers on a single pair of dancers, Ramona Kelley and Adrian Silver. After an awkward start (introversion is hard to choreograph attractively, or so I gathered from Kelley’s hunched shoulders), the couple, dressed in simple practice clothes, performed a short evocation of a baroque dance, walking forward, hand in hand, then drawing complementary shapes by dancing the same steps in different directions. From there, they moved into the tender, more intimate partnering of twentieth-century ballet—soft turns and falls, leans and carries. As the choir came in behind the boy soprano, Silver carried Kelley posed over his head like an angel, and they seemed to dance in mourning for the fall of man.

As Bouzignac gave way to Biber, the dancers continued their interplay between the human and the divine. I’d just complained that another baroque ballet by Owen hadn’t done justice to the music; this piece, though, suggested that Owen has as much beauty in his arsenal as the virtuoso Biber. The music escalated and finally erupted in a frenzy as Kelley slowly brought her partner’s hand to her heart, creating an enchanted stillness. As the Rachmaninoff began, she leaned trustingly into his hands, then tipped onto his back. Feet parallel, she bourréed softly backwards—the best I’d seen all month in any direction.

In the final moments, after the vespers choir had tuned our collective pulse to a low, serene vibration, a shock: Silver left the angel and the stage. Why? They’d seemed so close. Had he exhausted her reserves of compassionate sorrow? Was she going to lie there on the floor, recharging her angelic batteries, until someone else came along to ask for guidance? Was he just going on a break from lifting people? There must be more to this story—and if Owen saw fit to put it in another ballet, I’d buy a ticket.

In the dimness, a string quartet set up chairs and stands in the back stage-left corner. (“Are those musicians?” I heard on my left, then “Yeah, what’s the matter, you have a cataract?”) And so began the only live-music ballet on the program, The Hour Before . . ., by Ja’ Malik, to Joby Talbot’s String Quartet No. 1 and No. 2. It was also the only piece not presented in its entirety, and no doubt we lost some context this way. One extravagantly gifted couple, NaTalia Johnson and Leyland Simmons of Ballet Noir (“Sunset”), was followed by another, Devon Teuscher and Jose Sebastian of American Ballet Theatre (“Sunrise”), in a very busy pair of pas de deux. The result was a fine showcase for the dancers’ brilliance—and delivered no message or meaning that I could discern. Perhaps the ballet in its entirety (apparently premiered two years ago at Harlem Stage E-Moves and titled The Hour Before I Loved You) offers something more.

After the intermission, lighting designer Ted Sullivan gave us night lights on a rain-washed street for Objects in Mirror Are Closer Than They Appear, by David Fernández, to Terry Riley’s Requiem for Adam. It began with a solo for the powerful Ask la Cour, then introduced Georgia St. Onge Lathrop, Katie Moorhead, Carolyn Taconi, and la Cour’s NYCB colleague Savannah Lowery, all in turquoise tops and black shorts.

There was no need to ask (as I sometimes do) why such accomplished dancers had accepted this gig. The ballet created a wonderful tension, a palpable pull the dancers exerted on each other across the space. Fernández used the small corps de ballet expertly to enact the fretful music and frame the soloist; and each woman’s solo choreography seemed distinctly matched to her personal style—graceful, brittle, joyful or elegant. (Even in this constantly shifting vision of unease, everyone’s bourrées were exemplary.)

The ballet might have been more brilliant still without the reprise of la Cour’s opening gestures toward the end; yes, the music repeated, but surely the several minutes of urgent dancing we’d just seen had changed something about the world, calling for new speech? When the dancers fell to the floor, then rose in unison to look at us, we were pinned to our seats by their intensity. As a final gesture, the back wall got the same treatment, which may have been only fair, but I did wonder what they were looking at.

After this dazzling display, Tempo Rosso, a workshop ballet for the Ailey School by Pedro Ruiz, was an attractively packaged letdown. Ruiz may have won (or at least mentioned) the most awards of all the choreographers on the program, but this romp for fourteen energetic but unformed young dancers was basically inexpressive, relying on the warm, woody sound of various sonatas and concertos; velvety, autumn-toned costumes with gathered chiffon skirts; and even tiny candles to create a pleasing effect. Ruiz deserves commendation for keeping the corps busy and happy, and for featuring Jake Warren, who stood out in the third section as one to watch. But mostly the ballet was a blank. Its being such a populous blank, I suppose, made it the inevitable closer.

Touchingly, the program listed all the dancers who have participated in Ballet Builders since it began twenty years ago, and all the choreographers who have been presented. (I’m sure I wasn’t the only one pleased to spot old friends on that list, such as repeat offenders Rick McCullough and Lonné Moretton, and the great Mark Diamond.) It also included bios for every dancer, musician, choreographer and lighting designer who had contributed to the performance—and, unlike the other concerts I’ve reviewed here so far, gave titles, and even the occasional movement or opus number, for musical works. Choreographers, new and old, take note; we can almost always use more here (Biber wrote a lot of violin sonatas. Was it the “Scourging of Jesus,” which might have been significant, or the other one in F?). “Details, details,” Mr. White used to remind us at the Pennsylvania Academy of Ballet. They’re where professionalism shows.