Bourrée Girl

The “lab” in “collaborative”

Posted in Columbia Ballet Collaborative by bourreegirl on April 19, 2010

After the previous weekend’s feast of aimless jumping around (see post under Avi Scher & Dancers), Claudia Schreier’s Excursions, leading off the Columbia Ballet Collaborative’s spring program on April 9 and 10 at the Miller Theatre, was pure refreshment. Schreier isn’t a Columbia student, but as a young working artist with an honors degree in sociology from Harvard, she fits right in with the collaborative’s membership. The group began just two years ago with five professional dancers who refused to jettison all their hard-won expertise at the university gates. By forming a ballet collaborative, they created a venue where the school’s experienced dancers, even as they refocused their energies toward economics, biomechanics and environmental biology, could sustain their ballet technique, work with up-and-coming choreographers, and share their love of dance with the public at classes and low-cost performances.

The first piece of the spring season made a strong case for each of these projects (though it was probably neutral at best in terms of environmental biology). Beauty and clarity suffused Barber’s music for solo piano and Schreier’s movements for one man and three women in simple black leotards. Guest artist Don Friedewald attentively partnered Caitlin Dieck, Catherine Dillard and Chantelle Pianetta, who, when not swept into dynamic promenades or suspended in architectural poses, were handling things (say, rising onto full pointe from a grand plié in fourth position—in unison) beautifully on their own. This is the house—or the world—that Balanchine built, sometimes in doubtful repair since his death in 1983, but here shored up by a young woman born after he had already gone. In short, this was neoclassical ballet, happening right before our eyes, still possible and well worth the trouble.

In the next piece, choreographer Justin Peck, a part-time Columbia student perhaps better known as a full-time member of the New York City Ballet, partnered the gorgeous Teresa Reichlen, an NYCB principal studying at Barnard. The pair provided all the beauty of vision and execution required to make the squeaks and scratches of Osso and Sufjan Stevens’ “Enjoy Your Rabbit” (also the name of the ballet) go down with ease. (I don’t know why Reichlen, credited with costuming the pas de deux, asked her partner to wear a button-down shirt hanging out over his tights, but it didn’t significantly diminish the overall aesthetic experience.) The only disadvantage to unleashing fascinating partnered steps like a spin into a dramatic fall and slide, or a lift evoking a living clock, is that the audience can’t fail to recognize them when you repeat them and, having seen what you are capable of, is going to demand continued innovation rather than reiteration.

Who is Emery LeCrone? According to her bio, she is a choreographer of “prominent works,” even “at the young age of 23” (Emery, it’s suaver to let the journalists say it) and the object of immoderate praise from Times critic Claudia La Rocco, who incidentally disagreed with me about Avi Scher’s take on Rachmaninoff. Five Songs for Piano (the ones without words, by Mendelssohn), in soft slippers, not only, according to my notes, contained some lovely, contemplative solo moments and pretty canons for the corps of four, but also, unfortunately more memorably, incorporated yoga poses, a Fosse effect (automated-looking shuffles and pelvic thrusts, broken-doll slumps and glassy eyes in the corps, and, of course, floor-slapping), and what became one of the evening’s recurring themes: inexplicable middle-clutching. It concluded with a superfluous coda, in which the first soloist reiterated steps from the first movement, yoga and all, and the corps returned with their stomach cramps. Why not stop at four piano songs if you’ve said all you have to say?

The cramps made a third appearance after the intermission in another flat-shoe ballet with windmill arms, to more Osso and Sufjan Stevens: Lauren Birnbaum’s Navarasa. Guest artist Eric Conrad Holzworth, the lone man among eight women, danced with the precise authority of an Oberon, wearing a slightly defiant look and an L.L. Bean getup that evoked a relaxing car wash on a summer day (no costume credit). It’s possible the ballet might have seemed more interesting in another context; here it mainly suffered in comparison to those on the first half of the program.

Ah, Mio Cor, by John-Mark Owen, would have suffered in any case. Five women wearing high, black tulle collars over emerald leotards (credited to Jason Vincent) were tasked with dancing a long da capo aria from Handel’s Alcina almost entirely without reference to the vocal line. The first moments offered an enchanting clockwork impression that opened up the orchestral ostinato into, if not dancing about architecture, at least dancing about engineering. But the performers quickly lost even the independence of specialized cogs and were pressed into unison sequences that picked out the accompaniment for several long minutes in apparent ignorance of the luscious lament being poured over it by the soprano. Abdomens were clutched, bourrées were sluggish, and the opening choreography was reiterated at the end, as if nothing had happened. Of course, nothing much had. Perhaps the choreographer didn’t trust his dancers, or didn’t finish the piece. The most obvious explanation, that he didn’t understand the music, was blasted the very next day at Ballet Builders, as my next post will happily relate.

In the final piece, Solid Ground, Monique Meunier, formerly of the New York City Ballet, set elegant pirouettes and sauts de chat to antithetical cello rock by Break of Reality. Five women began in silhouette as one man, NYCB’s supple and powerful Craig Hall, posed in a pool of light and repeated what I’ll call the international sign for enslavement (wrists thrust forward and crossed as if shackled). Soloist Victoria North quoted the Black Swan and Diamonds pas de deux and slid through to pigeon pose starting from down dog. This happened amidst some corps de ballet mingling, so it was just noticeable enough to be strange but not strong enough to be dramatic; only in retrospect can I theorize that Meunier was setting North up on pointe as the reigning queen of East and West, only to depose her by sending in a soft-slippered upstart (Elysia Dawn) with beauty of soul. Though fully within the bounds of grace, Dawn showed us a feeling and very human being who held nothing back. Whatever the idea behind the ballet, it felt only right that she got the guy in the end.

Few colleges offer nonmajors the opportunity to participate in ballet on such a demanding level. Kudos to the founders of CBC, who recognized that New York universities are ideally situated to benefit from the nation’s largest pool of transitioning dancers and budding choreographers, composers, costumers and administrators—and that they could do something about it. One of the most significant elements of the collaborative is that the dancers themselves assumed artistic, executive and technical directorship: a situation very far from a traditional ballet company model. By providing work/play space to artists, high-quality and affordable dance experiences to the community, and a welcome measure of power and responsibility to the performers themselves, CBC could build a valuable venue for nurturing American dance and dancers. Roll on, Columbia.