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.

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.

What’s a bourrée girl?

Posted in About by bourreegirl on April 13, 2010

“Bourrées,” explains Suzanne Farrell in her memoir, Holding On to the Air, “the small, light, fast, traveling movements of the toes on pointe with straight legs, are one of ballet’s most basic, most beautiful, and most difficult steps to master.” (Yes, they came from a folk dance step meant to suggest a drunken stagger, but they’re not supposed to look like that anymore.) They lent mystery and ethereality to the sylphs of the Romantic ballet, delicacy and precision to the classical Sugarplum Fairy. When Kenneth Macmillan’s Juliet was transported by love, she was transported by bourrées. And Farrell says, “Bourrées were of extreme importance to Balanchine” and “appear in virtually all his ballets.” In other words, through a series of technical and expressive revolutions in ballet, this step has remained “relevant” for dancers, as many of us feel ballet remains relevant for humans.

And when I started going to dance performances with the explicit intent of reviewing them, I noticed a lot of bad ones. Almost no bad dancing, really, but almost no good bourrées. I wasn’t homing in on them on purpose, but I noticed that I was starting to despair of seeing any good ones. When I finally did, I thought they said something about the dancers who performed them, or the choreographers who’d set them. The quality of the bourrées in a ballet could, I thought, be a sign for the qualities ballet lovers look for in both old and new works: attention to detail. Dedicating time and respect to perfecting something small. Artistry in service to illusion, expressivity and mood. A moment of suspension, the hum of a tiny bird whose wings and heart beat faster than anything.

With all that in mind, you’re totally justified in asking, is Bourrée Girl the best you could come up with? Clumsy, isn’t it—I mean, you just added “Girl” on to the word and called it a blog? Are you wrapping yourself in a bourrée flag, are you sitting in the catbird seat, are you claiming some kind of finicking superiority beyond the normal critical realm or perhaps suggesting that your own personal bourrées are something to see?

No. I don’t do pointe anymore, and when I did I didn’t have any particular sense that I was one of the world’s bourrée greats. (Not that I don’t remember with great fondness the bourrées Ann Smolen generously assigned me for my first solo, but I was twelve and most of you weren’t there.) And I’m not claiming to have a higher standard than ballet critics generally; we’re all allowed our preoccupations, but I think we all want pretty much the same thing from a performance. The other question, of course, is Thurber’s.

Am I then setting myself up as a Bourrée Defender, swooping in wherever bourrées are threatened or suffering? Mmmmaybe. But honestly, this is the most space I’m going to give to the bourrée in any entry, ever. It’ll come up, but mainly, I’m going to talk about the ballets I see, praising the partnering and the lighting, complaining about the costumes and the music, speculating on the artists’ sources of inspiration and funding, and passing along amusing remarks overheard in the ladies’ room line.

I named this blog after a line in a book. When Balanchine was creating the role of Dulcinea in Don Quixote, Farrell wrote in her memoir, he  “knew that the only way to make his dancers practice a certain movement enough was to put it in a ballet where the public would be watching, so Dulcinea became a ‘bourrée’ girl . . .” The phrase isn’t mine, but it suits my purpose. Dulcinea, an idealist’s ideal, is a bourrée girl. “Bourrée Girl” is going to be a home for an idealist’s ideals. And it’s possible that the only way I’m going to practice dance writing enough is to put it in a place where someone can see it.

What about the baroque dance form called the bourrée? It’s really a different thing, and someone else can do a blog about that one. What about the Flemish folk-rock band Kadril’s “Bourrée de la belle inconnue”? I like it. I like the hurdy-gurdy, and I like the poster’s comment that the French folk dance “is sometimes described as the seduction dance, where one only uses the eyes to seduce.” But that could be made up. Anyone can write anything online.