When asking the big questions like “Is there a God?” and… “What is contemporary ballet in 2013?” artists (and believers) are searching for a raison d’etre. The curators of Ballet v6.0—a contemporary ballet festival hosted by the Joyce Theater and featuring six emerging dance companies “creating work outside the traditional large company setting”—appear to be asking and hoping to answer that question. But during the opening week, featuring Ballet X of Philadelphia, Dominic Walsh Dance Theater of Houston, and Company C contemporary Ballet of San Francisco, old trends and new fads cluttered any hope for definition.
At its worst, simply adding gestures on top of classical ballet footwork is the easiest way to shaking things up on the surface of the form; creating a kind of reverse ballet mullet where business remains on the bottom and the party is on top. Though there were moments that went in this clichéd direction, like in Alex Ketley’s Silt (made for Ballet X in 2009)–many of the dances were more successful in mixing traditional port de bras with pedestrian head and arm movements.
At its best, these hybrid gestural inflections become modern pantomime, moving the plot forward and/or adding multiple layers of meaning. In Still@Life by Annabelle Lopez Ochoa, the first work on the bill for Ballet X, apples were used as props, inventively combining everyday actions with ballet technique. The pieces of fruit were bitten into, tossed, and integrated into classical positions as the dancers moved from inspiration to exasperation to exultation. In Camille Claudel, Dominic Walsh used a frantic phrase of sharply angled arms to convey pathos for his tortured protagonist. In Polyglot, Charles Anderson’s frenetic mix of characters and their physical ticks, including a boxing ballerina, created a buzzing accompaniment in place of music.
Pointe Shoe as Prop
Though all of the dancers were ballet bred and appeared technically capable of pristine pointe work, there was little interest on the part of the choreographers for the ballerina’s trademark. When stray pointe shoes did emerge from the wings, they seemed to be used superficially as costume or prop choices. In Matthew Neenan’s The Last Glass two dancers appeared en pointe for little more than a section to define a certain kind of uppity girly girl, juxtaposing the tougher, more interesting ladies in soft slippers. Used solely to skulk around in Walsh’s Afternoon of a Faun, pointe shoes might as well have been stiletto heels on three tempting nymphs. And in Patrick Corbin’s For Use In Subhuman Primates Only for Company C, they were just a version of stilts for the slinking and swaying of two glam rock girls in silver. Save such few moments, all three programs were performed completely in socks or slippers, lending the impression that using pointe shoes might just be an obligation, or even worse, an afterthought, in the eyes of these three companies.
Portraits of the Artist
Three works used a famous visual artist as a point of departure. Ochoa’s Still@Life for Ballet X followed the development of Michelangelo and provided a lively look into his paintings and sculptures. The dancers began dressed all in black, gradually adding garments of color as they built towards a vivid coda, the frescoed ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Moments of inspiration were bookended with laborious work; frenzied petit allegro and the aforementioned apple play balanced a heavy motif of one dancer dragging another across the floor by one arm. Conceptually and physically, Ochoa hit the mark and provided an insightful portrait of the artist and the artistic process.
Dominic Walsh was also inspired by sculptors; basing his faun in Afternoon of a Faun on Rodin’s sculpture of Nijinsky. The chiseled Juan Gil balanced on one leg as he struggled and wrestled with the other leg in the air, in an ode to that famous image. The layering of this bit of art history inside a new rendition of Nijinsky’s famous work was clever and allowed Gil to explore another layer of the mercurial character, as seen through the eyes of Rodin.
Following Faun and an intermission, Walsh presented Camille Claudel, a dance biopic about one of Rodin’s contemporaries. Though the dance suffered from a fussy approach to historical background as a lengthy introduction to the dancing—zooming slides of sculptures, unreadable text, and story narration!—it later excelled in exploring the stormy relationship of Claudel and Rodin through movement. In the most poignant pas de deux of the entire week, Danielle Brown and Domenico Luciano donned trench coats and transported the audience into the midst of a love affair and artistic relationship worthy of insanity and Claudel’s later institutionalization.
Both Ballet X and Company C closed their evenings with short ballets created to a suite of pop songs. While this is by no means a new trend for contemporary dance, doing it well remains as elusive as ever. Neenan’s The Last Glass, set to a medley of the indie rock group Beirut, felt like watching a series of So You Think You Can Dance numbers. Angst-y and emotive with just the right mix of sex and melancholy, it was clearly a crowd pleaser; but then again audiences continue to love the cheesy entertainment of SYTYCD too. On the other hand, Corbin’s For Use In Subhuman Primates was a strange trip set to Massive Attack. Whereas The Last Glass came off as a music video, Subhuman Primates was more of a psychedelic live show. I preferred the odd surprises of the latter, as when a silver clad Gaga-esque character emerged from a clump of dancers and appeared to float above their reaching hands. However, both The Last Glass and Subhuman Primates undermined the physical clarity and conceptual wit of Still@Life and Railroad Joint, with which their respective programs opened.
Words were used in all programs as music and momentum. In Camille Claudel, much of the artist’s background was heard in a taped narration before the dancing sought to tell the same story with bodies in space. The lack of integration between the narration and movement made it seem unnecessary. But in Polyglot the dancers shared the stage with actress Amy Walker. Her monologue on American individuality and regional accents added to the general pandemonium and campy but sincere message. Sound effects were also in use, as oohs and aahs came straight from the dancer’s mouths. Earlier in the week, hmms, huhs, and hissing filled the air in the first part of Still@Life.
The men, in particular, excelled, and were more than the mere competent partners often found in regional companies and all seemed to be of soloist and principal caliber. The women were grounded in their ballet technique and their use of plie was especially supple and strong. It is understandable then that these directors sought to show off such talent by utilizing them in every way imaginable and unimaginable.
Yet, two dances stood out for resisting such schizophrenia. Anderson’s silent duet, For Your Eyes Only, was a sensual mix of martial arts and steamy partnering. Each slow, deliberate movement of Chantelle Pianetta and Bobby Briscoe crossing the stage brought me closer to the edge of my seat. Yuri Zhukov’s Railroad Joint was a beguiling collage of ambient music, literal sounds of trains, and geometric patterns. Arms diced and chugged through the air and dancers migrated around the stage, running in and out of lights. During a moody duet to the sounds of an unwieldy pile of junk on the brink of collapse, the couple brought to mind the crushed car sculptures of John Chamberlain, full of daring resonance both recognizable and startlingly unknown.
Though a diverse range of styles was seen on the stage, the similarities were the most striking. This is more than just pure contemporary ballet zeitgeist. Talent and versatility has made these small companies successful in their respective regional markets, but what separates them in a larger sea? Of the many trends I have observed, work made in 2013 was not one of them. Only Company C Contemporary Ballet showcased work made in this year. New work is expensive to commission and produce and it is possible the festival was seeking proven dances. However, bigger dance companies already serve as receptacles for endless repertory and safe revivals. As these small companies continue to tread the thorny path of defining what is contemporary ballet and American art making in the 21st century, they will only answer the big question through innovation: presenting new works that speak to an edited vision and avoiding the pitfalls of rambling and homogenizing trends.
Ballet v6.0 continues through Saturday with Ballet Collective and Jessica Lang Dance. Click Here for tickets.