During the second week of the Joyce’s Ballet v6.0 festival, Whim W’Him, BalletCollective, and Jessica Lang Dance presented evenings of contemporary ballet that far surpassed those I attended in week one. More specifically, BalletCollective and Jessica Lang Dance helped me begin to formulate an answer to the existential question that the messy first week posed: What is contemporary ballet?
While there are a plethora of potential answers, I know one thing for sure: form and symmetry need to be part of the conversation.
Though there was still a bit of that throw-everything-at-the-wall-and-see-what-sticks mentality in the first and last works of Whim W’Him’s show—again the stray pointe shoe used for a melodramatic woman and a crowd-pleasing finale to Mozart featuring a couch that felt like the dance version of Friends—the evening was redeemed by Olivier Wevers’s clever reimagining of a classical pas de deux. In Flower Festival, Andrew Bartee and Lucien Postlewaite, bespoke in business suits, seated themselves across the stage from one another on a diagonal. In a marathon match of dance off-pants off, the two alternated solo variations directed towards the other, each successive solo stripping off one more piece of clothing. The demure yet cheeky unveiling of wild pink and turquoise socks in the first gave way to more risqué and comical escalations. At one point a jacket became a partnering tool to push the other guy around and in another dance theater moment, the pants around one man’s ankles became a leveraging tool to exert influence and power over the other. By the coda, only boxing shorts remained as the two battled each other and gravity with bravura. Though clearly an in-joke, the comic relief was most welcome.
Also welcome were the fresh faces, shiny pointe shoes, and overall carefree styling of BalletCollective, complemented by the live music of ACME. The company began with the world premiere of Troy Schumacher’s The Impulse Wants Company. This new work spared the audience the tortures of most collaboration. Though a poem by Cynthia Zarin was a common language for choreographer, composer, designers, and dancers, the dance was unencumbered by text. The result was a work of pure dance; moody and abstract vignettes that allowed the audience to fill in the narrative gaps. By the end of the second work, Epistasis, it was clear that Schumacher, like Jerome Robbins before him, has a handle on how to direct dancers to get the most out of them technically, without losing the subtleties of artistry.
Closing out the festival and the most polished of all the companies presented, Jessica Lang Dance was a true reflection of the reassuring effects of form and symmetry. Each work presented played generously with canon, mirroring, and shadow in addition to being musical right down to the sixteenth notes. A Solo in 9 Parts felt like one long sip of air, absorbed in quick huffs of group dancing–flocking the stage like migrating birds–only to end in a long satisfying note of exhalation. I.N.K. played with resonant form; pitting the body against, amidst, and in communion with morphing globs of liquid projected onto a backdrop. Though at times it verged on gimmick, seeming to be a perfect advertisement for some kind of effervescent refreshment, the sincere and spirited performances of the dancers revealed the deeper layers of inspiration.
Aria, a world premiere, was like watching a ball of fire burn down the stage, as three men worked hard to fan the flames of Laura Mead’s sharp and speedy pointe work. Lastly, From Foreign Lands and People, a New York premiere, brought the evening to a satisfying close as the consummation of concept and execution was gloriously achieved. The curtain lifted to reveal the silhouettes of upright dancers weaving in and out of vertical pillars and lowered to cover a pile of rubble, dancers strewn delicately across. In between, those set pieces were used additionally as props, partners, and instruments; the dancers adeptly maneuvered them through swift changes, using them as platforms for virtuosic feats and bits humorous improvising. There was so much going on, yet every thought read clear and each step of choreography was visible. Jessica Lang’s uncluttered vision was the highlight of Ballet v6.0.
Nobody goes to the ballet for chaos and obfuscation. As a traditional art form, ballet has long been a servant to notions of classical beauty, including form and symmetry, and fairytale endings. As a modern art form, contemporary ballet should be working to reorder notions of beauty and upend the nostalgic narrative of those fairytale endings to reflect present reality. But to branch off from and/or subvert successfully, as these three companies did in different ways, requires a clear starting point. Without such knowledge of aesthetics and convention, meaningless pyrotechnics and empty design will continue to overpower contemporary ballet festivals…an existential crisis.