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New York Theater Ballet

Legends & Visionaries, Program B
Silent Titles, Feathers, An Eccentric Beauty Revisited, Dark Elegies, A Rugged Flourish

by Jerry Hochman

March 22, 2013 -- Florence Gould Hall, New York, NY

New York Theater Ballet is one of those companies that, if it didn’t exist, would have to be invented. A small company (thirteen dancers), NYTB’s ‘mission’ is to provide a showcase for infrequently performed ‘chamber’ ballet masterpieces and for works by choreographers who have fallen from prominence, as well as an encouraging pathway for new, and relatively new, choreographers: that is, to combine the legendary (but under-performed or overlooked) with the emerging. Friday’s program, one of two collectively titled “Legends & Visionaries,” fulfilled this mission admirably in all respects.

The company’s performance of Antony Tudor’s Dark Elegies, simply put, ranks with the finest this viewer has seen; and its presentations of two solo pieces by James Waring were painstakingly resurrected and outstandingly executed. But the world premiere of Gemma Bond’s Silent Titles, which opened the evening’s program, was equally noteworthy.

Ms. Bond is one of many of American Ballet Theatre’s corps dancers who deserve to do more than they are permitted to do – at least in ABT’s performances in New York. But NYTB has provided a nurturing environment for her choreography. A year ago, NYTB included in its program what may have been Ms. Bond’s initial publicly performed choreographic work. Called Run Loose, I described it in my review last year as a light, playful, effervescent little piece that said what Ms. Bond wanted to say quickly and efficiently. Run Loose ran only three minutes; Ms. Bond’s new work is longer and more substantial, but equally engaging.

As its title implies, Silent Titles has a silent movie ambiance, from the titles of each section that are ingeniously written on a movable board that doubles as a changing room clothes rack and male/female dressing room divider, to the sense of humor imbedded (whether intentionally or not) into silent movie movement. Choreographed to pieces by Louis Moreau Gottschalk (whose work also inspired Great Galloping Gottschalk, by Lynne Taylor Corbett for American Ballet Theatre, and Ruthanna Boris’s Cakewalk, which I saw revived by The Joffrey Ballet), the piece also is a trip to a less complicated time where going to the movies was fun and where no one took themselves too seriously. The early 1920s atmosphere is enhanced by the costumes (designed by Sylvia Taalsohn Nolan) that invoke images of Clara Bow, Pola Negri, or Louise Brooks, and the lighting (designed by Victoria Miller) that replicates the sense of looking at a silent movie screening, as well as by Gottschalk’s music. [Although his music was composed in the mid-1800s, Gottschalk was born in New Orleans, and his compositions reflect his Creole roots, in many respects anticipating ragtime and Scott Joplin).] It’s also more sensuous looking than the description ‘silent movie’ would conjure – at times I felt like I was watching moving images of Louis Icart. Michael Scales provided the live piano accompaniment

But Ms. Bond’s choreography makes the piece more than just a take on silent movies. She experiments, combining ballet steps with ‘ordinary’ movement, and adding lifts that could have been hijacked from a circus act. Nevertheless, all the disparate movement qualities meshed – partly because of its comic touch (which also camouflages awkward transitions), but also because of its ingenuity: it’s more complex than it looks. Ms. Bond took chances, and they worked. She also showed that she has not succumbed to the temptation to throw everything but the kitchen sink into her choreography to match the music beat for beat. The result was a piece that was not only enjoyable, but visually interesting.

Silent Titles isn’t the greatest ballet created, but it isn’t supposed to be. It’s ‘just’ highly skillful fun, well-executed by NYTB dancers Carmella Lauer, Rie Ogura, Amanda Trieber, Marius Arhire, Mitchell Kilby, and Philip King. More importantly, it marks a milestone in Ms. Bond’s choreographic career, and presages dances of greater depth to come.

Dark Elegies is Antony Tudor’s stirring emotional study of parents’ individual, and collective, reaction to the death of children. Frequently described as a creator of ‘psycho-ballets’ (he is perhaps best known for Jardin Aux Lilas), Tudor has here choreographed not just sorrow over some heartbreaking turn of events, but the essence of grief at its most unbearable – the death of children. [The piece is choreographed to Gustav Mahler’s “Kindertotenlieder” (Songs on the Death of Children).] Represented by a ‘chorus’ of mourning townspeople that encircles, reflects, joins, and comforts the individual mourning parents, Tudor shows, without superfluous melodrama and on an individual and communal level, the agony of inexplicable loss, and resignation as a form of moving on, nothing more and nothing less.

I’ve seen Dark Elegies many times performed by ABT (and, like other Tudor ballets, its return to the ABT repertoire is long overdue). But as finely crafted as it is, I never got emotionally involved – I just appreciated what Tudor was doing and the quality of ABT’s dancers. But this NYTB performance was different. The dancers were superb, but I recall ABT’s dancers (I saw many different casts over the years) being superb as well. Perhaps it was the recent memory of Newtown that provoked a more emotional response, or perhaps it was the intimacy that the small performance space encouraged, but seeing Dark Elegies danced by NYTB was like seeing it anew. It was more wrenching, more sorrowful, and more personal, featuring across-the-board gripping performance by Ms. Ogura (First Song), Amanda Lynch and Steven Melendez (Second Song), Mr. Arhire (Third Song), Elena Zahlmann (Fourth Song), Philip King (Fifth Song), and accompanying members of the Chorus (Alexis Branagan, Mr. Kilby, Mayu Oguri, Melissa Sadler, and Ms. Treiber).

Last year, NYTB introduced a piece by James Waring, a New York-based choreographer from the late 1950s through the early 1970s, whose work has all but disappeared from view. NYTB deserves credit for resurrecting Mr. Waring’s very unusual and interesting dances, which were accurately described at last year's performance by guest speaker Valda Setterfield as being choreographic collages. [At this performance, Ms. Setterfield, who worked with Waring, was joined as guest speaker by David Vaughan. Their program biographies read like a history of modern dance, and each provided interesting and invaluable personal insights.]

The Waring dance at last year’s performance was An Eccentric Beauty Revisited, which I described as being a witty solo for a female dancer (Ms. Zahlmann), in which she attempts to entertain an audience, but doesn’t quite know what to do. In the process, she tries a multitude of styles that, essentially amount to a collage of everything that went before – from Nijinsky and Ballets Russes to vaudeville and dance halls, including art deco, orientalism, and ballet. As good as Ms. Zahlmann was a year ago, this time she outdid herself. Accompanied again by Mr. Scales, who this time was joined by Geert Ruelens, Ms. Zahlmann seemed more confident, more deadpan funny, and more exuberantly accomplished than she did last year. Her performance was a highlight of an evening filled with highlights.

New this year was a revival of Mr. Waring’s Feathers, danced by Mr. Melendez to excerpts from a variety of Mozart pieces arranged by Jeff Borowiec, and performed live by Mr. Scales (piano) and Robin Scales (flute). It’s a serious hoot. According to the program notes, Waring choreographed it in 1973 for Raymond Johnson, but the dance was dedicated to, and inspired by Barbette (real name: Vender Clyde Broadway, 1899-1973), who was a transvestite acrobat and trapeze artist and one of the greatest stars of the French music hall in the 1920s. Barbette also was reportedly an inspiration to, or had connections with, Jean Cocteau, Man Ray, Josephine Baker, Anton Dolin, and Serge Diaghilev, performed for the Follies Bergere and Ringling Brothers Barnum & Bailey, coached Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis in “Some Like it Hot,” created an aerial ballet for “Disney On Parade,” and, according to a Wikipedia article, may have been the inspiration for the German play that later became the film and Broadway musical, “Victor Victoria.”

In 1969, Francis Steegmuller, who wrote a column for the New Yorker magazine called ‘Onward and Upward with the Arts,’ devoted one of his essays to Barbette. In the column, Steegmuller quoted Cocteau as saying that Barbette “is liked by those who see him as a woman and by those who sense the man in him - not to mention those stirred by the supernatural sex of beauty." Steegmuller titled the article: ‘An Angel, A Flower, A Bird.’ The performer in Waring’s piece is all of these. [Cocteau also wrote that “Stravinsky, Auric (composer Georges Auric), poets, painters, and I myself have seen no comparable display of artistry on the stage since Nijinsky.”]

Like ‘Eccentric Beauty’, Feathers also is a choreographic collage, but in this case a collage of everything Barbette was supposed to have been, rolled into one very eccentric, very gender-bending bird-looking performer. Costumed in a ‘collage’ of basic blue feathers that both conceal and enhance the bird’s indeterminate sexuality, the piece essentially is an assemblage of choreographically connected poses that at one point accents Barbette’s female mannerisms, at another point his male character, but that somehow create a seamless portrait.

I saw Mr. Melendez with NYTB last year. I thought he was good then; he’s better now. And he was particularly good in Feathers, managing to execute the difficult poses and transmit the sexual ambiguity without sacrificing any of his character’s dignity. It’s a difficult role to portray without caricature or undue reverence, and to this viewer Mr. Melendez pulled it off. Throughout his performance, his character simply was who he was.

The evening concluded with a reprise of Richard Alston’s A Rugged Flourish, which was first performed by NYTB in 2011 and which I saw last year, with Mr. Melendez and Ms. Ogura repeating their roles as the freedom-loving faun and the nymph he selects to share his independence with. Although there’s nothing particularly unusual or innovative about the piece, it’s pleasant to watch and provides another opportunity for these NYTB dancers to excel. Ms. Branagan, Ms. Lauer, Ms. Lynch, Ms. Oguri, and Ms. Treiber comprised the balance of the bevy of enticing nymphs.

A consequence of being a small ballet company in a city that is home to ballet behemoths is being considered less valuable than the larger and more visible companies. With respect to NYTB, that would be a mistake. Under the leadership of Founder and Artistic Director Diana Byer, NYTB over the years has become a force for accessibility, preservation, and encouragement. Based on last year’s program, which included Jose Limon’s The Moor’s Pavane, NYTB may also stimulate the bigger companies to revive long dormant productions. ABT revived The Moor’s Pavane last fall; perhaps it will soon do the same with Dark Elegies, or the complete one act version of Tudor’s Romeo and Juliet. [NYTB’s second program this year, which I have not yet seen, includes the pas de deux from Tudor’s Romeo and Juliet.] But even if the big guns don’t take the hint, knowing that NYTB is around to keep memories alive, and to create new ones, is both a comfort and a treat.

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