By New York Theatre Ballet
Off Off Broadway, Dance
Ran through 10.8.16
Danspace Project, St. Mark's Church, 131 East 10th Street
by Ran Xia on 10.10.16
Song Before Spring. Photo by Rachel Neville.
BOTTOM LINE: A collection of dynamic pieces by New York Theatre Ballet visionaries, inspired by ancient Greek love poems, Japanese haiku, and more.
Four distinct yet mutually complementary pieces share the bill at Danspace Project’s Legends & Visionaries in celebration of NYTB artistic director Diana Byer’s 70th birthday. NYTB pairs up legendary creators with contemporary artists, and the result is a transformative program that brings the audience new understanding and appreciation of ballet. Each piece of the hour-long show evokes a style in visual art: Antique Epigraphs is Impressionism; She Holds Out Her Hand is Fauvism; Short Memories, abstract/modernism; and finally a cinematic narrative with Song Before Spring.
Jerome Robbins’ Antique Epigraphs, which premiered with New York City Ballet in 1984, reminds one of Impressionism in all its elements. The piece has a deep intellectual influence: the dance is choreographed to two pieces by Debussy (one for piano, one for flute) that were based on Les Chansons de Bilitis, a collection of prose poems supposedly written by one of Sappho’s lesbian lovers (or as some scholars believed, by the translator of the works, French poet Pierre Louÿs). Restaged by original cast member Kyra Nichols with all female dancers, the piece includes mostly classical ballet phrases with the occasional surprises: Jerome Robbins composed some movements with a seated starting tableau into high jumps. For the most part, however, the overall style of the piece is bucolic and ceremonious. While the dancers’ recurrent friezes, as well as their costumes, visiually reference ancient Greece, the piece is more an ode to the antiquity and depth of ballet as an art form than a narrative from either the musical composition or the poems. Michael Scales and Zheng Ma perform Debussy’s four-hands piano music with effortless ease, and Mira Magrill’s flute translates thoroughly both the Hellenistic and Oriental influence in Debussy, as well as the lineage of artists involved in this piece.
The second dance of the evening introduces a more Fauvist aesthetic. The piece physicalizes some of the most profound and complex emotions found in the Japanese culture it draws inspiration from. The sonata score for the ballet is in traditional haiku form of 5-7-5 syllables. Compared to the pastoral and lyrical first piece, She Holds Our Her Hand is spontaneous and vibrant. It reminds one of the painter Matisse’s earlier works in its constant movements and romantic yet nostalgic sensibility.
Short Memory, the third segment of the program, is possibly the most impressive piece of the evening. Pam Tanowitz choreographs this dance to Lou Harrison’s Reel and two compositions by Henry Cowell, a teacher of Harrison's. The movement of the piece reminds one of a Piet Mondrian painting: underneath precision and restraint, there’s an undercurrent of palpable energy. The fluid formation of the ensemble is juxtaposed with the sharp angles and almost awkward friezes of individual dancers. It makes one think of an '80s gymnastic video, or a recolored Chaplin film. Michael Scales masterfully performs the music for this piece, utilizing every aspect of what a piano can do, as this dance proves the extent of what ballet can be.
The final piece of the program comes after an intermission with a grander scheme. Zhong-Jing Fang and Steven Melendez’s Song Before Spring, choreographed to Philip Glass's Etudes No. 1-10 is of more narrative natural than any other pieces of the evening. The story seems to come from the same source as Spring Awakening. The piece starts with all dancers in a group, wearing monochrome costumes. Their motions, which border on compulsions, suggest an awakening, or the recognition of a desire on a subconscious level. We witness the group dynamics, as isolation and attraction coexist amongst the group. Between the three male cast members (Joshua Andino-Nieto, Steven Melendez, and Daniel Salas), there are some excellent duets that capture the kind of relationship that’s compassionate and cruel, rigid and tender, all at the same time.
Gradually, each of the dancers change from their black-and-white into bright colors, as the group goes through cycles of the process: isolation, temptation, understanding, acceptance, and inclusion. Eventually, the whole group sheds their winter gloom for the vibrant spring. It is noteworthy that the choreographers manage to create distinctive characters for each dancer, and at the same time, a sense of shared experience and unanimity. However, the costumes of the piece somewhat suggest the narrative happening at a Upper West Side cocktail party, which might not be the choreographers’ intention with a piece that calls for a universal message.
(Legends & Visionaries played at Danspace Project at St. Mark's Church, 131 East 10th Street, on October 6 and 8, 2016, at 8. The running time was one hour with an intermission. Tickets were $20. For more information visit danspaceproject.org.)
Legends & Visionaries is by New York Theatre Ballet. Antique Epigraphs is choreographed by Jerome Robbins, staged by Kyra Nichols. Music composed by Claude Debussy. Costume Design by Florence Klotz. Lighting Design by Jennifer Tipton. She Holds Out Her Hand is choreographed by Antonia Franceschi, music by Claire van Kampen. Costume Design by Carmina de Dios. Lighting Design by Serena Wong. Short Memory is choreographed by Pam Tanowitz. Music by Lou Harrison and Henry Cowell. Costume Design by Sylvia Taalsohn Nolan. Song Before Spring is choreographed by Zhong-Jing Fang & Steven Melendez. Music composed by Philip Glass.
The cast is Joshua Andino-Nieto, Guyonn Auriau, Alexis Branagan, Giulia Faria, Dawn Gierling, Carmelia Lauer, Steven Melendez, Daniel Salas, Amanda Smith, Amanda Treiber, and Elena Zalmann. Musicians are Chloe Kiffer, Zheng Ma, Mira Magrill, and Michael Scales.