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Flash Review, 4-4: Little Joys, Perturbations
Dances on a Pendulum from New York Theatre Ballet

By Nicholas Birns
Copyright 2008 Nicholas Birns
Illustration by Robin Hoffman
Photograph by Richard Termine

NEW YORK -- Combining principles of community service with those of dance preservation and innovation, all in the intimate setting of a dance studio in a church building off Madison Avenue, New York Theatre Ballet's Dance on a Shoestring series is far from your typical repertory evening.

Chase Brock's "Stoptime Sketch," a duet for NYTB's Kyle Coffman and Mitchell Kilby. Illustration by Robin Hoffman.

At the March 14 performance I attended, augmenting the festive atmosphere -- and inspiring the adults in the audience to enjoy dance with the innocence and vibrancy it deserves -- were the small children who bounded the front row, most likely students in the company's "LIFT" program, which serves homeless and otherwise at-risk kids in New York City. During the evening's final dance, Antony Tudor's "Little Improvisations," a little girl holding a fan made as if to rush the stage and had to be restrained by a nearby adult; her exuberance was understandable.

The evening started with a suite from Jose Limon's 1958 "Mazurkas," set to and inspired by Chopin's famous Romantic-period compositions based on the Polish dance. (And on the program for NYTB's mixed program tonight and April 11 and 12 at Florence Gould Hall.) This stately piece, performed by dancers clad in austerely elegant black and white, served as a festive opening that gave us a good many of the company's personnel, trotted in and out in eight short movements. Solos and duets of varying emotional tenor, conducted in dignified, sweeping movements, led up to the boisterous grand finale. The work could be taken as a straightforward, laudatory tribute to a great Romantic composer by a second-generation modernist choreographer. But it is also a profoundly political piece. During the Czarist occupation of Poland, the mazurkas bespoke ChopinÍs patriotic defiance. During the Cold War, LimonÍs choreography was a tribute to the continuing pride of the still captive Polish people. Now., there is a kind of delight in its having escaped politics to some extent, in an age where Poland is simply one of the more populous members of the European Union. What is thus wonderful about the company's willingness to revive what might seem doubly a period piece is precisely the way we are given access to history and are able to perform this layering mentally even as the dancers enact it in front of us.

It is Limon's centennial this year as it is that of Antony Tudor (whose "Little Improvisations" closed the evening and is also on tonight's NYTB program); it has been just four years since the centennial of Frederick Ashton. Although Ashton's version of "La Fille Mal Gardee" was at the furthest possible remove from the historical consciousness exercised and promoted by Limon's piece, it occasioned a similar sense of esprit de corps from the company. The troupe's performance of the Ribbon Dance from the ballet's first act epitomized a mixture of carefree delight and incisive irony. The fastening and unfastening of pink ribbons that seemed to adorn and at times confine the pink-and-white clad dancers was just sufficiently self-aware as to not be syrupy-sweet, yet conveyed many of the beneficial aspects -- and there are many! -- of sweetness. The young, accomplished dancers, who included Aya Wagatsuma, Alxandra Bolchuk, Emily Matusnaga, Kai Monroe, Julia Moran, and Ozzy Hanson-Johnston generated a sense of mutual delight that intriguingly paralleled the quasi-nationalistic tribute of the Limon/Chopin piece. The Ribbon Dance projected a similar sense of measured abandon, and for all its adorability was not without a slight quality of threat -- one thought of the phrase 'to cut something to ribbons." The piece was undeniably cute, and as one of the dancers held her feet rigorously in first position at the close of a phrase one thought of all the hard work that goes into a convincing simulation of the cute.

As if going progressively forward in time and westward in place, the third piece of the evening, "Stoptime Sketch," with choreography by Chase Brock, featured ragtime music by Scott Joplin and two male dancers, Kyle Coffman (who had played a prominent role in the Suite from "Mazurkas") and Mitchell Kilby, one clothed in a red top and yellow pants, the other as a mirror image. There was an air of nostalgic Americana here, like one might find in a reenactment of an early prizefight of say the Jack Johnson era. After the sense of struggle and combat portrayed in this piece, the subsequent duets in the work that followed all seemed to have a latent sense of combat, however sentimental or even amorous was the visible connotation.

Then we saw a pas de deux from Agnes de Mille's choreography for "Paint Your Wagon," part of the company's ongoing tribute to de Mille. One hears now that de Mille is underrated and her dances seldom performed. For me, as an observer of the dance world whose main pursuit is literary criticism, that seems strange; I have known her work since seeing the revival of "Oklahoma" with her restored original choreography in the '80s and have not heard her name so unmentioned that it seemed people talk about her less than they once did. But in a sense these names linger longest outside a given field; dancers might not think that, say, literature people underrate Hemingway these days, but as one of them I can bring the news that they do. In this duet, Even Swenson, clad in blue jeans and a work shirt, and Elena Zahlmann, charming earlier in the mazurka suite and both winsome and powerful in this piece, enacted an agile series of jumps in which the man's strength and the women's vulnerability generated a sense of dramatic frenzy, heightened by Trude Rittan's grave, meditative music.

These evenings customarily feature a piano interlude instead of a formal intermission; tonight, Noriko Suzuki's confident and well-paced rendering of Chopin's nocturne in C sharp minor gave us the opportunity to hear music by the same composer earlier set to dance now able to be considered more abstractly, as if to prolong the visual imagery we had already seen. The dances resumed with "Spaces," choreographed by Marco Pelle with music by Francisco Pelle. This meditative recitation for one man and three women featured Coffman and Zahlmann along with Carmella Lauer and the particularly outstanding Rie Ogura. A geometric, perhaps even ancient Egyptian style pervaded this piece, which emphasized hand gestures and hand patterns in general. Black-and-white outfits draped against a black curtain gave "Spaces" a minimalist tension that became fully realized as the steps became more assertive and the conflict brewing in the initial moments reached visible fruition.

Another brief dance, "Prevailing Forces," with choreography by Julie-Anne Taylor and music by Chris Mansell, featured two men and two women who start out grouped by gender, next interact as couples, and then go back to their original (primordial?) segregation, against the background of very grim music and an apocalyptic feeling that makes even the moments when the couples are in tandem into spots of potential agon. The ability of the four dancers to cook up often highly negative vibrations was dramatically captivating even as it was psychologically searing.

Rie Ogura (foreground) and Khangai Argaisukh in New York Theatre Ballet's production of Antony Tudor's "Little Improvisations," one of the works on tap March 14 and again tonight, at Florence Gould Hall. Richard Termine photo copyright Richard Termine and courtesy New York Theatre Ballet.

The evening's final piece, and, for all its forthright lightness, its weightiest, was Tudor's "Little Improvisations." Kilby and Ogura made a sprightly duet, but the star of the piece was the white tablecloth that originally lay on a glass table between the two. Used as an article of clothing for both male and female (a toga for him, a shawl for her), a bone of contention between them, and, in a truly memorable moment, swaddling clothes for a baby, it was a constant throughout the ballet's successive moments of search, courtship, togetherness, abandonment, mourning, and recalibration. Like the Ribbon Dance, "Little Improvisations," set to highly familiar music by Schumann (the Kinderszenen), was as extraordinarily light as anything can be and still tell a story, which did not prevent it accommodating considerable emotion. The man, clothed in what looked like a 1920s tennis outfit, and the woman, wearing a beige top, seemed to have stepped out of the jeunesse doree of the early twentieth century; yet their story together had a very contemporary spontaneity in its half-playful, half-melancholy trajectory. All the dances seen this evening, in fact, had in common a sense of childlike joy at times infused by more uncertain or troubling emotions, a trait which made this festive evening, a feast of informality and variety transpiring in little more than an hour, something both to celebrate and to ponder.

Nicholas Birns teaches literature at Eugene Lang College of the New School in New York and writes frequently for academic and general interest journals. He has been a longtime follower of the NYC dance scene and has written about dance for Performing Arts Journal.

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