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Flash Review 1, 10-21: The Joy of Being Themselves
"Dance on a Shoestring" Delights

By Alicia Mosier
Copyright 2000 Alicia Mosier

By the time you step into the Dance Gallery, on the fifth floor of the old Baptist church that is the headquarters of the New York Theatre Ballet, huddle into the rickety elevator with eight or twelve people, stand shoulder to shoulder and chat with even more people in the little lobby, and settle into the rows of folding chairs that sit on the edge of the stage -- by the time the lights go down for "Dance on a Shoestring," you feel like part of a family. Virtues of patience and amiability are strengthened; joy in little sweetnesses is reinforced. "Dance on a Shoestring" is by its nature an intimate thing, the work of NYTB's artistic director Diana Byer and her group of young dancers who, several times a year, perform new and classic ballets scaled to a small company and a small space. Last night was the first of two performances of the first program of the season, an evening of eight short and delightfully versatile pieces, several of which were so fine that they had me wishing I could make it up to that old church again tonight.

In a circumstance like this, some glitches can be expected, and there were a few last night -- some having to do with sound problems ("The curse of the New York Theatre Ballet!" laughed Byer as she and her assistants fiddled with the controls), others with the limitations of the space and what at moments seemed like a lack of rehearsal. At times it felt a bit like a recital. But when these dancers were in motion, I just kept anticipating the next lovely thing.

And there were lots of lovely things, starting with the first pas de deux, "Liebestraum," choreographed by Donald Mahler to music of Liszt and danced by Christina Paolucci and Terence Duncan. This was a straight-down-the-line romantic duet, which Paolucci infused with an extraordinary sense of peace. Duncan, who looked a bit nervous here, showed his true and very promising colors later in the evening in Nicolo Fonte's "Lost, Then Found," in which he and Cynthia Sheppard performed one of the most thoughtful and emotionally involving duets I've ever seen. In the gentleness and slightly desperate longing of a Bach countertenor, Fonte (a member of Nacho Duato's Compania Nacional de Danza) found inspiration for a dance full of generous gestures and surprising bursts of feeling. Expansive arms and open chests, dynamic long lines in lifts, a knee pulled up to the chest, a foot wrapped around a calf and a head cradled on a shoulder -- there were so many tender inventions here that every moment was like a little revelation of what it's like to love someone, to be losing and finding them, and yourself, every time you turn around. Sheppard danced with an almost puppet-like abandon (if that's possible), dependence and independence showing themselves in every movement. She is an unconventional dancer, with a style very much her own. I can't wait to see more of her, and more from Fonte.

If "Lost, Then Found" was the most accomplished new piece on the program, James Sutton's "Laughing Matters" was the most fun. To somber Beethoven (played by Liberace -- on tape, on tape!), Sutton and Byer, dressed in high school prom garb (complete with black Converse sneakers), sat side by side on two wooden chairs and performed the rituals of teenage courtship. It looked a little funny, seeing an impeccable Yawn-and-Stretch arm maneuver done by a man who was patently not a teenager, but somehow the non-adolescence of Byer and Sutton allowed the sweet ridiculousness of adolescent -- and, let's be honest, adult -- gestures and desires to shine through all the more. Their mugging was knowing without being cynical -- quite an accomplishment -- and their dancing, in Sutton's shrewd choreography, was lithe, smart, and potent.

Another new work was Terence Duncan's "Muris," set to the swirling "Sonnerie de Ste Genevieve du Mont-de-Paris" by the 17th-century cellist Marin Marais. I looked up "Muris" on the Internet and found that it is the name of (among other things) a lovely place in Croatia, a 15th-century musicologist who seems to have been an expert on counterpoint, and a hamster disease. Somehow I imagine Duncan had something else in mind; going just by his piece I can't quite tell what. But it was very pretty: seven women in flowing dresses (all the costumes were uncredited), running in circles and stroking imaginary harps (or sending imaginary messages?) and surging round and round in turning balancés, looking like minor goddesses in antiquity. Ursula Prenzlau, Paolucci, and Sheppard (who looked like she'd been put in at the last minute) led the way, with Katie Byrne, Mary Katherine Lapole, Jessica Viles, and Elena Zahlmann following.

I was totally unprepared for "Walk Away," choreographed by Rachael Kosch to music of Craig Combs. By the time I got situated in the piece -- which involved a piece of long yellow fabric stretched across the stage by Sara Jansen and Aaron Nichols, behind which you could see only the tip of the tall pointy lady-in-waiting type hat and the red pointe shoes of Viles, doing some fast pas de chat and echappe steps, and then a cohort of similarly hatted and funky-shoed others, all of whom ended up rushing forward in a clump into the fabric and weirdly jerking their caps -- it was over. It had an air of commedia dell' arte, but like I said, it was over so quickly that I couldn't get much of a grasp on it.

The reason I was so unprepared for that piece was because it had the misfortune of following Sallie Wilson's beautiful staging of the fourth solo from Antony Tudor's "Dark Elegies," the 1937 ballet set to Gustav Mahler's "Kindertotenlieder," or "Songs on the Death of Children." Tudor's choreography here is very fine; a sensitive dancer can make it almost unbearably truth-bearing. Our fearless leader noted the excellence of NYTB's Mary Sugawa in this role earlier this year. This time it was Prenzlau, and it was the same extraordinary experience. In her movement you saw the impulses both of maternal generosity and anxious restraint; the look in her face was mesmerizing, as if what was constantly before her eyes was something she would never be able to understand. It is a mark of good teaching, coaching, and staging when such rich choreography is interpreted with such wisdom -- also, surely, the mark of a fine young dancer.

In addition to encouraging new work and performing small classics, NYTB is also maintaining the tradition of character dance that was so important in the Cecchetti school out of which the company's guiding force, legendary ballet mistress Margaret Craske, came. I spent many hours in character shoes as a girl, learning czardas and mazurkas and whatnot, so it was a special treat to see Zahlmann and Steven Melendez doing the "Hopak" (staged by Stephanie Godino) with much energy (at times too much, which threw them off balance) and charm. Melendez, who looked about twelve years old and terrified at first, had a plie so soft and a jump so high that he took everybody's breath away. As for the "Russian Scarf Dance" (staged with consummate care by Byer), it was wonderful: ten little girls, probably no more than ten years old, doing with such dignity this old, old peasants' dance. I wish I knew the name of the little girl in front; she looked like a tiny Stephanie Saland, with a stage presence not to be believed.

One of the things I like about the NYTB dancers is that they do not look like cookie-cutter people. They have none of the vapid stares and preening you see so often on the city's larger stages. Their technique is not consistently razor-sharp, it's true, their bodies not "perfect." But they look like themselves, and like they love what they're doing. What a gift. And thanks to Diana Byer and her team, what they're doing happens also to be a wonderful service to the dance community. "Dance on a Shoestring" is a lot of fun, full of treasures and a few scattered mishaps and most of all jam-packed with love. And because the program only lasts about an hour, you can see it and still have time to talk about it with your friends over dinner.

"Dance on a Shoestring" repeats tonight at 7 p.m. at the Dance Gallery, 30 E. 31st Street, between Madison and Park. Visit the company's web page for more information.

 

Alicia Mosier studied with Moscelyne Larkin and Roman Jasinski and performed with Tulsa Ballet Theatre. She now works as a writer and editor in New York.

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