It’s a mystery how ballet companies decide which works to program. During American Ballet Theatre’s annual fall season at City Center, which ended on Sunday, two premieres—Christian Holder’s Weren’t We Fools and Natalie Weir’s Jabula—received five performances apiece. Balanchine’s Theme and Variations graced seven programs and Graham’s Diversion of Angels six. Antony Tudor’s great Jardin aux Lilas was performed only three times—all at matinees. Twyla Tharp? Not present. Go figure.
Weren’t We Fools is a lean-cuisine look at days when chandeliers were big and men wore tails and danced with women in long silky gowns (lovely ones, designed by the choreographer) to tunes by Cole Porter. The scenario is essentially that of Jardin aux Lilas. A married woman remembers (and meets again) a former lover. The flame still burns. Her husband encounters an erstwhile mistress. An onstage singer (Lynne Halliday) speaks for and to the heroine in wonderful Porter songs like “I’ve Got You Under My Skin,” but Holder doesn’t always place her effectively within the action. That action comprises a great number of yearning gestures pulled back at the last second, sudden freezes, and melting moments in someone’s arms. Were it not for Susan Jaffe’s fine acting as she’s dragged about by her emotions, the attractive ballet would seem even less meaty. Carlos Molina and Stella Abrera are also excellent (tall Molina is a dancer you notice, even in the corps). So is Ethan Stiefel as the lover, although he looks ill at ease in evening wear, and his floppy haircut works against suavity.
Jabula is a sort of Rite of Spring without the sacrifice or the fervor. What thrust there is comes from the joyously escalating voices and drums in Hans Zimmer’s taped score (he composed The Lion King). Weir’s patterns are clean; the shapes made by male and female bodies look like ingenious sculptures. There’s no dust on this work. Bare-chested men in full brown pants mass and, in unison, drive their power at us as if symmetry ruled the world. Never has mass copulation looked so controlled or attractive, with just enough bursts of counterpoint for believability. There’s also a brief contest between Eric Otto and Sasha Radetsky and an initiation ritual in which Gennadi Saveliev and Sean Stewart manhandle Herman Cornejo. Sandra Brown and Molina are the leaders. She wraps around him a lot.
Programming company member Robert Hill’s Baroque Game just after Lar Lubovitch’s Meadow with no intermission risks surfeiting viewers. Both take place in a kind of limbo—Lubovitch’s ballet in a summery, windswept dusk, Hill’s in a dark, nondescript environment. These 1999 acquisitions are storyless, but hints of narrative press up here and there. Lubovitch’s community of 12 drifts and chains through soft, constantly shifting patterns, slipping out of every entanglement, except in the tender, breath-suspended duet “New Star,” ravishingly performed by Brown and Marcelo Gomes.
Hill’s well-made, slightly enigmatic piece is most arresting when it’s fast and complex, mixing classical erectness and pointe work with canted steps and brusque rhythms. Yan Chen, Joaquin de Luz, and Cornejo whip off a snappy, difficult trio that brings out both the baroque elegance and the contemporary push in Dmitry Polischuk’s score. In calm passages, Julie Kent and Angel Corella infuse with subtle drama a relationship that another cast, Gillian Murphy and Gomes, makes less gripping, although Gomes defines a very interesting solo with his long legs and fierce attack. Stewart, who has begun to stand out in every ballet, brings his gift for phrasing and spatial awareness to a contrary duet with Anna Liceica.
Many, I think, attend ABT to see thrilling dancing. If the choreography is good too, they take it as a bonus.
In Asia, rice is the staff of life. For the pilgrims in Lin Hwai-min’s extraordinary Songs of the Wanderers, it is enlightenment, a holy river, a goal, an artistic medium, and more. Looking like a white jade statue of a Buddhist monk, Wang Rong-yu of Lin’s Cloud Gate Dance Theatre of Taiwan spends the entire 90-minute piece (at the BAM Opera House last week) standing beneath a gentle rain of rice that bounces off his bald head and accumulates before him as in an hourglass. Over and over, a man thrashes and hurls himself into a mountain of the grain that suddenly plummets from above. During a last prayer, when rice falls like hail, the dancers toss it joyously up in arcs; struck by Chang Tsan-tao’s masterful lighting, it becomes a burst of golden fireworks. After all the applause, with the audience trickling out, Wu Chun-hsien slowly rakes the rice into the concentric circles of a Zen garden.
Lin’s voyagers wear ragged white clothes (by Taurus Wah) and struggle forward, bracing themselves on crooked staffs. The music that bathes them—sweet, melismatic Georgian folk songs—is oddly in tune with this meditative piece. Dancers dip their hands in the river of rice and flagellate themselves with green branches, but pairs of men and women also use both staffs and branches in formal, ritualistic designs. Most of the time, these people travel mesmerizingly slowly. Sometimes they move naturally, improvisationally; at other times Lin draws on martial arts, Butoh, and modern dance. Very occasionally a struggled-for position seems decorative—a woman climbs onto a man’s shoulder and cocks a flexed leg up behind her—yet this aspect is not out of place. Over the piece, these wanderers become more refined in their skills, balanced in both body and spirit.
When Garth Fagan’s new Trips and Trysts (at the Joyce last week) begins, Natalie Rogers is alone onstage, looking sharp in a gold top and black pants by Mary Nemecek Peterson. The music rushing around her comes from Wynton Marsalis’s record Big Train and has that going sound, but Rogers doesn’t jive with it; she dips into it, teases it with the uncanny tilted balances that are a Fagan hallmark. In the on-again, off-again duet between her and Norwood Pennewell, he’s also cool against the sound—laying out an interplay of looseness and tension that erupts into huge, out-of-the-blue jumps.
Fagan builds the dance like a train ride. People come and go, engage in courteous dispute, pair up, and separate agreeably. Trips and Trysts isn’t about perfumed romance and regrets; it’s about this here-and-now community, these wonderful dancers. We can admire Sharon Skepple, Chris Morrison, and Micha Willis in one brief trio, or Steve Humphrey and Erin Barnett in a duet, or Nicolette Depass, Joel Valentin, Bill Ferguson, Aisha Benjamin, and Steve St. Juste in bright moments.
Fagan is, in his own warm and distinctive way, a formalist. “All aboard” becomes a concept about joining. Rogers turns Pennewell on, not by any come-hither gesture, but by the way she does a little side step; it’s right up his alley. Nor does Fagan buy into the pas de deux mystique—the credo that you put a woman down only to pick her up again; he uses lifts sparingly and interestingly. His vocabulary is earthy, vital, with a capacity for wildness, yet, anchored in the technical finesse and intensity he inculcates in his dancers, it’s elegant.