“Benjamin Millepied & Company” is a misnomer (the group has been previously billed as Danses Concertantes). Yes, the enterprise and the hard work are Millepied’s, as is some of the choreography. He dances in two of the four works shown at the Joyce. However, his pick-up group can only perform when its members are free. Too bad. This is a dream team of terrific dancers, almost all of whom are, like Millepied, members of either New York City Ballet or American Ballet Theatre. Three of those performing Aszure Barton’s striking quartet are members of her Aszure & Artists. Only Alexander Ritter (ex NYCB) is otherwise unaffiliated.
The pitfall in commissioning brave, provocative works is the difficulty in predicting exactly how they’ll turn out. On this program, dancers mostly wear black and prowl darkly atmospheric spaces (lighting designer, Roderick Murphy), besieged by cataclysmic sound. Luca Veggetti’s compelling Silence Text opens with an enormous reverberating crash in Paolo Aralla’s score. It doesn’t take long to figure out that the five splendid dancers trigger some of the clamor that pits the long silences. Ritter sits and waves his hands beneath a low mic. Teresa Reichlen stands under a down spot, blowing into a higher hanging receptor. Alina Dronova is the first to swing the latter, inducing a loud, garbled soundburst with each arc. (On opening night, there was a glitch: some of the spoken fragments by the ancient Noh playwright Zeami could not be heard).
The inhabitants of this bleak, light-shot place tend it with high-energy alertness and speed. Sometimes they operate independently; sometimes they’re paired—Reichlen and Tyler Angle, Ellen Bar and Ritter, with Dronova as a free agent—or mingle in trios. The clearly designed, cranked-up classicism of the choreography makes use of long legs and big, slicing gestures. The women often pause in deep second position on pointe, looking like resting insects. Occasional oddities engage the eye. A man sits with his foot raised; a woman standing before him places the sole of her foot against his. Not much seems to change; this is how these people live their lives in an unstable but controllable world.
Andonis Foniadakis, another choreographer with a string of international credits, creates a more dire environment in Phrases Now. The deep roaring hum that begins Julien Tarride’s score sets the tone. Although wild-haired Ula Sickle wears a black sequined mini dress (by Deanna Berg), she crawls, rolls, and scrabbles on the floor. Angle, Craig Hall, Millepied, and Sean Suozzi also move like foraging animals, especially at the beginning and end of the piece. Foniadakis’s choreographic vocabulary makes them all look both aggressive and as if some drug were eating away at them. In their comings and goings and moments in the light, they move as many parts of their bodies simultaneously as they can. Their heads duck under imaginary partitions; their torsos undulate, their arms and legs thrash and twist. They’re also fairly brutal with one another. Twice Sickle gets swung in circles by one hand and one foot. The pace and muscular complexities are relentless. You’d think the choreographer’s principal aim was to kill the dancers. By the end, two have exited, two are flat on the floor, and Sickle is slowly leaving. We cheer them as heroes, of course.
Burke Wilmore’s lighting for Barton’s Short-Lived is also appropriately moody. Diagonal paths of light emphasize the four dancers’ strutting forays across the stage. Barton, one of the brightest young choreographers around, has decided to dissect the tango. It’s not often you hear those familiar strains and rhythms played by a klezmer band apparently originating in Cracow (on tape), and for a bit of variety some music by 18th-century composer Jean-Marie Leclair. The skillfully built choreography (savvy use of repetition, elegant surprises, variegated pacing) has witty moments: Ritter and Charissa Barton meet head on; she backs off, but as soon as he turns and strolls across the stage, she re-enters, has a little movement fit, and exits again, pleased with herself. There are also enigmatically poignant passages: Ritter lifts William Briscoe from behind, clasping his hands around the other man’s torso in a prayer position, and moves slowly across the front of the stage, Briscoe hanging inert.
The choreographer riffs on the tango with highly original ways of twisting a stance or scalloping a leg in and out. The women, C. Barton and Ariel Freedman, tiptoe barefoot as if mincing in high heels, sometimes lifting their shortish black skirts (by Berg) in front and thrusting their hips forward as they go. There’s something interesting going on everywhere you look.
Last April, Millepied showed a duet, If We Were Two, set to Philip Glass’s Mad Rush. Now he’s made a very different duet, Closer, to the same music (played lived by pianist Pedja Muzijevic), for ABT’s Gillian Murphy and Ethan Stiefel. Because Stiefel’s knees are troubling him, the choreographer performed it at the Joyce. Millepied’s tends not to limit his palette for a given dance (Balanchine said he learned this lesson from Stravinsky in the 1920s); he just keeps spinning out bright new steps, although in Closer he’s been smart enough to repeat some phrases. You can almost feel a breeze rippling through the clean, open space—
white floor, sunny light. The movement, perhaps influenced by one of Millepied’s mentors, Jerome Robbins, looks fluid, easy, understated even when difficult. Both dancers wear soft slippers, and their solos are full of little springy steps and easily spun out turns. Their shoulders, twisting and shrugging subtly, give a lightly temperamental edge to the steps. These are two handsome, extraordinarily gifted dancers, and Millepied has created some imaginative but never strained partnering. Closer‘s sunlight is a welcome contrast to the dark provocations of the other pieces.