If pointe shoes as we know them today had emerged full blown from the brain of some imaginative ballet master, we might call them preposterous and him crazy. A woman tip-toeing in satin hooves? Please! But because the slippers and their uses evolved gradually, dance lovers (in the western world anyway) rarely give pointework a second thought. Or if they do, they find it alluring, mysterious, capable of extending the line of the legs. In the 19th century, when ethereality counted, the footgear was indispensable.
In contemporary ballet, of course, the dancers jab those shoes into the floor and stab them in the vicinity of their partners as often as they use them to waft a little higher. But one of the favored illusions pointework still promotes is that of confident balance on a tiny surface. For a number of years, I’ve watched Cherylyn Lavagnino’s choreography (she’s my colleague in NYU-Tisch’s dance department) and her efforts to use pointe shoes and elements of the ballet vocabulary in unusual and expressive ways. That a bastion of postmodern dance like Danspace has now presented her work three times says something about the degree of success she’s achieved.
Lavagnino doesn’t entirely avoid clichés, but often makes use of them. In Bicycle Variation, performed to a recording of Queen’s faux nursery rhyme “Bicycle Race,” coolly mischievous Christine McMillan, sporting diamond earrings and diamonds at the neck of her strappy black leotard, struts pertly on her toes but also staggers precariously, triumphs with fouettés but preps with a yoga moment.
The bravest experiment on Lavagnino’s recent Danspace program is Disorderly Conduct, for which she asks dancers to improvise on a set structure to pieces by Brian Groder, played live by Groder’s four-person jazz ensemble. Todd Allen (not on pointe) starts out by defining with his fingers a small rectangle (which Kathy Kaufmann promptly fills with light) and goes on to riff smartly off his theme, his precise linearity sometimes disrupted. The last section of the work pits Coco Karol—sort of a Cinderella in hot pants—against Melissa McCarten and McMillan, who strut preeningly about as if their pointe shoes were four-inch heels and their steps half whispered gossip.
The remarkable part of the work features Ian Robinson and Samantha Ernst (like all but McMillan and Brandin Steffenson, they’re NYU alums). Knowing they’re improvising most of the time makes their duet seem even wilder. Robinson is slender and elegantly slippery; he can make many currents ripple through his body and then surprise you by martialling himself into a single forceful move. Ernst is tall and deceptively soft, with limbs that extend forever. Although slender, she moves with the voluptuousness of a rounder woman. Their pas de deux is sensuous in ways that ballet duets usually aren’t; the risks they take in improvising (Ernst is on pointe) result not only in strikingly beautiful moments; frequent instability pulls them into clumsy intersections—rawly tender enough to knock you out.
There’s an odd bit of offbeat pointe-play in Suite: Karol performs a solo in which she attempts to harmonize the movements of one foot in a pointe shoe and one in a soft slipper, curling those feet oddly around each other. Particularly pleasing about this piece is the way Lavagnino mingles three subtly different trios, and the striking tangles and odd lifts that blossom quite naturally and gently among three people. For instance, in the last moments of the dance, Dodo Lau, Karol, and Allen are slowly exiting on a diagonal. Lau, bent foward, carries Allen arched backward over her back, while Karol walks beside them, hovering close to keep her body next to theirs.
The dancers (Ernst, McCarten and Steffenson, Breeann Brasile, David Neal, and Wendy Reinert) wear gorgeous variants of white satin underwear (by Katie Irish). Andy Teirstein’s bright and supple Dance Suite—with its hints of Stravinsky here, baroque dance there, a fragment of an Irish jig—is played live by the Mosaic String Quartet (what a treat!); it buoys the spacious choreography.
For Snap Shots, the quartet plays Bartok’s String Quartet No. 3, and here Lavagnino experiments with hostility and difference. McMillan is on pointe when she and Allen twine curiously around each other, while Reinert and Neal enter barefoot (Reinert, a powerfully focused performer, gives her partner an assist to make his leap higher). In the second movement, four women stomp on pointe like fierce maenads. Steffenson’s grabby athlete cuts no ice with them. The last displays Neal and Robinson in a tough-buddies duet, their individual moves like flung challenges. Snap Shots may be the strongest piece Lavagnino has made to date.
I no longer look at her dances and wonder why she wants to deploy those hard-tipped shoes in steps they weren’t created for. In her choreography, they’ve become both less assertive and more integral.