Watching a work by Doug Varone, I think, “These are my people.” So, I suspect, do many in the audience. The members of his company are superb dancers, but Varone’s choreography—with its hesitations, awkward tenderness, bravery, and belligerence—emphasizes their humanity. And he weaves all the apparent contradictions and changes of intent into a tide of movement in which push and pull, fall and spring up, caress and spurn, eddy together. Images surfacing from the full-bodied dancing stir memories and run along our nerves.
In celebration of the company’s 20th anniversary, Varone offers a world premiere, Lux; a New York premiere, Boats Leaving (2006); and the superb 2004 Castles. Of these, only the last has extended duets—one for Natalie Desch and Eddie Taketa in which love and anger stumble and crawl through their bodies, binding them ineluctably together. The encounter between Daniel Charon and John Beasant III is accompanied by one of the more furious of the Prokofiev waltzes that make up Castles‘ score; their roughhouse bonding and evasive tenderness might be happening in a men’s room, judging by the way one straightens his tie in an imaginary mirror before they part. In the rest of Castles and both the newer works, groups come and go in evolving patterns.
In Boats, eight people (the four mentioned plus Ryan Corriston, Adriane Fang, Stephanie Liapis, and Belinda McGuire) seem, like refugees, to be be preparing for a journey whose outcome is doubtful. In this liminal world defined by Arvo Pärt’s haunting Te Deum, Jane Cox’s fine lighting, and Liz Prince’s gray costumes, bleakness occasionally gives way to the glow of spiritual promise. The many tableaux conveying grief, loss, and conflict—but also hope—often appear as if frozen by a hidden camera. Someone falls and others gather around; four sets of hand brace a leaning body. The dancers—rushing, shuddering, collapsing, scrabbling along the floor, or hurling themselves into the air—are always aware of their need for one another. Sometimes they travel in a cluster that constantly changes its internal shape, the way one film montage might dissolve into another. One by one, they exit, along a single path, into the unknown dark that lies beyond the stage.
Lux suffers a little by being last on the program. Set to Philip Glass’s The Light (with those familiar Glassian harmonies and repeating rhythmic patterns), the piece, powerful and touching as it is, seems to wander on and on. Beginning with Varone’s meditative, resilient exploration of the space around him, Lux seems to progress toward optimism, as a projected moon (lighting by Robert Wierzel) slowly rises on the backdrop, and the performers (wearing Liz Prince’s handsome, intriguingly cut black costumes with slits that show a paler lining) take pleasure in their richly convivial celebration. Lux sates you with dancing, but you’re still reluctant to leave the feast.
A far finer Glass score is the one the composer wrote for Twyla Tharp’s 1986 masterpiece In the Upper Room, revived last season by American Ballet Theatre and on view this fall. Here the music both supports and pushes Tharp’s witty give-and-take between ballet and modern dance toward empyrean heights of virtuosity and heroic endeavor. I’m in tears by the end, overwhelmed by the choreography’s brilliance and the white-hot ardor of the two sets of six dancers. Occasionally some of them go a little over the top, blurring the clarity of Tharp’s design, but their commitment is thrilling. Who knew Gillian Murphy could be such a boisterously cool cat and ensemble player?
The music is iffier in another revival. It was painful and not clearly relevant in the first scene of Lar Lubovitch’s 1999 Meadow to hear a gorgeous Schubert song (with the vocalist on CD) scratched at by William David Brohn’s “Pentimento,” played by the orchestra under David LaMarche. The duet that emerges from Lubovitch’s gently churning ensemble passages (to a recording of Gavin Bryars’s “Incipit Vita Nova”) is a fine example of that genre of pas de deux in which a strong man (Marcelo Gomes) keeps a beautiful, fragile woman (Julie Kent) from ever touching the floor, while winding her into amazing designs around his own body that suggest a spiritualized eroticism. Why Gomes brings her to the final gathering (music by Ferruccio Busoni) costumed in simulated nudity is almost more mysterious than her rise (via a concealed elevator) to another world.
Mark Morris always provides musical treats. His lovely Drink to Me Only With Thine Eyes, made for ABT in 1988, is set to Virgil Thomson’s 1943 Etudes for Piano (elegantly played by Barbara Bilach), which encompasses such bold, witty exercises as “Chromatic Double Harmony” before slipping into sweet old tunes remodeled. This work for 12 dancers (Mikhail Baryshnikov was originally in the ensemble) has some flying leaps for fine male dancers like Jared Matthews and Cory Stearns, and a bravura Spanish-y passage danced with beyond-flair by Angel Corella and Gomes. But the predominant mood (like Santo Loquasto’s white costumes) is breezy and, toward the end, nostalgic. By loosening and subtly redefining the ballet vocabulary, Morris and the marvelous dancers create a landscape as richly varied, unpretentious, and refreshing as a well-tended country garden.
It only struck me afterward that all three works on this beguiling ABT program are by choreographers based in modern dance. Whither ballet?