Pointe shoes grew out of a nineteenth-century fad for ethereality. The dream women—sylphs, naiads, dryads, and their ilk—who populated ballets and drove men mad were all the more alluring for seeming barely to touch the ground. Later, the shoes became more like stilettos for pricking the air and tiny platforms on which to balance regally. They’ve resisted becoming anachronisms by accommodating to violent subjects; choreographers exploit their ability to probe, to stab, and to elongate a woman’s legs into pliers and scissors.
For some time now, Cherylyn Lavagnino has been working to make pointework and elements of the ballet vocabulary express ideas about instability and entanglement. Her pas de deux—unlike many contemporary ballet duets—aren’t about hostility or athletic sex. Instead, they often present an image of a man and woman struggling to discover how to work together in complex ways. Her trios don’t make you think of threesomes or a husband-wife-mistress conflict; they suggest dreamlike journeys during which three people merge in curiously beautiful and tender configurations. She sometimes uses pointe shoes to make the women in her pieces look unstable, in need of support from their male partners, who are often barefoot.
Lavagnino deals with narrative only on an abstract level. There are some things that are difficult to convey within the style she’s developing. For instance, Gale, set to Christopher Lancaster’s turbulent Portal, was inspired by footage of Hurricane Katrina victims. If you knew that (the information is in the press kit but not in the program), you would immediately understand when Josh Palmer twice throws Christine McMillan over his shoulder in a fireman’s carry). But if you watch the work, as I did, without that knowledge, the lift seems out of place, a baffling moment amid other images that you can interpret as you wish. Samantha Ernst and Jackie Hunsinger-McConnell rush through as if a whirlwind were propelling them. Patrick Ferreri and Coco Karol struggling through resistant air or ground, and the push, pull, and twist negotiations of Jacquelyn Arcati, Andrew Griffin, and Katelyn Skelley seem like buffetings by uncertain currents. But all of these could easily and eloquently express inner conflicts and a treacherous world less specific than beleaguered New Orleans.
Expressing ambiguity through concrete human actions is one of dance’s great accomplishments. For instance, it doesn’t matter to me that Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking gave Lavagnino the title for her Fell of Night. Nor do the subtitles, like “Memory” and “Loss,” that she gave to each of the work’s six sections hold us back from making our own interpretations of the feelings that pervade the choreography. The piece is set to Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 14 in C Sharp minor, Opus 131, played live (oh joy!) by members of the Mosaic String Quartet (Jane Chung, Erik Carlson, Tawnya Popoff, and Greg Hesselink). That achingly beautiful music intensifies Lavagnino’s poignant visions of separation and comfort. A duet, “Memory,” that brings Ferreri and Karol together onto a shared path also suggests a difficult journey, like the expulsion from Eden. “Flock” presents a trio (Hunsinger-McConnell, Skelley, and Griffin) as a happy family (except I don’t understand why Ciera Wells has dressed in what look like short nightgowns—an exception to her otherwise excellent low-key costumes). Lavagnino has choreographed a tempestuous duet with a lot of tricky partnering for McMillan and Nick Strafaccia (“Sever”) and a sadder one (“Loss”), in which Palmer drags Arcati; runs backward, almost staggering under her weight; and tries to hold her as, wild and floppy, she struggles against him. One of the most interesting sections is the duet that ushers in the final Solace. The affectionate exchanges between two men (Palmer and Brandin Steffensen) call to mind in some strange and very contemporary way the relationship between Prince Siegfried in Swan Lake and Benno, the friend who’s always there to offer support.
Jacob Lawson’s fine violin playing (live) adds a great deal to Scott Killian’s commissioned score for Inward. As I remember, this is the piece that first made me aware that there’s one aspect of ballet that Lavagnino has barely begun to explore—the complexities of footwork that create rhythmic interest amid the larger flow. It’s a pleasure suddenly to see those pointe shoes pricking out patterns that can also expand the emotional dimensions of the choreography.
All the dancers except Crossman, Steffensen, and Christine McMillan (a member of the Metropolitan Opera Ballet) are former or current students in the dance department of NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts (where Lavgnino and I both teach). They perform her works with skill, understanding, and devotion.