Dance

Women Choreographers Shine at the Joyce’s Ballet Festival

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The Joyce Theater, a 472-seat house that was once a porn cinema, has for the past 35 years provided a unique environment for looking at ballet. Rather than sitting a block from the stage, as one does in our big uptown halls, audiences in Chelsea form intimate connections with the performers onstage, and diverse communities, including the young and the elderly, can afford the tickets. It’s become one of the largest dance producers in the country, active approximately 48 weeks a year, bringing troupes from around the world.

In 2015 the Joyce launched a summer ballet festival, curated this year by ABT and Twyla Tharp veteran John Selya alongside the Joyce’s executive director, Linda Shelton, and its director of programming, Martin Wechsler (who will be stepping down at the end of the year after 22 years in his position). The two-week 2017 festival boasts five companies, four of them directed by women. This is big news, since ballet as a rule has not made much space for female choreographers. The 400-year-old form has traditionally trained women to be obedient and decorative, supported and manipulated by men, rather than actively creative and in control. But things are changing, and one place to watch them change is here.

Taken together, these five troupes are bringing more than sixty top-flight dancers to the Joyce stage; a couple of them appear in more than one choreographer’s work. Many of the performers are fresh from the long Lincoln Center seasons of the New York City Ballet or American Ballet Theatre and have opted to defer their holidays in order to work with these choreographers, often their company colleagues, in getting new dances up and running. Four of the festival programs feature live music, which makes all the difference, creating a charged atmosphere in the theater. And charged the atmosphere was on opening night, the packed house filled with gorgeous young things in their summer finery, ready to cheer their friends and colleagues on the stage and in the pit.

Emery LeCrone Dance, a hit at the inaugural festival two years ago, opened this year’s edition last Tuesday with three short works and two substantial ones. Ms. LeCrone, thirty, has won many awards and commissions, and has produced a catalog of more than two hundred ballets for schools and ensembles across the country, while performing with the Metropolitan Opera Ballet. She has also worked in commercial situations, collaborating with Nike and Vogue. She has an eye for costume and enormous musical ambitions, but she’s not good with titles (would you sit still for a piece called Time Slowing, Ending?), and her lighting designer, Brandon Stirling Baker, seems reluctant to let us see her good dancers at work, leaving them frequently half in shadow.

First up on her program was In Memory, for the choreographer’s sister Megan, a soloist with the New York City Ballet. In a diaphanous red dress and pink pointe shoes, alone against a white floor and a beige cyclorama, she furled and unfurled, raising her long limbs and bending forward and rising again. To a live piano score by Bohuslav Martinů, played by Vassily Primakov, she demonstrated one of ballet’s exasperating conundrums: the necessity to simultaneously be strong and look fragile.

The highlight of the evening was LeCrone’s sensuous Beloved, to a live performance of David Lang’s hypnotic 2014 just (after song of songs). Perhaps the world’s first great love poem, Solomon’s ode, part of the Hebrew Bible, is taken apart into short phrases of tribute to various body parts and other qualities, sung by three vocalists accompanied by a cellist, a violist, and a percussionist on marimba and drum. Six dancers (Amber Neff, Sarah Atkins, Blake Krapels, Tiffany Mangulabnan, Scott Schneider, and Łukasz Zięba), in beautiful filmy beige and pink tops and pants by Hillary Taymour of Collina Strada, filled the stage, again, with that subtle interplay of strength and fragility, the delicate choreography vying for our attention with the complex, passionate score.

An excerpt from LeCrone’s 2015 The Innermost Part of Something (another dud title) suffered from its recorded score, its dim lighting, and peculiar costumes by Victoria Bartlett; the men wore odd, short sweatpants with gaping pockets, and the women sporty tops, one with a bra on the outside and another striped like a tricolor Italian almond sponge cookie. Here, too, the bare-armed dancers were inclined to throw those appendages into the air; the work’s formal elements did not add up to much. Mercifully, the piece was very short.

A stronger contribution was the closing number, LeCrone’s new Radiant Field, to a commissioned score for two cellos and piano by Nathan Prillaman, a recent Juilliard grad. On a stage bisected horizontally and vertically by strips of white fluorescent tube, another sextet, its women in soft shoes like the men, seized the space; unusual for ballet choreography, they kept finding themselves lying on the floor. But as was frequently the case throughout this performance, the dancing seemed tentative, as though the cast were afraid to give themselves over to the material. (Also on the bill was a duet, the aforementioned Time Slowing, Ending, for Cory Stearns and Stephanie Williams, both of the American Ballet Theatre and both also appearing this week with Gemma Bond.)

By the time you read this, three more of the festival’s five ensembles — Claudia Schreier & Company, Gemma Bond Dance, and Cirio Collective — will have bourréed across the Joyce stage. Still ahead is the last chance to see the British Bond’s three dances, followed by three performances from the only out-of-town troupe, the San Francisco–based Amy Seiwert’s Imagery. Employing a number of dancers from Ohio as well as others from California and Atlanta, and working in consultation with longtime San Francisco Ballet resident choreographer Val Caniparoli, Seiwert offers Wandering, her first evening-length work, an interpretation of Franz Schubert’s Winterreise to a recorded score.

Ballet Festival
Joyce Theater
175 Eighth Avenue
212-242-0800
joyce.org
Through July 29

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