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On a cold Halloween night, a treat was found on a stage in Chelsea, where the Dresden Semperoper Ballett made its Joyce Theater debut with an evening of contemporary ballet premieres. The company’s usual home, the beautiful opera house of the Sächsische Staatsoper Dresden in Germany, was originally built in 1841, which also happens to be the year Giselle made its world premiere, in Paris. Here at the Joyce, the acclaimed troupe started its evening with a U.S. premiere called 5, which is an excerpt from the British choreographer David Dawson’s recreation of Giselle.
Dawson’s concept for 5 removes the nineteenth-century setting of the source material and places the quintet in a sort of timeless, abstracted space where virtuosic classical ballet steps are prioritized over any kind of narration. (Musically, Giselle’s original Adolphe Adam score has been rearranged by David Coleman.) The lush, autumnal scene of Giselle’s traditional first act was stripped away for this version, replaced by the sight of three girls in classical white tutus and two men in white tights and black long-sleeved shirts situated against a stark black backdrop (which remained the set for the entire evening). Now we were multiple layers removed from the story and setting of the classic Giselle; the only surviving trace of association to the seminal ballet was the score. The five dancers onstage likewise had little explicit connection to one another, aside from their common goal to wow the audience with off-kilter turns and daring slides across the floor on the tips of their toes.
Next up was the world premiere of Ganz leise kommt die Nacht/The Night Falls Quietly, by company dancer Joseph Hernandez, who attended the School of American Ballet and landed his first job as a dancer at the New York City Ballet. Yet no influence of this Balanchine training was evident in his work. The piece begins with two women and two men facing upstage in plainclothes, swaying uncomfortably to the eerily ambient jazz score by Bohren & der Club of Gore. The relationships between the four are never quite resolved; each gets a turn to partner the other. The music lacks a proper build to a climax, and the dancers remain in a mysterious void where modern dance movements are the only links between them. In this way, the piece is akin to the contemporary vision of 5, lacking narrative but making a show of the cast’s physical ability.
While Dawson’s opening piece displayed technique above all else, his second creation on the program — an emotional reflection on the mysteries of love — had real substance. Making its New York premiere, On the Nature of Daylight was a stunning duet performed by Alice Mariani and Julian Amir Lacey with music by Max Richter. As the curtain went up, the two dancers appeared on the dark stage, with a small light pouring in from the left to illuminate Lacey in a white tunic and tan pants, his back to the audience. Upstage of him was Mariani, in a similar outfit. As the string instruments filled the air, Lacey quickly lifted his straight arms to create a V-shape, before gradually lowering them in slow motion. Perfectly timed, his arms completed their downward journey just before the two began dancing with an upward motion that was initiated with an exaggerated inhalation. The choreography’s use of the arms continued to dazzle throughout, the dancers by turns reaching their hands out, pointing into the distance, or waving their supple limbs as if they were merely liquid. After Mariani made her way around the stage walking backward, the couple finally crossed paths and began dancing together. Timing, often an important factor in finding love, was also technically important for the couple’s partnering. Early on, impressive lifts melted seamlessly into revolutions where Lacey pivoted around himself, making his partner’s pointe shoes trace circles on the floor. Most times, though, her toes didn’t touch the ground, as he continually swept her into the air.
The U.S. premiere of Vertigo Maze, by the Belgian choreographer Stijn Celis, wrapped up the night and showed once more the troupe excelling at abstraction in ballet. Moving to Bach’s “Chaconne for Solo Violin and Four Voices,” the cast wore costumes designed by Kathy Brunner, with the four women in nude corsets and four men with bare chests and nude shorts. A sort of tension formed between their sculptural bodies; they endlessly moved between pas de deux, trios, and, finally, a powerful duet between Ayaha Tsunaki and Aidan Gibson. The relationships formed in the piece were somewhat clearer than in the previous ones, and seemed to be an attempt to reflect on the flawed foundations of societal structures.
Directed by Aaron S. Watkin since 2006, the Dresden Semperoper Ballett is certainly capable of a range of styles. Though the Joyce slate was mostly of the plotless variety, the company and its selection of choreographers seemed to have a lot to say about the human condition and how dance can express sentiments that cannot be put into words.