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September 17, 2006

New Ballet Choreography at the Miller Theatre

I’m off duty, so this hasn’t gone through a several drafts and polishings, but for the record – here it is.

Columbia University’s Miller Theatre, directed by George Steel, and Mary Sharp Cronson’s Works and Process presented three choreographers, Tom Gold, Edwaard Liang and Brian Reeder in an evening of new ballet. Liang’s work is the only one I’ve seen before.

Gold did a work to songs by John Zorn played live by the Masada trio. The live music all evening was a wonderful hallmark, and something I’m sure both co-producers of the evening are known for and proud of. Masada Songs was most remarkable for bringing Ashley Bouder back to the stage after an injury as well as having four more NYCB golden girls in the cast. Surrounding Bouder with Sterling Hyltin, Tiler Peck, Ana Sophia Scheller and Georgina Pazcoguin is an embarrassment of riches.

The work itself didn’t live up to the cast. Gold doesn’t list any other choreography in his bio so I assume it isn’t his main focus. He doesn’t think like a choreographer; there were things that should have been learned and hammered out before having an audience see your work. His choreographic sense isn’t sharp – it equates Jewish songs with indeterminate Oriental head waggling that Edward Said would have been thrilled to see at Columbia. The work also showed a hidden trap for inexperienced choreographers: Don’t work with dancers better than your ideas. Instead of forcing you to confront and fix them, they will make them work somehow.

Liang did two small pas de deux, one for Maria Kowroski and Albert Evans to Phillip Glass and the second for Wendy Whelan and Craig Hall. The first work, Softly as I speak, worked as a vehicle for Kowroski to show how far she has come in focusing her artistry. The music for the second work, Arvo Pärt’s Für Alina, was only recently used by Christopher Wheeldon in Quaternary, his piece for SFB, and that seems applicable to the familiarity of the choreography as well. In both dimly lit pieces, the dancers were the usual couple contorting and groping towards understanding. At this point, Liang is making generic Modern Ballet Pas de Deux and he hasn’t yet found the thing that will separate him from the other trees in the forest. His musicianship won’t help; for an evening of New Ballets to New Music, choosing Glass and Pärt is about as far inside the comfort zone as possible. One got the sense that Steel, who called the evening as jovially as possible “New Ballets to New-ish Music” in his curtain speech knew this too. Perhaps Steel needs to start exercising some curatorial imperative instead of allowing mass market music choices in a musical season that’s otherwise built on artistic daring.

Reeder is the most experienced choreographer and it shows in his facility with phrasing and craft. He also worked well with unfamiliar music, a Jefferson Friedman’s String Quartet No. 2. Friedman is a young composer and his quartet was interesting and listenable. It seemed as if it was not composed with dance in mind, but Reeder rose well to that challenge. Them had a hint of a plot involving the interactions of an outsider (Joseph Gorak) against a group. For every ballet, there seems to be a balance of narrative and abstraction that is the right one; Them seemed to be uncomfortably stuck in a place where it wanted either to be more abstract and have the narrative allusions edited out or to have less abstracted dance and concentrate on telling the story. Because of this, the ballet wasn’t as affecting as it could have been, but I’d like to see more of Reeder’s works. I would not be surprised if a future ballet gets that balance just right. Reeder’s dancers, members of the American Ballet Theatre Studio Company, are less professionally advanced than the other dancers in the evening but showed no less promise. The men (Gorak, Roddy Doble, Thomas Forster and Eric Tamm) all have the sort of pulled out proportions and legs that seem only possible in the young.

As a dance house, the Miller isn’t a perfect fit. The sightlines from the audience aren’t good (I was only four rows back and my view was blocked by people in front of me) and the stage doesn’t breathe. The low proscenium pens in Kowroski, a dancer with opera house proportions, and leaves too little air and space around her. But as with the other less than perfect houses for dance in the city, thanks to them for making the effort at all. The Miller is primarily a music house; Steel’s specialty is new music and overlooked music from other eras and he’s made a name for himself as a discerning curator. It will be exciting to see the dance curation achieve the same level.

Posted by Leigh Witchel at September 17, 2006 11:46 PM

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