BWW Reviews: BALLET WEST Debuts at the Joyce Theater in NYC

On May 25th 2015, opening night of Ballet West's debut season at the Joyce, three New York premieres and a world premiere showcased the company's admirable command of contemporary ballet. The world-renowned troupe from Salt Lake City does have the classics in its repertoire, but the decision by Artistic Director Adam Sklute to bring his superb dancers to NYC in pieces by four celebrated if sometimes controversial current choreographers was a wise one.

The first offering, Matthew Neenan's "The Sixth Beauty" to the music of Argentinian composer Alberto Ginastera, charged the dancers with the need to be both physically adept and emotionally expressive. They did indeed rise to those challenges. When Neenan was still a student at the School of American Ballet and I was Co-Director of the Huntington Ballet Theatre on Long Island, he danced with HBT. I have taken great pleasure in following the trajectory of his career from his years as a Principal Dancer and the Resident Choreographer of the Pennsylvania Ballet through his co-founding of BalletX and his subsequent rise to international acclaim as an award-winning choreographer. What I saw at the Joyce did not disappoint. Neenan's program note says that the ballet is a reflection of the past "from the dysfunctional and bombastic episodes transcending into more harmonious and inviting intimacy." A dozen men and women connected and intertwined, sometimes brooding and sometimes joyous, in arresting patterns. The central character, powerfully performed by Christiana Bennett, presumably embodies the person Neenan enigmatically referred to in his note as "Ellish, the sixth child gone too soon". However, I didn't distract myself by straining to find the nuances of meaning in the piece. Instead, I gave myself over to savoring the sweep of the serpentine configurations and the dancers' clear delight in executing the movements.

Up next was "Presto" by Nicolo Fonte, set to a score by Italian composer Ezio Bosso. The ballet is striking and inventive, yet the juxtaposition with Neenan's work was less than felicitous because both pieces involve pedestrian walking and various other departures from the classical idiom that are visually comparable. In addition the spare costumes that David Heuvel designed for both ballets are somewhat similar. Even so, the chance to see this innovative work by the Resident Choreographer of Ballet West gave NYC dancegoers a worthy glimpse into how the company that was founded in 1963 by William Christensen has evolved.

Third on the program, the World Premiere of Helen Pickett's "Games", was the least well-received although Debussy's "Jeux" - French for games - was a delight in itself. Debussy was reportedly among those shocked by Nijinsky's 1913 "Jeux", the inspiration for Pickett's iteration of a love triangle involving two women who are attracted to one another as well as to a man. Allison DeBona, Arolyn Williams, and Christopher Ruud - all of them fine dancers and actors - were obviously having fun with the amorous interplay, but the jokes such as the surreptitious cell phone texting quickly wore thin. However, serious balletomanes got the sly reference to

Nijinsky's tennis players when a set revolved to reveal a vestibule with an umbrella stand holding two racquets. Pickett, the Resident Choreographer of the Atlanta Ballet, joined the dancers for a curtain call and her merry enthusiasm drew more applause than the ballet itself had elicited. Perhaps if the work stays in the repertoire it will garner increasingly favorable reactions. After all, as Anna Kisselgoff wrote in The New York Times in 2002, Nijinsky's 1913 version also "ruffled a few feathers" at its premiere.

The welcome closer for the evening was Val Caniparoli's "The Lottery" to the music of Robert Moran. Based on a now iconic 1948 New Yorker short story by Shirley Jackson that originally resulted in a deluge of hate mail, the ballet brings to a 20th Century New England village the ancient ritual of human sacrifice to ensure fertility and a good harvest. Precedents include Nijinsky's 1913 "Le Sacre du Printemps" in which a virgin dances herself to death and Paul Taylor's 2012 "To Make Things Grow" in which the person who draws the fatal piece of paper in a lottery is stoned to death. Although, Taylor's depiction of this rite is less than compelling, Caniparoli not only created appealing choreography but pulled off a stunning ending with a torrent of stones raining down on the "winner" of the lottery, in this case Sayaka Ohtaki. Until that moment, fellow villagers had been menacing her with their hands full of stones in a chilling build-up to the startling conclusion. Remarkably, Ohtaki did not know until she was on stage and drew the paper with the black spot that she would be the one to dance the tortured solo and shout "It's not fair". A program note says "At each performance of The Lottery, there will be a drawing onstage to determine who will be the 'chosen one'. No one - neither the performers, the audience nor the winner - will know who won the lottery until the final minutes of the ballet". This clever device created palpable suspense and made the surprise conclusion all the more breathtaking.

Ballet West continues at the Joyce until March 29th. You may have seen the company in the reality TV show "Breaking Pointe", but don't miss the opportunity to see this West Coast marvel in the flesh if you're in town.

Photo by Pete DelaRosa

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