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Small, But Scrappy Ballet/NY Offers A First-Rate Program

by Robert Johnson
July 14, 2015
Alvin Ailey Citigroup Theater
405 West 55th Street
New York, NY 10019
212-405-9000
Ballet/NY, the chamber ballet founded in 1997 by former New York City Ballet star Judith Fugate and her husband, Medhi Bahiri, has had its ups-and-downs. Yet Thursday, July 9's outstanding program at the Alvin Ailey Citigroup Theater reminded long-time fans why this doughty survivor keeps going. Batting for the fences, Ballet/NY presented an evening of masterworks by John Butler, William Forsythe and Stanton Welch—-three artists under-represented on the New York dance scene—-garnished with an engaging if less inspired premiere by Bahiri, the company's choreographer-in-residence.

In the wake of high-profile but lackluster engagements at Lincoln Center by Britain's Royal Ballet and the National Ballet of China, it felt odd to sit in the bleachers and watch an under-funded but scrappy little ensemble like Ballet/NY deliver the goods. Yet the only cause for disappointment was realizing that none of this troupe's best works is new.

John Butler created his Othello in 1976, in fact, during a time when the integration of ballet and modern dance produced works of startling contrast. Here rough-hewn shapes accentuate the beauty of a ballerina's extended line. Yet in the hands of this choreographer, who trained in ballet but performed for Martha Graham, the combination of styles seems natural and unforced. It took confidence for Butler to tackle this Shakespearean subject in the shadow of José Limón's The Moor's Pavane. Yet Limón had died four years earlier, and Butler didn't lack for ideas. With only three characters, his Othello attempts to be sparer than Limón's famously succinct quartet, as Butler reduces the plot to two relationships making Desdemona and Iago rivals. The piece is set to music by Dvořák.

At the outset, dancers Coreen Danaher, a candid Desdemona, and Giovanni Ravelo, as Othello, stand facing each other in pools of light. She gazes at him with rapt tenderness, yet it is clear from their first movement—a reaching gesture that becomes semaphoric—-that Butler will not allow sentimentality to compromise him. The ballet's formal design is paramount and entwines itself with the narrative in ingenious ways. In their respective duets, Butler has his characters dance parallel to each other emphasizing their bonds and establishing the polarity between Othello/Desdemona from Othello/Iago. Brent Whitney plays Iago with surly intensity.

In a striking lift, Desdemona, who perches on Othello's shoulder, leans sideways to lie along his shoulders and his outstretched arm, holding her own arms straight and perpendicular to his. Together their arms form a cross that may suggest a fateful intersection or an ominous portent of her death. Best of all, perhaps, is a sequence of related lifts. In two of them the character being lifted (Desdemona and later Iago) winds or wraps his legs around Othello for support. In the final lift, after Othello has seized Desdemona by the throat, her legs flail helplessly searching for the base that might save her but finding none. These lifts suggest Desdemona's and Iago's dependence upon Othello; and as an evolving series they give the ballet continuity.

This cleverly assembled program also hints at formal relationships and contrasts between ballets. The angular ports de bras of Stanton Welch's Orange, sometimes framing a dancer's head, have an affinity with the gestural language of Othello. And given Butler's use of synchronization in his duets, it's interesting to see parallel movement crop up again in Bahiri's premiere, a duet titled What Ever. With their rectilinear patterns Orange and What Ever offer a foil to the whorls and circles of Forsythe's Slingerland. Such relationships may be subtle but they make a program cohere, guiding viewers through an evening.

Despite its off-hand title, What Ever is meticulously constructed. Xiaoxiao Cao and Jesse Campbell enter from opposite corners and become increasingly involved as the partnering grows more strenuous. The moment when they pass from dancing side-by-side to supported adagio marks a transition. Yet the sharp angle of Cao's body, when Campbell carries her out at the end, could be a diagram for the whole ballet, which Bahiri seems to have plotted in an ascending line as if he were steadily ramping up the volume. While the ballet's clarity is a virtue, a more rambling path—especially one allowing for fluctuations in mood—would have made this piece to Samuel Barber music more intriguing.

The Slingerland pas de deux is a company premiere this season, extending the group's artistic relationship with Forsythe. Fugate danced his Behind the China Dogs at New York City Ballet; and Ballet/NY has presented his Artifact II in the past. Like those pieces, Slingerland (from 2000) belongs to the pre-cuckoo phase of Forsythe's career when he was still interested in testing the boundaries of classical form. Danced by Katie Gibson and Whitney, the duet is a complicated affair. Bowing to her partner in an exaggerated reverence, the ballerina sets the tone for a piece with curling promenades and spins that propel the ballet forward at a brisk pace. Though stretched in grands ronds de jambe, her dancing is also punctuated by moments in which she seems to weaken or grow ill, throwing her torso forward. This roller coaster is not for the squeamish, and in a mysterious incident the partners grip each other by one hand while she presses her other hand and her head against his shoulder. Sustained positions displaying Gibson's long line would be more effective if she were stronger and displayed her hands more naturally.

Welch's Orange concludes the program on a bright note, though this bold, romantic ensemble from 2001 is not without intimations of regret. Kate Ann Behrendt tries to capture Campbell's attention, detaching his hands from his head and wrapping his arms around her. Her persistence leads to some imaginative partnering and eventually he carries her off. Gibson is less fortunate, however, in her duet with Ravelo, whose initial fascination with the floor—-leaning over and dusting it—-seems to presage his collapse and the moment when unseen agents drag his body into the wings. Danaher and Whitney seem better suited to each other. She spins lightly changing direction in his hands, but also offers reciprocal support holding him by the waist. These three duets are the emotional heart of a piece that reflects the influence of various dance styles, but whose most distinctive feature on this program is its use of rhythm. The dancers stride into the music from the outset; and Welch complements the beat of his Vivaldi score with head wobbles and gestures that pulse unexpectedly. A ballet packed with ideas, Orange is part of a series of color-themed works this choreographer set to Vivaldi. Ballet/NY's directors no doubt have a special fondness for Orange, since they commissioned it. Yet it would be interesting to see Ballet/NY tackle some of the others in the series—-especially Green, a showcase Welch created for Nina Ananiashvili. For that to happen, however, the troupe will need more support.
Ballet/NY's Xiaoxiao Cao and Jesse Campbell in Medhi Bahiri's 'What Ever.'

Ballet/NY's Xiaoxiao Cao and Jesse Campbell in Medhi Bahiri's "What Ever."

Photo © & courtesy of Eduardo Patino


Ballet/NY's Brent Whitney and Katie Gibson in William Forsythe's 'Slingerland.'

Ballet/NY's Brent Whitney and Katie Gibson in William Forsythe's "Slingerland."

Photo © & courtesy of Eduardo Patino


Ballet/NY's Giovanni Ravelo and Brent Whitney in John Butler's 'Othello.'

Ballet/NY's Giovanni Ravelo and Brent Whitney in John Butler's "Othello."

Photo © & courtesy of Eduardo Patino


Ballet/NY's Katie Gibson and Giovanni Ravelo in Stanton Welch's 'Orange.'

Ballet/NY's Katie Gibson and Giovanni Ravelo in Stanton Welch's "Orange."

Photo © & courtesy of Eduardo Patino

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