Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Dance: NYCB Emerging Choreographers at the Guggenheim's Works & Process

Works & Process couldn’t have chosen two more different choreographers to showcase for their New York City Ballet’s Emerging Choreographers program. Unfortunately, the difference was not merely in style, but also in quality, a choice that served only to embarrass the immature Melissa Barak, whose silly dance looked like the winter recital of a small-town ballet academy compared to the awe-inspiring, fiercely seething work offered by the more self-possessed Douglas Lee.

Works & Process offers a protean format in which works are rarely shown in full. Instead, a choreographer might choose to show a long series of snippets, discoursing on each in between, or to stage a 90 minute rehearsal or demonstration for the audience, the dancers never actually “performing” the work as it will eventually be set for stage. This night’s program began with a lengthy rehearsal staged by Barak, followed by a preview from Lee’s new ballet (LifeCasting, which premieres at NYCB on the 22nd), followed by a performance of the sections earlier rehearsed by Barak and her dancers.

Unfortunately, this granted the bulk of the program to the nattering Barak, whose youth is of course forgivable, but whose inarticulateness is not. (Perhaps it would be more fair to blame moderator Ellen Sorrin for both inane and immaterial questions and an unwillingness to cut off the meandering Barak, or to blame the program’s creator for giving the bulk of discussion and performance time to the less interesting of the two speakers and creators.) Barak’s compositional concerns, it seems, remain entrenched in the child’s dream of growing up and becoming a ballerina. During the rehearsal, each of her decisions were made with the comment, “Oh, that looks pretty. Let’s do it that way.” I do believe she even encouraged her dancers to be “more cutesy.” She invoked the dual gods of frippery—George Balanchine and Jerome Robbins—who have equally contributed to the dated wreckage that is the NYCB.

Lee, however, who comes to us from the Stuttgart Ballet, promises that there is indeed a future for ballet, on a fast trajectory away from pomp, priss, and paint-by-number emotions. While his ballet features four solos by the extraordinary Robert Fairchild (who dances like a raging phantom made simultaneously of steam and steel), a principal with the NYCB, Lee includes more pas-de-troix than pas-de-deux, searing combinations of bodies that tangle in and out of each other, and rarely, if ever, places any action center-stage, using space as equitably as he uses bodies—it is hard to tell which, of his eleven dancers, are principals, soloists, etc. There is, thankfully, no prolish corps de ballets. Lee seems to have taken this lesson, along with the lesson of the mobile torso, from modern dance. And yet, Lee’s work doesn’t feel exactly contemporary. Pointe shoes preserve a dramatic line; the work recalls the stylized angst of German Expressionist painters’ portraits: terrified eyes, extenuated limbs, balanced asymmetry. I cannot wait to see the work in its entirety.

In conversation, Lee was politely dismissive of Barak, barely acknowledging her outright. She mentioned, when asked about her choice to become a choreographer, that she more fell into it, and still considered herself primarily a dancer (she danced with NYCB for nine years, and now dances with the Los Angeles Ballet). When asked a similar question, Lee made a point of calling himself a choreographer who also dances (he is a principal with the Stuttgart), rather than the reverse. Perhaps if Barak one day makes the same transition, she will emerge from Balanchine’s skirts and create something more relevant.

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