and again," "Quartet 2," "Hook-Up," "Romeo
and Juliet in Mantua"
A program comprised entirely of world premieres inspires both hopefulness and a quiet dread. Certainly dancers, and audiences, thrive on new works and cannot survive by focusing on the tried and true. But given the slim chance of finding well-crafted, involving choreography with a strong individual imprint among the novelties on ballet programs these days, you head into a program of world premieres knowing the odds are stacked against you. But Fugate/Bahiri Ballet NY took this bold, optimistic plunge for its latest New York season, offering four brand-new works, two of them with original music scores performed live.
Now eight years old, the company—formerly known as Dance Galaxy—has a current roster of 14 dancers, including six members of the still-on-hiatus Dance Theatre of Harlem. The level of dancing is high; this is an ensemble of distinct individuals with strong projection.
Among them, they provided Davis Robertson, who danced for ten years with the Joffrey Ballet, with interpreters for all of "Romeo and Juliet"'s leading characters, in his whirlwind traversal of the familiar, oft-danced tale, with an added twist. "Romeo and Juliet in Mantua," which closed the program, was, at nearly 40 minutes, by far the most substantial work on the program, and the only one in a dramatic vein. It was also the most misguided, because the altered ending and added scenes that were presumably Robertson's motivation for choreographing in the first place were presented in a confused, unfocused way that depended heavily on the ongoing video projections to clarify what was going on.
As an exercise, Robertson's swift, economical telling of the story up through the tomb scene would earn an A-plus as a choreographic assignment. Using simple, earth-tone costumes and with the projections providing the settings, he sketched the essential outlines with clear, if derivative, steps and patterns. It's hard to know how the work would read to someone who had never seen a danced "Romeo and Juliet" before, but to these eyes, the characters were clearly identifiable and the situations recognizable.
The young lovers were given short shrift—the balcony scene lasted about 15 seconds, as Romeo entered and handed her a rose, and there was no bedroom scene. You had to take it on faith that these two were fatally drawn to each other, and Matthew Prescott and Melissa Morissey made that possible. He's a lanky, appealing dancer with tousled blond curls and an expansive way of moving, while she is pert, vivid and also wonderfully yielding once they finally engage in a real duet.
This happens in the tomb scene, where Robertson finally makes his move away from the familiar telling. As Romeo despairingly holds the limp Juliet, who wraps herself around his torso, she returns to life, evidently in his imagination or memory, for the coming together that we had not yet seen. Buoyed by David Homan's richly expressive, aptly melancholy score for string quartet (which was a strong asset throughout the work), they finally express their closeness through clear, unaffected partnering.
From here on in, Robertson's intentions to take the tale to a new place—envisioning the lovers' plans as not going awry and thus being able to survive, exiled in Mantua—lead to confusion and a lot of muddled action. First of all, he includes a silly section of multiple messenger-friars carrying the ill-fated message to Romeo; suddenly the dance becomes a poor cousin of David Parsons' "The Envelope." Romeo does not get the message—which would be a plot change that would certainly alter what ensues—but somehow the lovers survive past the tomb scene—despite taking poison.
From there, we cut to a split-screen effect as the projections (which earlier had included everything from introductory banners to identify the feuding families to Verona's streets and the Friar's cell) established that R&J had decorated their house with lime-green walls, stage left, while back in Verona, on stage right, the families mourned their children and built monuments to their memories. This latter unfortunate sequence consisted of the ensemble waving their arms near the projection as two statues—one resembling an Oscar, the other a chicken—grew in size to dwarf the Veronese buildings. (I guess this was symbolic).
Meanwhile, R&J find domestic bliss much less conducive to romance than the tomb. Romeo stands still as we see projections of all the tumult that came earlier, especially a reminder of Mercutio's death. Suddenly, he turns into a tortured soul and seemingly goes mad, and the two of them are miserable and in conflict. None of these major shifts are communicated in dance terms—only through elementary posturing. Over on stage right, the trauma of their loss has somehow not taught the families anything, and they are back at each other's throats.
Jodie Gates was also, memorably, a Joffrey dancer, but as a choreographer she has nothing in common with Robertson, based on her "now and again," a terse work in the Forsythe vein that opened the program. Gates actually displays a touch more warmth and a less aggressively steely edge that Forsythe, though her eight dancers' cool, impersonal demeanor as they take turns sitting on sleek metal stools and joining in for bursts of thrusting, aggressive dancing. The smoky lighting downplayed the dancers' facial expressions, and created an intriguing effect at the start, when Prescott and Bonnie Pickard opened the proceedings as a wary couple not quite willing to look straight at each other. Prescott's plush, twisted reachings and their swooping lifts started the work off on a promising note, but when the lighting gradually revealed others on stools, and the Bach cello music gave way to a de rigueur electronic score of pulsating blips, the work became more diffuse and less effective.
Helen Heineman choreographed "Hook-Up," a concise, bland duet that showcased the riveting presence and suave partnering of the ever-youthful Donald Williams, as he met up with Lindsay Purrington, a sweet flirty young thing, while a churning, rhythmic score by Arnold Dreyblatt carried things along. They entered from opposite sides, and as soon as they had arrived at the obligatory roll to the floor, they got up perfunctorily and walked back off in opposite directions.
Alan Hineline's "Quartet 2" was an efficient, vigorous work for three couples, set to a nervous, edgy string quartet by Jerome Begin, performed live by the same exemplary musicians who played Homan's score. It featured frequent changes of mood and tempo, lots of work for couples and also brief solo turns. It had a chic, contemporary look—ivory trunks worn by all, with corset-like tops for the women and pale grey tank tops for the men. It engaged the eye, and clearly excited the audience, but I never felt it had a beating heart. Hineline has a keen sense of how to shape the dancers' bodies, and he manipulates the stage space with confidence—something to be appreciated these days. The dancers—Duncan Cooper, Allyson Ashley, Duncan Cooper and Stacey Williams (all part of the DTH contingent), Todd Fox, John-Mark Owen and Purrington—seemed particular engaged by the choreography and the live music, and their committed, vibrant performance gave the work an extra sheen.
Photos by Eduardo Patino