Tender Moods and Clumsy Pratfalls
This six-year-old troupe is one of several sincere, well-intentioned chamber-scaled ballet ensembles offering experienced dancers a performances experience different from that of a large company. Unless such a venture has a brilliant choreographer within its ranks—and I have yet to discover one that does—it confronts that difficult, ever-painful search for talented, individual dancemakers. To its credit, Configurations (a Cape-Cod based company founded and directed by the husband-and-wife team of Catherine Batcheller and Joseph Cipolla) focuses on cultivating new choreography and does not fill out its program with warhorse repertory. However noble the intentions, on this program the results ranged from the pleasant to the downright silly.
The company, which appends the subtitle "A Ballet for the 21st Century" to its name, was on firmer ground with its opening and closing works than with what came in between. Peter Quantz's "Corelli Variations," which began the evening, was a reflective, atmospheric son-of-"In-the-Night" piano ballet, set to Rachmaninoff's intriguingly romantic spin on Corelli, as deftly performed by pianist Philip Kraft. At the start and conclusion, Duncan Cooper (one of several Dance Theater of Harlem members, past and current, appearing on the program) stood alone center stage, facing the piano. Whether the other five dancers who eventually appeared represented memories he was conjuring was not clear, but they always remained onstage, lurking in the background or at the side whenever they were not actually dancing.
Quantz sustains his mood of tender, if sometimes wary, romance effectively, as various solos, duets and group sections succeed each other, but there is a general look of been-there-done-that to the work, which looked a bit confined spatially, given the large piano occupying part of the stage. The dancers all performed with unmannered clarity. Cooper's nimble and elegant solo was a highlight, as was an expansive duet for Laura Faria and Olivier Wecxsteen, which delved into more emotional territory.
Harrison McEldowney's "At the End of the Road" is a perfectly satisfactory, if not wildly inspired, suite—consisting mostly of duets-to some terrific period recordings of Irving Berlin hits. (No individual music credits were given; one song, "Puttin' On the Ritz," was clearly sung by Judy Garland, and it would have been nice to have the other recordings identified.) A rousing chorus of "There's No Business Like Show Business" launched the work before any dancers appeared. It didn't seem particularly relevant, and the way a few bars of the song kept returning to punctuate the breaks between sections was puzzling and awkward.
The choreography was a pleasing, if somewhat familiar, blend of social dance, a touch of broadway pizzazz, and ballet; the eight dancers all seemed to have quite a good time inhabiting it. Batcheller's natural warmth and low-key glamour, and her easy rapport with the ever-suave Donald Williams, set the tone in the opening duet. Laura Faria and Karim Anqousch embodied the jazzy verve of "Blue Skies," while Elizabeth Holowchuck and Oliver Wecxsteen radiated Hollywood glamour as they glided along to a surprisingly up-tempo rendition of "Let's Face the Music and Dance." McEldowney, the troupe's resident choreographer, certainly knows how to make the dancers look their best.
The trio of works that came between these two included an familiar oldie from the Dance Theater of Harlem repertory: Royston Muldoon's "Adagietto #5, a sculptural trio that seems to aspire to profundity, and gets a bit of a push in that direction from its Mahler score. This performance was a reunion of three DTH veterans: Christina Johnson, looking a bit more robust than in her heyday but still a dancer of quiet intensity and gorgeous line, with Williams and Cipolla. Dressed in pale unitards, they brought a noble dignity to its earnest lifts and intertwinings. It seemed odd that Johnson was not on pointe, given all the reaching and extension of the choreography, some of it looks like lyrical gymnastics.
"Mixed Nuts" is NYCB soloist Edwaard Liang's second work for Configuration; he also performed with them last year, before making his very welcome return to NYCB. During his hiatus, he explored a lot of different styles, from "Fosse" on Broadway to Netherlands Dance Theater, and this quartet is certainly not a dry imitation of Balanchine. It's zany and full of life, and demonstrates a quirky sense of playfulness. Anqousch, Cooper, Johnson and Cheryl Sladkin, wearing white outfits that resembled underwear (for the men, a distinctly un-cool outfit of undershirt, baggy boxers, and ankle socks), bobbed and slouched with goofy abandon, interspersing occasional precise, sharp movements. They looked like a bunch of naughty kids slyly waiting to perform their next mischief. A series of solos and duets set to several of Satie's "Gymnopedies" were less assured in tone. Things weren't always out-and-out funny, and at times the action sagged. One can admire the zest with which Liang approached his assignment, but he has a way to go in terms of craftsmanship and giving his work a more satisfying shape.
At least "Mixed Nuts" had some degree of charm, but the program's other comic work, "U.S. Fried," was a pointless mess that apparently intended to skewer fast food, mass consumption and out-of-control consumer society. It was choreographed by Martha Mason, who directs a Boston company called Snappy Dance Theater, and performed by her, Batcheller and Tye Gillespie. Judging from their goofy get-ups (knee socks, pig tails), they were portraying a bunch of hyperactive kids with a boundless appetite for French fries and other junk food. They cavorted charmlessly around and on a pink inflated armchair, trooped offstage and returned with prop fast food containers and proceeded to create a major mess on the stage scattering food and containers.
Mason is the type of choreographer who shamelessly proclaims in a program note what her dance is accomplishing, which in this case indicates a lot of chutzpah. It is, we're informed, "an edgy, dark-humored social commentary about the dumbing down of American society form such things as reality TV, advertising, fast food, substance abuse and the numbing effect they have on us all." (There is more, but I'll resist the urge to quote further.) As the stage got messier and the trio's desperate antics ranged from a klutzy take-off on the cygnets' dance in "Swan Lake" to clumsy pratfalls, the "edgy commentary" aspect of the piece was somehow lost on me.
3, No. 7