"Second Companies" have their day

1•2•3 Festival
Ailey II / American Ballet Theater Studio Company / Taylor 2
Joyce Theater
New York, NY
April 27, April 30 (matinee) & May 6 (matinee)

by Susan Reiter
copyright ©2006, Susan Reiter

Plucky, tireless, youthful dancers brimming with potential filled the stage of the Joyce Theater for the past two weeks, as it provided an ideal venue for three high-caliber “second” companies — which exist primarily to tour — to settle in at home and strut their stuff. Given the small size of these troupe — Ailey II and the ABT Studio Company each have a dozen members, while Taylor 2 numbers six — everyone gets plenty of time onstage and no one is relegated to the background.

The companies shared an opening-night bill and then settled in for alternating programs of their own. ABT Studio Company, continuing its admirable track record of commissioning original works, offered two premieres, and also tested the dancers’ classical mettle with a staging of two sections from Balanchine’s sublime “Divertimento No. 15.” Wearing elegant grey costumes (from a long-ago ABT “Theme and Variations” production), the eight dancers gave a quite respectable performance of the second and fourth movements of the Mozart work. Launching right into the string of solos, without any of the ensemble framing, was not the most felicitous way to experience this ballet, but it did give five of the troupe’s six women a chance to register as poised individuals, each with a distinctive feminine perfume — no cute little girls here. Allison Miller was a model of smooth, fluent phrasing, while Isabella Boylston was notably expansive and pliant. Leann Underwood was regal and forceful, while the more petite Nicole Graniero displayed beautifully stretched form and scintillatingly crisp attack. Eric Tamm, a model of elegance with a hint of eager boyishness, sailed through the demands of the male variation, and Abigail Simon propelled herself with dynamic vigor through the lead ballerina’s solo. The young dancers shaped the string of heart-rendingly beautiful duets with appealing directness and unmannered radiance.

Sean Curran’s “Aria,” a New York premiere, sent four couples through an unfocused hodge-podge of activity to the impassioned accompaniment of six arias from Handel operas. They had clearly been attending some swanky soiree, judging from the chic, nicely individualized white cocktail dresses (with gently swooping skirts) and elegant black pants, cummerbunds and white shirts with loosely flopping ties. (Fashion designer Charles Nolan did the costumes.) Curran’s choreography paled beside the powerful music; nothing that took place on stage seemed ot evolve organically form what had come before, and I never got a strong sense of what Motivated Curran to set this music to dancing.

From the first moments of Benjamin Millepied’s “Capriccio” (a world premiere), it was clear that we were seeing choreography truly inspired by its music. Still a relative neophyte as a choreographer (though increasingly busy with projects in Europe), Millepied seizes head-on the challenge of Paganini’s virtuosic, speedy, skittering Caprices for Solo Violin. Eduardo Permuy sets the bar high with an intrepid opening solo that hints at Robbins-like playfulness within its bounding, speedy steps. From then on Millepied fills the stage with an abundance (perhaps in some cases an overabundance of inventive, clever, entertaining combinations of classical technique, with a few rolls to the ground and gymnastic bits tossed in for good measure. A highlight was the section in which the effervescent Graniero was partnered by four men — held aloft like a swaying canopy, tossed from one to the other — but was also allowed an interlude to display her fleet footwork and precision.

In the course of “Capriccio”’s thirty minutes, things got hectic at times, with perhaps a few too many entrances and exits, but Millepied knew when and how to tone it down, and the dancers were up to all the considerable challenges he threw their way. One could sense his enthusiasm for the music in his array of solos, duets and trios that never failed to capture its essence. A fluent, richly humane showcase, “Capriccio” felt fresh and exhilarating — and all the dancers looked terrific in it.

Ailey II’s programs balanced novelties with a suite of Ailey Highlights — essentially a compact version of what the main company offers on its Ailey Classics evenings. On the program I saw, Troy Powell’s “How Small a Thought,” set to a haunting, otherworldly Steve Reich vocal score that was part chant, part incantation, was an honorable work that broke no new ground but used familiar stylistic elements fluently The three powerful women — extending their arms like protective angels — dominated the piece, which was a model of intelligent craftsmanship.

In Doug Varone’s 1992 duet “Beauty, set to a heavenly Mozart aria, the tall, beautifully stretched Alia Crutcher made a riveting impression, as she and Marcus Willis gravely navigated this simple yet eloquent piece in which gesture and nuance were paramount. Scott Rink’s “Bitter Suite,” set to jazzy music by John Barry and Steven Bernstein that could have been a film noir soundtrack, brought things down to a more earthy level after the exalted tone of the first two. It had a sly, offbeat charm, featured some gymnastic partnering and gave the dancers opportunities for characterization that they grabbed wholeheartedly.

Another commitment prevented me from staying for the Ailey Highlights, but the half of the program I did see made it clear that the current roster of Ailey II features particularly powerful and talented women.

Taylor 2 does not exist to commission new works, but to perform Paul Taylor’s works, often in reduced versions. The ambitious program they offered at the Joyce included three of Taylor’s greatest works, all of which were created for casts of more than six dancers. Somehow, someone (presumably with Taylor’s involvement or certainly his approval) performed the Herculean logistical task of restaging these works on a smaller scale for this energetic, appealing ensemble of three women and three men.

After the necessarily spare opening section, which loses power with only six — rather than thirteen — silhouetted figures emerging from the darkness and gradually jiving their way into youthful vibrancy, “Company B” proceeds along remarkably intact in this version. There is a more doubling of roles, and lord knows none of the six must ever get a moment’s rest since there are always background or supporting roles to be filled behind the soloists. But we really get to know these dancers right away, and they are not only a skilled but a most engaging group.

Francisco Graciano removed all vestiges of cuteness from the “Tico Tico” solo, emphasizing more than usual the recurring shudder of a soldier being shot. Jamie Rae Walker, a cool blond beauty with a slight edge, was less teasing than wearily resigned as the tropical temptress of “Rum and Coca Cola.” Jared Wootan was a most endearing doofus in “Oh, Johnny, and Winstorn Dynamite Brown found shadings and new emphases that made “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy” particularly vivid. Alison Cook’s lush phrasing made the most of the yearning as well as the bitterness of “There Will Never Be Another You.”

Piazzolla Caldera” suffered from the evenly distributed casting; when the curtain rose on three men and three women, the level of tension one usually gets from the seven men facing off against five women was ratcheted way down. In this case, the miniaturized version came off as a much weaker impression of the fiercely intense full piece. Movements that should look gutsy , even ugly, were delivered decorously. The costumes were simplified (slinky black leotard tops and wrapped print flounced skirts instead of the dresses), the seedy handing lamps weren’t there. We got a decent approximation of what “Piazzolla” is, but if felt wan, especially with the memory of the demonic attack the Miami City Ballet dancers had brought to the work last week.

“Esplanade,” pretty much a foolproof dance, came across much better. It also involved much less reduction, since most of the time the six dancers were replacing eight. In the mysterious, gestural second section, the tall lean maternal figure originated by Bettie de Jong was in this case a man, Graciano, until right near the end, when Walker took over for the moment when she sits on the ground forlornly shuddering. Latra Wilson brought robust energy and warmth to the skittering, flirtatious third movement, playing happily with the guys. One could only admire the dancers’ stamina and generosity, given the amount of dancing they had to do throughout the evening. Towards the end one could spot a bit of huffing a puffing, but the women still had the energy to sail through the air with daredevil glee in the final movement, into the waiting arms of those strong, reliable men.

Volume 4, No. 18
May 8, 2006

copyright ©2006 Susan Reiter



©2006 DanceView