Jorma Elo’s Sharp New Work

“Episodes,” “Slice to Sharp,” and “Fearful Symmetries”
New York City Ballet
New York State Theater
New York, NY
June 16, 2006

by Michael Popkin
copyright ©2006, Michael Popkin

New York City Ballet’s Diamond Project concluded Friday night with the premiere of a new ballet by Jorma Elo called “Slice to Sharp.”  At times heavy-handed in its appeal to the audience, the ballet is set to violin music of the 17th century composers Heinrich Ignaz Franz van Biber and Antonio Vivaldi and improbably combines boldly athletic dancing with a modern European dance idiom derived from the Jiri Kylian/Mats Ek school. It was a great success with the audience and continued the trend of this Spring in which NYCB’s Diamond Project of new choreography, pretentious and disappointing in prior seasons, has come of age or at least reached adolescence.

The ballet is a one-act work that employs a cast of eight dancers. Set against a black backdrop, it is dimly lit (the lighting is by Mark Stanley) and consists of a highly linear series of duets for the four couples which move almost uniformly in a horizontal fashion across the stage. The depth of the stage and even diagonal lines are used very little.  The brief tandem dances for each couple follow each other end to end with occasionally a transitional device for one or two other dancers in between them. At the beginning and the end all eight dancers were on stage together, but on only one other occasion do I remember the stage being filled — a passage in the middle when the entire cast formed a semi circle that seemed to promise a tableau might develop. It did not.

The cast was extremely strong: Maria Kowroski, Ana Sophia Scheller, Sofiane Sylve and Wendy Whelan were the women; the men were Edwaard Liang, Joaquin de Luz, Amar Ramasar and Craig Hall. The dancers switched partners more than once, but most often Kowroski was paired with Liang, De Luz with Scheller, Sylve with Ramasar and Whelan with Hall.  Holly Hynes designed the costumes, and dressed the men in grayish blue unitards with a single curving line of silvery piping running in a slight diagonal about the waist. The women wore leotards of the same color but with the piping winding down the back of the costume from above the breast to the front of the opposite hip. The men’s costumes in particular reminded me strongly of the way Captain Kirk and the crew of the “Starship Enterprise” are dressed in “Star Trek.”  The dim lighting, which improved slightly during the course of the piece, called to mind the recent ballets of Peter Martins and Christopher Wheeldon.

The violin score is stitched together from a number of compositions by the two 17th century composers (the program does not take the trouble to identify these pieces) and the result is slightly monotonous and undifferentiated. There are one, perhaps two adagio passages at most, but for the most part the tempi are very fast allegros.  In a typical segment of the ballet, the dancers enter together, toss off a few double and triple pirouettes, proceed to some extraordinarily athletic and impressive jumps and turns, and then suddenly come to a stop, or interrupt this chain of steps, to perform a series of twisting modernist gestures in the upper body that appear derived from the Kylian and from the Alvin Ailey/Paul Taylor palette as well. Occasionally, the men partner the women a little.

It is the repeated passages of bravura athleticism that end with the dancers stopping to do sinuous upper body figures that are the signature of this piece. It must be said, though, that the dancing is very impressive. Nearly every variation was punctuated at some point by spontaneous applause. De Luz, Scheller and Sylve are dancers who can sell pirouettes, jumps and turns. Some lovely material for Whelan and Hall was also included, while Koworoski was given a few of the same sexy pliees in a radically turned-in stance that Mario Bigonzetti showed her off with in “In Vento.” Similarly, Liang and Ramassar are dancers with strong physical and masculine presence.

Elo is currently the resident choreographer of Boston Ballet, but by birth, training and experience he is a product of contemporary Europe. Born in Finland, he danced for the Finnish National Ballet before spending the rest of his career with Sweden’s Cullberg  Ballet and more recently in Amsterdam with Nederlands Dans Theater. “Slice to Sharp” shows these influences. As a plot-less ballet and a celebration of dance athleticism including a whole lot of ABT-like “tricks,” it reflects the contemporary American scene. However, in his handling of musical line and in the way he ends each phrase in inventive figures, Elo marries this athletic formalism with a theatrical dance element drawn more from Scandinavia and the Netherlands.

The strengths of the ballet are its brilliant cast, the choreographer’s gift for showing off his dancers’ strengths, and especially the way the choreography unexpectedly extends the music in an interesting visual way. This is no small accomplishment and for it alone the ballet is worth seeing.

Its weaknesses on the other hand are also striking. First, the choreography is at times too parallel to the score. Baroque violin compositions in an allegro tempo, strung together end to end, can get repetitive and undifferentiated. The ballet, by slavishly conforming itself to the music, gets this way too. Dance follows dance. None of the dancers are more prominent than the others. Everyone is equal. Everything is equal too. If it were not for the athletic moves, you would remember very little of what happened. But in this connection, the athletic element works very much in the work’s favor. The bravura jumps and turns and multiple pirouettes give a visceral interest that relieves the visual monotony of the piece.

A related weakness is the work’s lack of emotional content. The dancers perform more side by side than they actually dance with one another. This is true even when they partner each other and touch. In the entire ballet, except for one brief moment of emotional lyricism in the adagio between Hall and Whelan, there is not the slightest sense of anything passing between the dancers, no interaction within the couples or between them. To give an idea how marked this tendency was — in a night which ended with Peter Martins’ “Fearful Symmetries, the latter ballet actually seemed rich in emotional content. To be sure, though, the emotional vacuum in “Slice to Sharp” does not appear to be the result of a failed attempt by the choreographer to create interaction, it seems instead to be a conscious aesthetic choice. The lack of interaction is one of the points. This, it seems (with an occasional bit of whimsy) is one of the faces of contemporary European modernism. It's of momentary interest because of the quality of the dancing. But what's the point?

George Balanchine “Episodes” opened the program with Sara Mearns giving a strong performance in the role in the concluding “Ricercata” reserved exclusively for Darci Kistler in recent years.  “Episodes” looked very good as a whole. In the performance of Martins’ “Fearful Symmetries” that closed the evening, Carrie Lee Riggins repeated her success of earlier in the week in taking over the first of the three women’s principal roles.           

Volume 4, No. 24
June 19, 2006

copyright ©2006 Michael Popkin



©2006 DanceView