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The DanceView Times, New York edition

Tudor, Forsythe and New Works at the New Skirball

ABT Studio Company
Skirball Center
New York, NY
December 5, 2003

By Susan Reiter
Copyright © 2003 by Susan Reiter

In recent seasons, attending a performance by American Ballet Theatre's 12-member "second" troupe has provided (among many other pleasures) an early glimpse of the next generation of brilliant, memorable ABT male dancers. Within the past few years, one could discover the very young Herman Cornejo, Craig Salstein and Danny Tidwell—all of whom moved swiftly, and authoritatively, into the ABT ranks.

The Studio Company's most recent New York season—its first at the attractive, recently opened Skirball Center on the NYU campus—showcased an engaging ensemble rather than drawing attention to any individual dancer in quite the same way. Ten of the twelve are new since the troupe last performed in New York in April; several of them came through ABT's thriving Summer Intensive program, and several of them had made a notable impression at its culminating performance in July.

The first third of the evening introduced the dancers through two familiar and nicely contrasting modestly-scaled works. Both required confident classical technique, and gave the dancers nothing to hide behind, but otherwise they are extremely different. Antony Tudor's 1971 Continuo, one of the ballets he choreographed for the Juilliard Dance Ensemble, presents three youthful white-clad couples dancing with lyrical grace and refined musicality to Pachelbel's overly-familiar Canon. It is remarkably free of the dramatic, gestural approach we tend to associate with Tudor, but it reinforces how expressively he used the classical vocabulary and how intelligently he listened to music.

The stage picture looks simple and uncluttered, but always interesting, as little shifts occur—one couple seems to be launching a duet, but as a new phrase in the music begins, a second one joins in from the wings. Without any fanfare, there is suddenly a section for the men, then a contemplative trio for the women, and then it is on to the next grouping—all flowing through a lucid, unforced continuum. The men, in white tights and softly bloused tops, paid attention to nuance and detail and looked comfortable with the somewhat Ashtonian lyrical manner the work calls for. Not all of the women were able to give in to the gracious flow of the choreography with equal ease.

William Forsythe's 1996 Vertiginous Thrill of Exactitude, familiar from performances by the San Francisco Ballet, sends five virtuosos through what looks like a fast-forward sequence of busy classical steps. Set to one movement of a Schubert symphony, it at least features Forsythe choreography to melodic music—a real rarity, given the harsh, strange contemporary scores he tends to favor. The propulsive energy of the Schubert gives the three woman and two men something to ride along as they go through their difficult, and at times quirky, bravura sequences. With SFB, it was a indeed a thrill to see such dancers as Tina LeBlanc, Kristin Long and Parrish Maynard sail through these challenges. The Studio Company's young dancers (most are in their late teens) did not navigate the challenges with the same ease, naturally, but they plunged in fearlessly and seemed to enjoy them.

The costumes are perversely ugly and distracting, particularly the way the backs are flesh-colored while the fronts are colored-it creates a distraction during pirouettes, of which there are plenty. One sympathizes with the women, who have to wear olive-green pancake-flat tutu skirts, black trunks and shiny white pointe shoes over bare legs.

The rest of the program was given over to new works. The Studio Company has an admirable dedication to giving opportunities to upcoming classical choreographers— it gave Robert Hill a chance to hone his craft as he began to choreograph, and has lately nurtured the intriguing talents of Brian Reeder. This time, the creators of the new works came from outside the ABT "family."

Scott Rink, a modern dancer best known for his performnces with Lar Lubovitch, came up with something venturesome and offbeat with The Sorcerer's Apprentice, set to a musical collage by Scott Marshall that blended sections of the familiar Dukas score with eerie angelic-sounding choral singing and other electronic interpolations. It introduced the Sorcerer as represented by three dancers in muted brown—two men transporting a woman covered with a huge hooded brown cloak—reminiscent of the fantastical "Frume-Sarah" who appears in a dream during Fiddler on the Roof.

The apprentice, Aaron Scott, appears from within the folds of the cloak, wearing peasanty garb (belted tunic, brown knickers over red tights) and performs an extended solo during which he picks up a broom that had been at the side of the stage. Once he leaves it in the wings with just the end of the broomstick visible, we pretty much know the big transformation is about to happen. And it does: on comes the remarkably poised and agile Melanie Hamrick, with each of her arms extended into a broomstick. Her well-designed brown unitard costume that emphasizes her joints as she proceeds through an intriguing solo that explores all the possibilities of those extended limbs and the way she maneuver herself around. It has its humorous and quite inventive moments, but it doesn't really add up to much or advance a developing drama. Hemrick did present its surprises and odd quirks with wonderful timing and aplomb.

Scott manages to partner this odd creature before the situation becomes turbulent and the Broom retreats behind a low white cloth that stretches across the stage, and he takes an axe to her, only to have six identically clad women rise up in her place. The action got somewhat murky, and the pretentiously eerie electronic sounds did not help move things along. Somewhere in the midst of all these goings-on, Scott then bounded through an extended, demanding solo full of fleet demi-caractere steps, demonstrating his crisp technique and finesse.

Rink has bravely tried to create something individual, with a distinctly weird flavor, but somehow the parts did not quite up to a persuasive whole. But it was certainly different, and perhaps with some further shaping the piece will come across more convincingly.

Closing the program was SpringScape, a buoyant, inventive work created for the company by Peter Quanz, a Canadian whose choreography has been nurtured by the Royal Winnipeg and Stuttgart Ballets. He chose an eminently danceable score, Britten's Simple Symphony, and came up with steps that are ideally suited to these fresh, unaffectedly elegant dancers. He set a central trio in muted mauve-grey off against an ensemble of seven in pale peach, and his stage pictures always looked fluent and unforced. The second movement, with the strings plucked in rhythmic pizzicato, was an extended duet for Blaine Hoven and Matthw Murphy that suggested a cross between the mens duet in Agon and the sweet playfulness of Robbins' adolescents. It worked wonderfully with the score—the choreography and the music seemed to be chasing each other.

SpringScape is an accomplished, unfussy work that allows you to enjoy its harmonious and clean designs. Ideally, it might be a better opening ballet than a program closer, but it ended the evening on a robust, delightful note.

It was intriguing to note that the Studio Company's roster includes Ana Sophia Scheller, the Argentinan dancer who made such a fine impression at fifteen when Merrill Ashley chose her for the lead role in Ballo della Regina at the School of American Ballet Workshop. She won this year's Mae L. Wien Award, given to especially promising SAB students, which generally indicates that the next stop will be New York City Ballet. Clearly, Scheller has opted to head in the direction of ABT. Still only seventeen, she danced with ease and security in the Forsythe, and it should be interesting to observe her further development.

The Skirball Center, which opened this fall, has a well-raked orchestra section and one balcony, and seats just under 900. This comfortable, modern theater is an attractive new option for companies seeking a venue larger than the Joyce. It's a nice addition to have a potential home for dance in the West Village, since most of the dance activity tends to take places lightly north (in Chelsea) or east (the East Village) of there.

Originally published:
Volume 1, Number 11
December 8, 2003

Copyright ©2003 by Susan Reiter



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The Autumn DanceView is out:

New York City Ballet's Spring 2003 season reviewed by Gia Kourlas

An interview with the Kirov Ballet's Daria Pavlenko by Marc Haegeman

Reviews of San Francisco Ballet (by Rita Felciano) and Paris Opera Ballet (by Carol Pardo)

The ballet tradition at the Metropolitan Opera (by Elaine Machleder)

Reports from London (Jane Simpson) and the Bay Area (Rita Felciano).

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last updated on October 20, 2003