Aran Bell and Devon Teuscher in Gemma Bond's ”Seventy Two Hours.” Photograph by Maria Baranova

Ballet Festival

The Joyce Theater's Ballet Festival

By late summer in NYC the big hometown ballet troupes have followed their well-heeled supporters to their summer playgrounds in Vail, Nantucket, the Hamptons, and Saratoga Springs. What a treat then to have stars of the Royal Ballet present four different programs at the Joyce Theater in the doldrums of August. Kevin O’Hare, the company’s artistic director, curated the opening lineup and also invited current principals Lauren Cuthbertson and Edward Watson as well as former dancer/current designer Jean-Marc Puissant to arrange the other three—an interesting and generous idea. The first two bills ran last week, and though they were rather lightweight that was not such a bad thing; they were a nice counterpoint to the seasonal haze.    

O’Hare’s program consisted entirely of solos and duets by the Royal’s choreographic luminaries. Six of the eight works were excerpted from bigger ballets, and this often showed. The exception was “The Dance of the Blessed Spirits” from Frederick Ashton’s “Orpheus.” This simple solo, danced by the wonderful Joseph Sissens, easily pulled one into its dreamy mood.  No set, lighting, or costume designer is credited in the program. Sissens wore plain tights on a bare stage. Yet this dance had the most fully realized world because Ashton’s syntax is well-established and potent. Sissens meditatively stirred his lower arms en dedans to Gluck’s flute melody as if trailing his finger across the surface of a pond. Faster passages of sissones and pas de bourées had him agitatedly floating—indecisive yet unruffled. When he reverently clasped his hands at the end it was as if we spectators had trespassed on a private prayer.

Joseph Sissens in Frederick Ashton’s “Dance of the Blessed Spirits.” Photograph by Maria Baranova

Kenneth MacMillan’s “Concerto Pas de Deux” also worked fairly well as a standalone—even stripped of its three supporting couples. But like the slightly ill-fit of Lauren Cuthbertson’s basic orange leotard (by Jürgen Rose) something was off about it. It may have been the academic simplicity of the steps contrasted with Shostakovich’s emotional andante. MacMillan is the king of the romantic pas de deux, yet to the Shostakovich—of all music—he’s coldly geometric. Though it was pleasing to see basic arabesque press lifts and grand ports de bras in fourth position so cleanly executed by Cuthbertson and Nicol Edmonds, “Concerto” underwhelmed. Perhaps everything else pales after seeing Alexei Ratmansky’s marvelous treatment of the same music in “Concerto DSCH”—which oddly enough also employs a trio of background couples. Did Ratmansky see MacMillan’s “Concerto” and reinvent it?

The streamlined, sculptural partnering MacMillan explores in “Concerto” ironically preceded the sole offering by Christopher Wheeldon—who perfected that genre in “Polyphonia” and other ballets. The two duets from Wheeldon’s “Within the Golden Hour” were nicely danced by Calvin Richardson, Joseph Sissens, Sarah Lamb, and Marcelino Sambé but suffered from their excerption as well as audience fatigue—they were the fourth and fifth numbers, falling right before intermission. Lamb and Sambé’s gorgeous exit lift made for a strong closeout of the first half, however.  

Marcelino Sambé and Sarah Lamb in Christopher Wheeldon’s “Within the Golden Hour.” Photograph by Maria Baranova

A program of all solos and duets is tricky. Excerpt after excerpt can be exhausting and unfulfilling, as grazing on hors d’oeuvres at a party all night may leave one feeling stuffed but unsatisfied. Some program notes to situate the different pieces in the Royal’s history would have helped tremendously—or maybe a chronological or thematic progression? As it was it seemed totally haphazard, with Ashton’s “Five Brahms Waltzes in the Manner of Isadora Duncan” as a head-scratching finale. The night seemed to be primarily arranged around costume changes and rests for the young and busy Mr. Sissens—who danced brilliantly in four of the eight pieces. In fact, it should have been called “A Night of Joseph Sissens”—he was tremendous throughout the evening and it would have better unified the whole affair.

Program B actually worked along these lines and it was more cohesive because of it. It was curated by Royal Ballet star Lauren Cuthbertson, who appeared in four of the five works. Two were solos commissioned for her just for this event, one of which—“Darl” by Jonathan Watkins—was quite personal. The evening was a pleasing portrait of an artist, a display of her taste as well as range.

Lauren Cuthbertson in Jonathan Watkins’ “Darl.” Photograph by Maria Baranova

The curtain rose on Cuthbertson in practice clothes and messy hair tying on her pointe shoes next to a clump of dancerly detritus—a roller, bag, etc. This was “Darl,” originally slated to close the first half of the bill but flipped to open it instead. The music—cited as: “Rethinking Bolero” by Hannah Peel after Ravel with audio additions—consisted of spliced phone calls between the choreographer, herself, and her titular friend Darla. Cuthbertson recounted funny incidents like losing her passport while Watkins explained his intentions for this very solo. There were some laughs—as when she struck a ludicrous pose to the word “Instagram.” It wasn’t much of a dance, but it did accomplish Watkins’s self-avowed mission to make her seem “quirky and fun.” Cuthbertson chuckled sheepishly during the bows. I can see why this work was performed first—it felt more like prelude than actual show.

The second piece was the world premiere of Gemma Bond’s “Seventy Two Hours,” beautifully danced by Aran Bell and Devon Teuscher of ABT. This was the strongest work of the night. Bond brilliantly framed the couple’s brief, intense relationship to a series of Rachmaninoff pieces. Teuscher threw her head back in her opening solo as she pas de bouréed back and forth to the piano’s rubato. The couple seemed refreshingly modern—from their costumes (somewhere between streetwear and dancewear, by Ruby Canner) to their mix of unison sequences, sustained partnering, and independent streaks. I enjoyed how Bond staged prominent moments in the score: like employing a light pencil lift toss for a low note, or when Teuscher nailed a sustained double pirouette into à la seconde while staying on pointe—hitting a piano ping just as her leg opened.  When the couple parted at the end it felt satisfyingly complete, like a good short story. 

Juliano Nuñes’s “Two Sides Of,” a duet for Cuthbertson and Sambé, followed. It was a slinky display of helicoptering limbs in dark ombré unitards (designed by Cuthbertson). It ticked off the contemporary box and showcased the dancers’ wonderful extensions. I would have named it “Two Legs Of.” The world premiere of Stina Quagebeur’s solo “Reverie” was likewise pretty and serviceable. Here Cuthbertson got to demonstrate her fluidity in socks with her hair in a loose braid. She evoked Wyeth’s painting Christina’s World.

Lauren Cuthbertson in Stina Quagebeur’s “Reverie.” Photograph by Maria Baranova

Before the world premiere of Robert Binet’s “Dialogue Dances” the cast—which included guests from the National Ballet of Canada—appeared onstage with a microphone to thank the indigenous peoples who contributed the music (by Wolastoqiyik Lintuwakonawa and composed by Jeremy Dutcher) and inspiration for the piece. They also thanked the Lenape tribe of New York City on whose land they were now performing. It was a touching gesture, and it set up the work well in the absence of any program notes.

“Dialogue Dances” opened with a stunning solo for the excellent Xiao Nan Yu. Binet worked in a mixed vernacular that seamlessly integrated the piece’s theme with pointework. Later Hannah Fischer and Skylar Campbell wore contemporary khaki clothing, while Yu and Spencer Hack were draped in diaphanous beige—representing spirits perhaps. The costumes were designed by Thomas Tait. The khaki-clad dancers were often mirrored by their gossamer counterparts—as if each duo were one person divided into flesh and soul. Hack kept picking up Campbell and gently carrying him; Fisher partnered Yu in a slow attitude promenade without looking at her, as if she didn’t know she was doing it. Cuthbertson and Edmonds wore the same costume—a black leotard with a transparent black skirt. Their pas de deux was more sexually charged. “Dialogue Dances” drifted some but ended powerfully with the full cast onstage. Cuthbertson was but one part of this ancestral conversation at the close of her program, adding graciousness to the list of her many talents.          

Ballet Festival
Xiao Nan Yu in Robert Binet’s ”Dialogue Dances.“ Photograph by Maria Baranova