When American Ballet Theatre principal Michele Wiles founded BalletNext with New York City Ballet alum Charles Askegard shortly after decamping from ABT in 2011, the plan seemed to be the usual ballet-star vanity project: gala fare alternating with good to terrible contemporary vehicles for the dancer-directors and their guests. This proved true for the first season. But by 2014 Wiles, now alone at the helm, had largely given up on other choreographers, taking on the job herself with an assist from Brooklyn flexmeister Jay Donn in a cartoonish play of opposites.
In between one dubious plan and another, however, she appointed Brian Reeder resident choreographer. Though he was no stranger to BalletNext—it had already premiered three of his pieces—he had only enough time to make one short ballet before the arrangement collapsed. This season we got to see that piece, “Strange Flowers,” along with “Surmisable Units,” from 2013. These bright, odd ballets hint at what a small troupe might do to distinguish itself in a city bursting with major companies—what BalletNext might still do.
Even before he turned to choreography, Reeder’s career was unusually peripatetic. In 1985 he entered New York City Ballet, which people tend not to leave, given its repertory and calibre. Besides, Jerome Robbins had noticed him. Five years on, though, he transferred to Ballet Frankfurt under William Forsythe—whom dancers also stick with for life—only to depart after another five years for ABT, where he remained until retiring from the stage in 2003.
With this trajectory—from neoclassicism to its deconstruction, then boomeranging back to nineteenth century story ballets as well as the social comedies and tragedies of ABT’s founding decades—it is no wonder Reeder is uncategorisable. He sees categories everywhere. Where dancers with a narrower foundation simply notice “the way things are,” Reeder discerns conventions, genres: artifice. Moves call out to him, he has noted, for that “weird, dark, Brian twist—a little sarcasm that maybe hasn’t been attached to the step.” From a string of such steps, he creates drama: “short screenplays,” he calls the skeletons of ballets, with a movie’s requisite setting (“a period or a decade when this dance moment is happening”) even when the ballet does not involve a plot.1
“Surmisable Units” alludes less to a period than to the ethos that defined it. The score is Steve Reich’s Piano Phase, from 1967, early in the composer’s career, when his faith in the bare bones procedures of art was most zealous and exposed. The ballet begins with the pianist Elliot Figg plodding onstage and seating himself between two Steinway grands, one paw on each and the back of his bald head to us. Already we have a “weird Brian twist,” which in this case summarises the ballet to come. The round human skull between the two gleaming rectilinear machines both parodies strict formalism and captures the commonplace that the left hand doesn’t know what the right hand is doing. How could it with that head blocking the view?
Piano Phase’s two hands do eventually meet up—indeed, they switch places—but only by logic, not by force of will or sentiment. Same with the choreography. Disparate planes of activity do ultimately cohere—the dancers entering from one side and walking straight to the other to exit; the gnomic solos downstage crossbreeding Forsythian expatiation from a single rooted spot with Cunningham animal opacity; the dancer lying under the piano waving her arms like a conductor. But to the extent that the ballet’s integrity seems miraculous rather than calculated by the choreographer, we know we are guilty of the pathetic fallacy. Reeder welcomes our magical thinking—indulges in it himself, with the prone dancer under the piano. And this disparity between method and tone is where his biggest “twist” occurs. He embraces strict procedure and is simultaneously ironic about it. The ballet may indeed be surmised in “units,” but the dry word does not capture our creeping delight. At “Surmisable Units,” I smiled from the title forward.
Thanks to the pointy, courtly harpsichord of eighteenth century composer Jean-Philippe Rameau and the immediate pulse of intrigue, “Strange Flowers” quickly establishes its setting, or at least its reference points: Dangerous Liaisons via Victoria’s Secret. Baroque doing the bump with burlesque. In this ménage à trois (originally for Wiles and ex-NYCB dancers Stephen Hanna and Kaitlyn Gilliland) two women circulate around a lone man before discarding him for one another.
Flattered by Victoria Bek’s tutus in blue velvet (with shades of Blue Velvet), neckline plunging and breasts unballetically squeezed and pushed, Tiffany Mangulabnan and Wiles perch on glass chairs (the better for us to see them) to observe peacock Jesús Pastor mark his territory. In frock coat and bare chest, he pivots around his base like the shadow of a sundial, flourishing a wrist with each quarter turn. Facing front, he traces circles around himself with his foot as if pooling his sexual resources. Out of vile characters wrapping their erotic manoeuvres in self-importance, Reeder foments comic joy.
The gazing women are both audience and spectacle. They toy with the single rose Pastor has allotted each of them, cross and uncross their legs like calendar girls, and accompany him—one on each side—before they switch sides and switch again in a weaving game of London Bridge that alludes to another divo ballet: Balanchine’s “Apollo.” In “Strange Flowers,” though, the god is not being born, he is already far along, the sun at its peak and the flowers long-bloomed. But though he knows the codes of seduction through and through, he is ignorant of where these women will take him or leave him. And so are we.
The delicately restrained comedy together with the fact that three is a dangerous number argues for a denouement or at least a punchline, but it takes nearly the whole ballet for “Strange Flowers” to let us know if it is coming. Is the ballet a drama or a series of divertissements? Will it tell a story or merely dilate on a mood or occasion? The mystery of how to watch mixes with the trio’s sexual frisson for a big tease.
After Pastor demonstrates his potency and centrality, with the women his hungry yet coy hangers-on, “Strange Flowers” loosens its grip on romance for virtuosic solos. Now the danseur maps the space more geometrically than egomaniacally—with fewer flourishes and more right angles. Wiles bursts into twittery, spritely, and swerving steps. Does she jump quick from joie de vivre or because time is running out for her conquest of Pastor? Is she showboating or caught up in a sudden private happiness? While the threesome’s avarice is as clear as a fishbowl, their motives moment to moment remain opaque. Eager for power as much as for romance, these people hope to be watched—the bigger the audience, the better—but not to be seen through. We grant their wish half the time.
When all three lie down—Pastor inert on his side, the women behind him in manoeuvres that slide between a sexy wallow and a stylized version of a dancer’s warmup before morning barre—it is hard to tell whether we’re watching indolence or sly machination, whether nothing or something will happen.
“Strange Flowers” prompts an itch to laugh that, fittingly, does not resolve into a scratch. You want to laugh partly for not getting to. Not only the story but our reaction too is suspended in the glow of irony and wit.
What unites “Strange Flowers” and “Surmisable Units,” and likely all the ballets Reeder might make for BalletNext, is a delicate balance between distance and closeness, affection and tartness, drama and poetry, that is delicious, whimsical, and wise.