Kicking off its 40th anniversary season, last weekend American Repertory Ballet presented a flashy four-piece program of technically challenging choreography.
Titled “New Heights,” the quadruple bill was presented at ARB’s spanking new “home” theater in the state-of-the-art New Brunswick Performing Arts Center.
Though operating without an artistic director — a search is underway and executive director Julie Diana Hench is temporarily assuming artistic leadership duties — the company looked fabulous, displaying virtuosic technique and generating electrifying energy, despite the sparse audience at the Saturday matinee I attended.
As expected, the dancers wowed us in the show’s three ballet-based works — Ethan Stiefel’s “Overture,” Riccardo De Nigris’s “Beyond the Normal,” and Septime Webre’s “Fluctuating Hemlines” — all of which allow the dancers to exhibit their astounding high extensions, multiple pirouettes, and complex leaps.
Yet surprisingly, the highlight of the program was the troupe’s performance of “Airs,” an exquisite modern-dance piece by Paul Taylor, the masterful craftsman of dozens of the most revered works of the American modern-dance canon.
While still mourning the choreographer’s 2018 death, and happy for any opportunity to continue to see his great works, Taylor fans, nonetheless, typically feel trepidation at the prospect of watching ballet dancers bring their formal, illusion-of-weightlessness training to Taylor’s grounded, more pedestrian-style movement vocabulary.
But thanks in large part to meticulous work by Bucks County native Sean Mahoney, the longtime Paul Taylor Dance Company member who set “Airs” for ARB, the company proffered a magnificent interpretation of the piece, at least visually.
While the dancers could have soared through space with a bit more abandon and found more strength and resistance, they captured the nuanced details of the body shapes superbly and really looked like “Taylor dancers.” Especially in the allegro passages, including a sparkling, jump-filled duet danced by Tanner Bleck and Annie Johnson, they excelled.
Johnson, Aldeir Monteiro, and ARB second company members Jonathan Montepara and Hallie Rumsey-Lasersohn also gave laudable performances premiering “Beyond the Normal.” Created specifically for ARB’s inaugural appearance at NBPAC, the oddly structured, two-part quartet feels like it is missing its third section.
Set to a pulsating, electronic score by Massimo Margaria, the piece starts out resembling that all- too-popular style of contemporary ballet in which dancers hurl themselves aggressively into the air, or into their partners arms, moving at supersonic speed, and pointlessly whipping their bodies around with such force that it becomes exhausting to watch .
But as De Nigris’s piece progresses, it never enters that “assaultive” zone, but rather remains in the realm of the excitingly athletic as its movements are designed with a strong sense of line that shapes the choreography within a satisfying visual framework.
In its second section the piece shifts gears into an improvisational mode, with the dancers trying to come up with different movements, as if they are being made to guess what the choreographer wants from them. They grow confused. So do we. Then it ends. The piece needs a culminating section that completes the statement De Nigris is trying to make about dancer-choreographer relationships.
Also confusing is Stiefel’s choreographic tone in “Overture.” Danced to thrilling Beethoven music, the romantic choreography is spiced by periodic insertions of bizarre arm gestures: fast circles of the forearms or percussive upward lifts of the entire arm bent 90 degrees at the elbow with hands hanging downward. Is this supposed to be funny? I think so, but the dancers perform these moves as effortlessly as they do the regular ballet steps, so the humor doesn’t register.
Originally choreographed for ARB by Webre in 1995 when he was the troupe’s artistic director (from 1993 to 1999), “Fluctuating Hemlines” also falls short choreographically. Though accompanied by adrenalizing percussion music by Robert “Tigger” Benford, himself playing live for these performances, the piece begins with men and women in cocktail attire performing gestural choreography indicative of gender-specific restrictions on their behavior. The interplay is clever and seems ripe for interesting choreographic development. But when the dancers strip to under-garments and move with freedom, the work devolves into a predictable, show-off-your-ballet-tricks affair.
ARB’s season continues with performances of “Beauty and the Beast” (in October in Philadelphia, and Princeton in May), “The Nutcracker” (in November and December in Princeton, New Brunswick, and Trenton), “Giselle” (in February in New Brunswick), and mixed bills (in June in New Brunswick). www.arballet.org