A couple of weeks ago, I had the immense (and unexpected) privilege of seeing not one, but two of my favorite companies performing brand new work: ‘Rōdē,ō: Four Dance Episodes (Justin Peck) at New York City Ballet and Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet’s Installation 2015 (Alexandra Damiani and Cedar Lake Dancers). Surprisingly enough, the two works had more in common than you might guess.
On the evening that I made my way up to Lincoln Center (February 4th), Justin Peck and fellow NYCB Soloist Sean Suozzi were required to step into an injured Andrew Veyette’s role for the world premiere of the ballet. Despite the small hiccup this created in fully understanding the composition of his new work, the novelty of seeing Peck dance one of his own ballets was a treat–much like the piece itself. I will admit to feeling some trepidation at the announcement that Peck was to choreograph to Aaron Copland’s iconic score (Agnes de Mille’s Rodeo is, after all, a classic), yet he rose to the challenge of the wide spaces and rambunctious movement of the music beautifully. The movement highlighted the technical bravura, quickness, and lightness of City Ballet’s men while Sara Mearns, the sole woman in the cast, had a refreshing naivete and youthfulness that I tend not to associate with her typically fierce and soulful performances (her technique was, of course, as sharp and sure as ever). Another standout was Taylor Stanley, whose ability to fully embody any movement was particularly notable in the second ‘episode’. The beautiful origami of Peck’s spatial organization gave way to humor, to casual conversation, to quiet friendship and the sweet possibility of more. In short: Peck’s usual quirkiness, beauty, and humor in perfect measure. (I highly recommend checking out the handful of clips on City Ballet’s website.)
Four nights later, I found myself walking into a warehouse-like room already filled with bodies–including the members of Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet, wearing dark shawls and sweaters over black costume skirts and bare feet, moving around the circular mini-stage set in the center of the space. As the dancers came face to face, they initiated contact and held it, first with simple, intimate gestures and progressing to sharing each other’s weight. A delicate intensity was already brewing between the dancers, and this was only the introduction. The piece, created by Artistic Director Alexandra Damiani and nine members of the company, had movement that ranged from delicacy to extremism, with relationships emerging between the dancers that could be sexy, tender, near-violent, or all of the above as they stripped down to near-nakedness in the course of the evening.
These were not the only relationships that were interesting, however. Violin and viola duo Chargaux, who composed and performed the music for the installation, were only rarely tucked away in a corner to play; more often than not, they were moved by the dancers or wound their way through the center of the space, sometimes drawing focus to a particular event but often giving a visible reference to the relationship every dancer had with what they were hearing. One memorable moment towards the close of the piece had one of the musicians ‘playing’ a female dancer like a violin, undulating under her skilled hands. The performers’ relationships to space were delightfully complex in that every part of the room could be used as a stage; at some points it was physically impossible to see everything that was happening. This multiplicity of focus is where perhaps the most fascinating relationship of the evening came to light: that of the audience itself with the performers and the space. Dancers might brush past to get to their next cue, create a human chain to make the audience shift positions in the space, or leave the audience to their own devices so that they have to make their own choices about how they experience the work. The piece was a study in and a ritual of intimacy, as much between the dancers as the audience. What was on display was probably a clearer demonstration of who the company is than you will ever see at one of their repertory concerts: a community of unique movement artists who are willing to let an audience get this close to their work.
So what does this study in intimacy by one of New York’s coolest contemporary ballet companies have to do with a brand new piece at one of the top ballet companies in the world? At first glance (or second), not much more than a general medium and a (somewhat) related technique base. The glitz and glamour of the David H. Koch Theatre against Cedar Lake’s unassuming rehearsal studios near Chelsea Piers; pointe shoes and ballet slippers against socks and bare feet; the work of a solo choreographer against a collaborative creation process; an audience comfortably relaxed in assigned seats beyond the proscenium arch against one that is free (and encouraged) to take any vantage point they wish.
The common thread, in a word, is community.
What really impressed me about Peck’s take on Rodeo is the manner in which he created an entire world that felt very real without any of the encumbrances of plot. Sara Mearns first appears like a dream as the men stand casually grouped together, for all appearances chatting as though during a rehearsal break. Later, Mearns places a reassuring hand on Taylor Stanley’s shoulder before dancing a pas de deux with Amar Ramasar; equal partnership and friendship is on display as opposed to the more typical ‘man lifts woman’ paradigm that is often presented. Daniel Ulbricht took some light teasing for the contrast between his bravura dancing and diminutive stature; four men sat with their legs dangling into the orchestra pit below, laughing and horsing around. We are not just seeing choreographed interactions, but an extension of the relationships that exist between colleagues who have been working and training together for years. Now look at Cedar Lake, where the movement on display was so obviously from the dancers’ own bodies–different bodies, yet smoothed out among the company to look both natural and unique. Look at the care they took in partnering each other, in taking care of each other as they hung upside down and slammed into walls and navigated through seas of unrehearsed audience members. You get the sense, watching either of these companies in action, that no matter the situation, these dancers are going to take care of each other as they do their work, whether that means catching a colleague flying through the air or managing a few partnered pirouettes.
And, in totally different ways, both managed to reach out to the audience and say, “Hey, why don’t you join us tonight?” I felt swept up in both of these worlds, enamored by the dancers and entranced by the music and utterly unaware of the passage of time. I felt as though I was witnessing something important, something almost sacred–and what’s more, I felt myself to be some small part of it, whether the action was happening inches from where I stood or on the opposite side of a packed theatre. This, I think, is why I do the work that I do. This is what it’s really about: the ritual of art illuminating and creating communities of individuals.