|Awkward Dancing from Austin
"One/The Body's Grace", "Ashes", "Desire and Three Movements"
by Susan Reiter
There is an awkwardness to the titles of two of the three ballets, all by artistic director Stephen Mills, that Ballet Austin brought to the Joyce Theater, and too often a comparable awkwardness to the choreography. Mills certainly choreographs with fluency, and his ballets are rich, even overstuffed, with movement ideas. But time and again a lift or a combination of steps came across as a clever idea straining to find itself in execution. And the problem did not appear to be the dancers' skill; the 20 company members were appealing and capable, if not strikingly individualat least not as presented in these ballets. It just seemed that Mills would try to set an overly intricate phrase or a combination very tightly to the musical line, and the dancers, in their determination to get to where they were supposed to end up, had to traverse some awkward territory along the way.
In addition to an excessive busynessthese are chamber ballets that at times seem to be aching and straining to be Something Biggerthese three works were not distinctive enough from each other. All featured very simple, clingy costumes, with the men always in very short trunks. (This is a look very much in favor these daysthe better to show of the men's leg muscles, perhaps?but it is not necessarily always a flattering or attractive one, and often shortens the men's line.) And let's face it, Mills' musical choices were not exactly daring or different. Baroque arias, and scores by Arvo Part and Steve Reich certainly rank high on the list of those most frequently chosen by choreographers. The Part scores he selected for "Ashes" and "Desire and Three Movements" were used to more original and memorable effect in two ballets seen recently in New York: Christopher Wheeldon's "After the Rain," and Ohad Naharin's "Tabula Rasa."
Mills' three ballets are sincere, but also, ultimately, somewhat bland. Bathed in golden light and wearing simple orangey-tan tank tops and briefs, the three couples of "One/The Body's Grace" entwine closely through densely packed duets that try too hard to match the soaring profundity of the musicgorgeous arias by Gluck, Handel and Bach. Their were occasional moments of shimmering loveliness, but too often one was aware of the dancers' straining to achieve the desired effect, rather than being able to allow it to happen. At one point, the woman plunged into a six-o-clock penché while the man was arching backwards on the floor and straining to hold her hand, arriving at the full pose exactly as the soprano reached a high note in the score. In general, Mills favors a lot of twisty movement, and often has the men hold onto the women's legs or feet.
The ballet does display a nice gift for shaping a couple into attractive sculptural positions, and in the brief opening and closing sections, set to Bach piano music, for the full cast, his spatial designs were effortlessly striking in a way the duets too often were not.
In "Ashes," the eight dancers wore unattractive pale underwear-like costumes and opened the work with brief solos in which they lashed out forcefully and angrily, as though uncomfortable within their own bodies, while the others stood in a line across the stage. Later, they paired up and took turns breaking out of and back into a group circle. Part's mournful, richly textured score has its own powerful momentum, and the choreography feeds off its energy and urgency, yet not with the potent insight that marked Naharin's interpretation. Mills' exploration of isolation and tentative coming together feels earnest but limited.
The closing work, "Desire and Three Movements," was a world premiere. Here, the costumes were very pale grey one-piece tank suits for the men, filmy soft dresses with wispy skirts for the women. The work's structure felt unbalanced; an extended duet for Gina Patterson and Eric Midgley, set to a familiar, delicately repetitive Arvo Part score, was followed by a more vigorous section to Steve Reich in which five other couples alternated and overlapped. The duet featured tenderly supportive moves and some awkward sequences on the floor, as they appeared to becomes more intimate and closely connected. Yet after they kneeled and gently kissed, she left him, walking away slowly and reluctantly.
The group section, seemingly disconnected from what came before, featured vigorous, space-devouring crossings of the stage as Reich's music throbbed and shimmered excitingly. But one longed for some counterpoint or something to surprise or invigorate the straightforward, energetic activity.
The Joyce has become the venue where smaller or mid-sized American companies based in other cities can be seen in New York; it has provided such a platform for Aspen Santa Fe Ballet, BalletMet, Washington Ballet and now Ballet Austin, which was making its local debut. It is too bad there is not a comparable venue for the major American ballet companies (such as San Francisco, Boston, Pacific Northwest) which are rarely or never seen in New York.
Volume 3, No. 37