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'Legends And Visionaries' At New York Theatre Ballet
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'Legends And Visionaries' At New York Theatre Ballet

Picture of Patricia Contino
Updated: 6 January 2017
Two years ago, New York Theatre Ballet faced eviction from their longtime Madison Avenue studio. Fortunately for the underprivileged children they teach, the families who enjoy their hour-long Nutcracker and irresistible Alice in Wonderland Follies, and the ballet goers revisiting classics or being introduced to new ones, NYTB found a new home at St. Mark’s Church in the Bowery. Now resettled, the company offered their latest ‘Legends and Visionaries’ program.

The biggest endorsement for attending downtown performances is the intimate atmosphere, and St. Mark’s is perfect for the 13-member troupe. With the pews removed from the nave, the audience sits around the Mylar floor to watch. The dancers enter their ‘stage’ from the sacristy and the improvised wings behind the pillars. There is a certain peacefulness when the house darkens before each piece, with the only light from the street shining on the stained-glass windows.

Their first program of the season lived up to its title by featuring two legendary visionaries. Merce Cunningham’s Cross Currents is an early work by the modern dance master. The 1964 piece is set to Conlon Nancarrow’s Rhythm Studies for Player Piano. Nancarrow, an unapologetic expat avant-gardist who continues wielding a wide influence on contemporary classical music, wrote music so rhythmically challenging that only a player piano could perform it. In other words, it is perfect dance music. Three dancers (Alexis Branagan, Joshua Andino-Nieto and Amanda Treiber) do, indeed, keep crossing each other in every direction. Their ballet training is an asset, tackling Cunningham’s barefoot choreography. Cross Currents entered NYTB’s repertory earlier this year. A repeat viewing reveals how Cunningham deftly synchronizes the music with the choreography, demonstrating that ‘modern’ and ‘mechanical’ are capable of producing involvement rather than detachment.

While Cunningham is a more recent addition to NYTB’s repertory, Agnes de Mille has long been part of it. The A. de Mille Suite restages several Broadway dances featuring the choreographer’s longtime leading ballerina and répétiteur Gemze DeLappe. Each number is introduced with a song from its corresponding show, sung by Darren Chase, with piano accompaniment by Michael Scales. Theodore Chapin, the president-executive director of Rodgers and Hammerstein: An Imagem Company that owns the rights to the duo’s catalogue, reminded the audience that her dances revolutionized the musical because they were about ‘unspoken feelings’ — meaning sex. The ‘Dream Ballet’ scene from Oklahoma! (1943) begins as a sweet wedding but turns into an abduction and second thoughts, which won’t fit into lyrics. The only section performed from it (NYTB also does it in its entirety) was ‘Jud’s Postcards,’ where the villain’s risqué pinups of saloon girls come to life. Initially, the trio (Carmella Lauer, Amanda Treiber, NYTB’s Associate Director Elena Zahlmann) are indifferent to the hooting cowboys but turn on the charm and do the high kicks once the music (an instrumental arrangement ofI Cain’t Say No’) intensifies.

Carousel (1945) further redefined ‘musical comedy’ because there is nothing comical about it. One of the few light moments is ‘Hornpipe.’ Cued by the catchy ‘Blow High, Blow Low,’ sailors come onstage and dance a jig. At first, their macho swaggering scares off the girls, but Hannah (Elena Zahlmann) approaches one (Mitchell Kilby). Their duet turns into a group dance, ending with the sailors returning to their ship. ‘Hornpipe’ has nothing to do with the lead couple Julie and Billy; it tells a happier story about living — and dancing — to the fullest.

A rarely seen ballet treated one legend less reverently. Lois Bewley danced for both the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo and the New York City Ballet. Her familiarity with George Balanchine’s plotless black-and-white leotard ballets is literally turned upside down in Pi r2. Restaged by NYBT’s founder and director, Diana Byer, the ballerina (Mayu Oguri) is flipped like a cheerleader between her two partners (Joshua Andino-Nieto and Steven Melendez). The two thoroughly enjoy nearly splitting her in half while she never breaks her death-ray diva stare. Edgard Varese’s ‘Poème Éectronique’ is an excellent substitute for Balanchine’s longtime collaborators Igor Stravinsky and Anton Webern, whose music was used in Episodes (1959) — a Balanchine masterpiece of flawlessly architectural twisty choreography that Bewley so wickedly parodies.

New York Theatre Ballet performs in and around New York City through 2016. For information on upcoming performances, please go here.

For a schedule of children and adult classes at New York Theatre Ballet’s official school, Ballet School NY, please go here.