The “baroque” is generally associated with poor taste and bad politics. We think of Versailles and the courtiers powdering their wigs with flour as people died of starvation on the streets. It might be surprising to learn that the excessive aesthetic of the baroque actually started in the populist tradition, when in 1563 the Catholic church declared that artists needed to make an effort to reach a common audience. Standards of form and genre were to be trumped for a more spontaneous, individualistic expression of the human voice. The tragicomedy became a hit. It was only during the Enlightenment, when everyone was trying to be rational and orderly, that the term gained a negative connotation.
PERFORMED BY BALLETNEXT
February 10-14, 2015
Perhaps it was this desire to break rules and blend disciplines that served as the inspiration for Baroque’d, BalletNext’s 2015 program at New York Live Arts. Founder Michele Wiles, a former principal at American Ballet Theatre, directs the four-year-old company. “I wanted to feel passionate and expressive. I wanted people to feel me when I performed,” Wiles said in an interview with the New York Times. She thinks of BalletNext as a venue, not just for herself and a group of handpicked dancers, but for other artists, which is why she insists performances take place with live music. In this case, Wiles chose to commission work by Peter Quanz, a choreographer who directs the Q Dance Company; Jay Donn, a flex dancer who has developed a sub-variety of the street style he calls “punchlines”; and Chris Lancaster, an electro-acoustic cellist.
If the last two artists don’t sound like the obvious choice for collaborators in the ballet world, it’s because they’re not. Though the theme indicated an encounter with the past, and the music came from Heinrich Ignaz Franz von Biber, Arcangelo Corelli, and Antonio Vivaldi, Wiles clearly wants her company to be “taking [classical ballet] to the edge.” As the evening progressed, I became increasingly uncomfortable with the way in which BalletNext set out to be original.
In Quanz’s work, Outswirl, individual dancers come and go from the periphery of the stage before congregating together in a pas de cinq. A “focus on process” is included in BalletNext’s mission statement, which might be Wiles’s reaction against her background with the most commercial company in America (in order to cut funds, ABT schedules only one full rehearsal onstage before the performance). The emphasis on process over product wasn’t visible in the choreography, but it became apparent in aspects of the dancing. The small chamber group makes for an intimate atmosphere, and you can sense the firm grip of the dancers when they join hands or pull against each other’s weight.
In Ushuaia, Wiles makes her choreographic debut. We need more choreography from women in classical dance, which is so thoroughly dominated by men that one wonders if the system has been rigged. As in Outswirl, the vocabulary is deconstructed. Hands are clasped overhead, and arms stretch straight out when they would normally be curved at the elbow. Unlike Quanz, Wiles manages to evoke something of a tension, the layers of a quiet drama. Yet I came to the performance hoping to better understand baroque music, which I don’t know enough about, and neither of these works managed to convey its inner chambers.
The last piece, Something Sampled, seems to be the main attraction of the evening. Some tech set-up is needed in order to string a chain of rings on the back wall. During this time (about eight minutes) the curtain stays up, and Donn takes to the stage. He feigns deadpan seriousness, surprise, then naïve confusion. I think this is supposed to be funny, and the rest of the audience thinks so, too, laughing nervously after each change of face. Flexing, with its contortions and distortions of the human form, attempts to interrogate the way the body is interpreted. Dancers pop bones out of sockets and align their limbs at uncanny angles; the underlying message seems to be, “I am more than what you think I am.” Donn’s literally wide-eyed pantomiming says just the opposite, his character scripted and predictable, his moves falling short of what I’ve seen him perform (via YouTube) offstage.
He’s joined by the ballet dancers. The women are in tutus, as if to remind us that they’re ballerinas. And Lancaster comes on the stage, too, playing his cello at a distance from the other musicians. His music employs looping and electronic effects in order to—as he states in the program—“expand the ideas of what a cello can be.” I find some of the noises interesting, but I would have paid more attention if Lancaster didn’t walk around barefoot or wear rhinestoned goggles in order to demonstrate the eccentricities expected of the artiste. The music should be able to speak for itself, irrespective of the performer’s flashy getup.
This comes to be the essential problem of the last piece. There is a demonstrated lack of faith in a work of art’s ability to stand alone, without explanations, gimmicks, or references to the artist’s personality. The sets and costumes are overdone, with tubed lighting in the background only distracting from other distractions. Many of the gestures reek of melodrama, as when each dancer approaches Wiles in order to “pull out” her heart; she looks pained. At one point Gracie Huber, Tiffany Mangulabnan, and Amy Saunder huddle together, their encircling footwork suggestive of the Three Fates. These compelling moments fade fast. Next, they undulate their torsos and move their hands quickly in front of their face, à la pop music back-up dancers—but maybe this is what flexing looks like on a ballerina.
Something Sampled ends with a battle between Wiles and Donn, with Wiles pushing and kicking Donn out of the way so she can fouetté in the spotlight. The battle feels hokey. No one “wins,” of course; ballet and flex end on equal terms. The power of these forms would be better elicited if they were not watered down to their respective clichés, with a ballerina playing prissy and a street dancer playing clueless.
Flex and other kinds of street dancing are becoming more popular in the high art and theater worlds. The Wiles-Donn pas de deux reminded me a lot of last year’s Les Bosquets at NYCB, which paired soloist Lauren Lovette with jooker Lil Buck. The trend comes as no surprise, following the age-old pattern wherein institutions of the upper crust appropriate the rhythms of the street in an effort to be hip and cool. From the vantage point of the institutions, this makes sense. More than once, I’ve left the theater disappointed, only to be impressed by the energy of a troupe dancing in the subway with a boom box. Yet the question remains: how to fuse styles of the street with those of the proscenium arch? Something Sampled doesn’t give us the answer. This ballet-flex pairing felt more like a scenario in which two people of different cultural backgrounds walk into a bar, and the joke ends up making them both look bad.