by Susan Yung
The Group as Power Source
INVISIBLE DIVIDE AT NYU SKIRBALL CENTER
NOVEMBER 4 – 5, 2015
In this era of crowd-sourcing, a sharing economy, and a Socialist garnering widespread support as a presidential candidate, BalletCollective makes sense. This ballet troupe is not leaderless—Troy Schumacher is the director and choreographer, and Ellis Ludwig-Leone is composer and music director. (The company split from Satellite Ballet two years ago; that group is now known as SatelliteCollective and has adopted a divergent structure.) But as an artistic collaborative, it draws on its members to complete the picture. Most notably, each dance cites a source work as inspiration, be it an artwork or a poem. While this approach may not initially sound revolutionary, it demands a certain evocative mood, intangible yet simmering below the surface—and sometimes carried through in costume or set elements.
Its dancers, all of whom are members of the New York City Ballet (NYCB), are a huge asset to the company. In terms of technical training, professionalism, and artistic flexibility, NYCB is unsurpassed in the U.S., and possibly in the world. These dancers are pushed to the limit with the sheer volume and diversity of the repertory they perform. Naturally, it is bountiful with George Balanchine’s work, the speed and musicality of which translate seamlessly into other styles of ballet. (The same held true for members of Merce Cunningham’s company, particularly after it disbanded and his dancers appeared in a flurry of other projects.) Schumacher began choreographing for NYCB in 2014, with success. Following in his fellow company member and soloist Justin Peck’s slippers, he has both danced in the corps and choreographed new works for the last two seasons.
Invisible Divide, BalletCollective’s recent season at NYU’s Skirball Center, premieres The Last Time This Ended, a duet for the clean-lined Taylor Stanley and powerful David Prottas—both among the most magnetic of City Ballet’s men. The source artworks are photos by Dafy Hagai: a pair of women lying and embracing on vibrant grass, colorful flowering trees next to a low stucco building somewhere in the south, and floral leis hanging from a car’s rearview mirror. Mark Dancigers supplies the pulsing, flickering music, played by Hotel Elefant. Stanley and Prottas sport t-shirts and jeans, and move in bursting passages punctuated by moments of stillness—a dynamic favored by Schumacher. Their relationship is unclear, but tender gestures—as when one rests his head on the other’s chest—soften the brisker passages that include fast, top-like pencil turns. An arabesque with an outreached hand speaks of yearning.
The second premiere, the titular Invisible Divide, employs the entire company. Paul Maffi supplied the black-and-white source photos: two eerie close-ups of facial features, and a third distorted image of a man and his reflection. Ludwig-Leone wrote the score, which includes songs that skew toward indie pop, performed with distracting kineticism by Vanessa Upson. The photos’ chiaroscuro manifests in the black costumes and silvery lighting (by Brandon Stirling Baker). Harrison Coll is featured, his phrases composed of bold and subtle moves. It’s an expressionistic style conveying emotion through dynamism, without any obvious gesture. It feels contemporary without distorting the original language. Coll dissolves movement into walking rather than finishing in traditional ballet positions. Again, it’s not revolutionary, but it’s in keeping with the blend of the traditional and the modern.
In the final section, Coll’s leaps devour space hungrily. Whether a rebel or a leader, he acts and the group, in turn, reacts. Energy passes through the dancers like rippling waves. It’s no matter that he seems to be the outsider—they are a tribe, and he is pushing them. They gather center-stage, restless, shifting, as the curtain falls.
Last year, Coll had to cancel performing a new duet with Ashley Laracey due to injury, so Schumacher (married to Laracey) had stepped in. Coll performs the piece, titled Dear and Blackbirds (2014), this year, and the result feels very different. Coll is a far fiercer presence than Schumacher, particularly in segments in which he buzzes around Laracey like a hyperactive teenage boy attempting to gain her attention and affection—and in the end, succeeding.
The program concludes with a reprise of All That We See (2014), choreographed by Schumacher, with music by Ludwig-Leone, and source artwork (painting fragments) by David Salle—who also dotted the slate-hued costumes with color. Dance phrases are traded between the performers, who seem so tightly knit that they barely need anything but their bodies to relate to one another. They move in a canon—one just after another—in a kind of stop motion effect. Claire Kretzschmar is notable for her boldness and planar physiognomy, which combined give her a sparkling, faceted quality. Meagan Mann and Lauren King round out the troupe.
Since Schumacher began his own company, his choreographic career at NYCB has ascended. BalletCollective is equally thriving, drawing attention and supporters, and earning prominence among similar troupes. Without its unique artistic mission of sublimating specific creative inspirations, it might be a fleeting whimsy, but Schumacher and his collaborators are making a worthy statement.
SUSAN YUNG is a New York-based culture writer.