Grown-up Dancers, Grown-up Dancing

by Leigh Witchel

The Royal Ballet School and American Ballet Theatre’s Studio Company have joined forces over the years to perform in both London and New York. This last show walked the balance between showing their students off and giving them a taste of what they’ll be dancing professionally.

The drawing card was a new work by Liam Scarlett made on dancers from both companies, but seemingly made during the residency in such a hurry that it remained untitled. In sleek costumes, the piece was a lycra dance of complex partnering: a woman sphinx-like, the man contracting away from her. He moved her, and she got moved. The new piece showed other signs of working quickly: the ballet was made to Philip Glass’ Piano Concerto No. 2; Scarlett had used Glass’ first concerto for San Francisco Ballet’s “Hummingbird” in 2015, and this looked like a rehash of that work without the central couple.

Sae Maeda and Albjon Gjorllaku in Liam Scarlett’s new work. Photo © Rosalie O’Connor

The Royal Ballet school brought their main choreographic heritage, with MacMillan and Ashton works. The pas de deux from “Concerto” was performed under a burning orange sun, looking like a still moment at twilight on the hottest day of the year.

For Ashton’s “Birthday Offering,” the Royal took the good china out (and the Levasseur tutus look like enormous striped tea cozies) but served weak tea with a mild-mannered rendering. The kids showed their good schooling, but it seemed nobody told them that Ashton isn’t Petipa and classicism isn’t classroom. Ashton is strong medicine: it doesn’t just require schooling, but style, and a gritty training in sustained poses and finishes. The women demurely inclined their necks to indicate an épaulement, and you wished there were some ferocious old beast of a repetiteur coming up behind them, pushing their torsos and shouting, “BEND!”

Ironically, the Royal’s young men looked better in an American work, Helgi Tomasson’s “Concerto Grosso.” The piece was made for San Francisco Ballet as a pièce d’occasion in ‘03 to display its most promising young men, and it was programmed the same way here. All five dancers showed off their line in solos that ran from adagio to allegro, and “Concerto Grosso” is closer to the Royal Ballet’s current training – straight academic with a touch of contemporary. Like Tomasson himself, it traded on innate elegance even in tricky turns and jumps.

The students of the Royal Ballet School in “Concerto Grosso.” Photo © Rosalie O’Connor

The Studio company also had a piece with an SFB connection, former soloist Dana Genshaft’s “Chromatic Fantasy.” The sextet to music by Dave Brubeck looked mid-century: the dancers were in bright colors and beanies – the playful style felt like “Interplay” with more classroom steps.

Marcelo Gomes’ early choreographic efforts seemed overenthusiastic with everything and the kitchen sink crammed in. His double duet, “Kabalevsky Violin Concerto” was less ambitious and more successful with two old-school pas de deux, and the couples together for a finale.

Gomes’ vocabulary was ingratiating, but still on the prowl for his stamp. One distinctive moment landed slightly askew: He gave the couples a motif of hands replacing hands slowly rising, but it looked less like aspiring towards affection and more like a gag from “Go for Barocco” done without irony. You could tell it was Gomes’ ballet when you saw the partnering: he had Jarod Curley haul Meghan Lynch around in a low attitude, sliding her to her knees on the stage as if it were a game of curling. Even more, you could see it in the solo he gave Luigi Crispino in the finale. In an elaborate cadenza, Gomes had Crispino turn in and slump like Petrouchka but then soar into heroic steps with the easy, jogging rhythm and cushiony bounce that is Gomes’ mark in both classical and contemporary work

Gomes made pointe work that looked good on the two women: simple steps that could be executed cleanly. But one of the toughest parts of choreographing for dancers on the cusp of adulthood is making something age-appropriate. Gomes put Lynch in a Julie Kent role that relied on stillness and melancholy. Lynch could do it, but had to playact. Zimmi Coker danced the opening allegro with Crispino (the pair switched to the adagio at the second performance). Allegro may be harder, but it looked more suitable on young dancers, and Coker is one to watch. Precocious, tiny with copper hair and long, easy legs that fly up with seemingly no resistance, she looked like a young Gelsey Kirkland.

Ethan Steifel’s “See the Youth Advance!” for the Studio Company had a similar issue: asking kids to have grown-up acting ability. The piece, which felt like a cross between two Variations – “Theme” and “Goldberg” – demanded tough technique. Steifel gave one young man a variation with tours in a low leg that he didn’t quite nail, and then asked for an insouciant swagger. That wasn’t a great place for swagger.

Throughout the evening, the students showed themselves well-trained and ready to move forward into professional life and adulthood, but there will always be the difference between being a young adult and a mature one. Ballet often banks on conventions – male swagger, female rapture-in-a-can – that it takes more age (and treachery) to pull off.  Kids are better off just being themselves.

copyright © 2017 by Leigh Witchel

“Birthday Offering,” “Kabalevsky Violin Concerto,” “Concerto Grosso,” “Chromatic Fantasy,” pas de deux from “Concerto,” “See the Youth Advance!,” “Untitled” – ABT Studio Company, The Royal Ballet School
NYU Skirball Center for the Performing Arts, New York, NY
February 10, 2017

Cover: Zimmi Coker and Luigi Crispino in “Kabalevsky Violin Concerto.” Photo © Gillian Murphy

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