Making it on Brains

By Leigh Witchel

In ballet, pedigree matters, far more than it should. Claudia Schreier has an impeccable one, only it’s wrong for ballet. She went to an elite school, but it was Harvard, not the School of American Ballet. But she’s fought for a choreography career, fought hard and fought smart.  She strengthened her dance pedigree with connections to fellow Harvard alum Damian Woetzel, and she’s still fighting. Will landing a spot at the Ballet Festival give her the imprimatur she needs?

Her program at the festival showed her talents clearly. She is skilled at composition and has excellent taste. Musically, she’s yards ahead, committing to the duty of a choreographer as an archivist, and working to Ellen Taaffe Zwilich, Arthur Schnittke, or suturing together Tomás Luis de Victoria and Rachmaninoff yet making it work. Her concert took a small group of dancers including a few New York City Ballet headliners, and showed five pieces, all done within the last two years.

In “Wordplay,” Schreier dissected Taafe Zwilich’s score at an almost cellular level, as when Unity Phelan was caught frozen in Jared Angle’s arms from a jump bang on the note at the end of a short arpeggio. Schreier used a lot of partnering, possibly because she had Angle, a superlative partner, to work with, and she put him at the center of three dances.

The manipulations in most of the works stemmed from one of the founts of modern partnering: “The Four Temperaments.” Angle passed Phelan’s turning leg over him before it came to rest on his shoulder. She dipped low into arabesque penchée.

The partnering inhabited a gray area between form and meaning. Like Emery LeCrone, Schreier likes the conventions of ballet partnering: the man offers his hand, the woman takes it. She is careful in her respect for the woman: a woman might get toted and carried, but she isn’t cargo.

Though “Wordplay” had craft, it didn’t have bite. Motifs, such as the hand offering, weren’t explored or varied, merely deployed. The ballet ended with a lift up and off, right on four fast notes, that worked exactly with the music – but that idea was used as an ending more than once in the evening. It made logistical sense for the Ballet Festival to give each choreographer their own program, but not artistic sense – they would all have looked better on a shared bill was curated to highlight their contrasts.

Da’Von Doane, Cameron Dieck, and Elizabeth Walker performing “Tranquil Night, Bright and Infinite.” Photo © Eduardo Patino.

“Vigil,” a brief pas de deux from 2015, was a coup de théâtre. Schreier spent luxuriously on a chamber ensemble for live music, but here incorporated the choral group Tapestry. Its members became not only the accompaniment but the luminous setting. Dressed in black, the singers stood in a semi-circle round the dancers, singing the unexpected juxtaposition of Victoria and Rachmaninoff. You could see the discreet miking from the booms: for a wonderful change the dead acoustics and anemic sound system at The Joyce sounded resonant.

Another luxury was casting Wendy Whelan in the part, caringly partnered by Da’Von Doane. The work was danced with soft slippers, but the partnered promenades seemed more meant for pointe. It felt like an accommodation to Whelan’s retirement from ballet that held the piece in low gear. Putting Whelan in a straight ballet pas de deux felt nostalgic yet outdated: Wendy v.1.0.

It’s hard enough to do a ballet to liturgical music, it rarely is enhanced by dance. Schreier seemed to acknowledge that by keeping the duet extremely simple, but that made it bald. Even though it was Whelan and she was dead center, it took quite a while to stop looking at the singers and find the pas de deux.

A premiere, “The Trilling Wire” was Wendy v.2.0. Whelan traded in a white leotard and tights for her new standard uniform of socks, a loose top and pants, and Schreier built something right to Whelan’s brand. To three movements from string quartets by Marc Mellits, “The Trilling Wire” was a meandering, contemporary solo that flowed round the stage, and Whelan rendered it taut by her focus. The steps were a comfortable mix of the ballet vocabulary Schreier knows and free movement that felt less like vocabulary and more like improvisation. The last movement sped up to allegro, and Whelan crouched in high half-toe, then reached up as the stage went black. She’s still restless.

“Charge,” was made last year on Ballet Academy East and had the logistical hallmarks of a school work: it used a lot of dancers, relied on all of them by giving short entrances and exits rather than a strict hierarchy, and gave as many people as possible a moment in the spotlight. But it was more demanding than the usual school composition, and still looked good upgraded to professional dancers. The showoff and workout was a good closer.

Wendy Whelan in “The Trilling Wire.” Photo © Eduardo Patino.

The preview of “Tranquil Night, Bright and Infinite” felt like a retreat into craft. With three men and two women, it fixated on the odd man out, yet without going from structure to meaning. Doane exited, leaving two balanced couples, and reentered, but nothing changed. There was another tote and carry duet for Angle, this time with Elizabeth Claire Walker. A chunk of the partnering looked cut from the same cloth as the rest of Angle’s tailoring: grab the woman round the waist and cradle her, and another press off to end. Was Schreier sticking with the material in Angle’s sewing basket to make the duets?

Last year’s “Solitaire” again showed off Schreier’s craft and musical acumen, using piano quintets by Shostakovich and Schnittke. But she went beyond craft to metaphor, and the duet for Phelan and Angle dug in. The first part of the work, for same cast as “Tranquil Night” less Walker, again seemed to be about the mechanics of that unbalanced situation. But then the lights dimmed and the music slowed to a piano picking out notes. Schreier didn’t make a pas de deux that was the literal depiction of a relationship. But it was there in physical metaphor, with Angle protecting the lanky, coltish Phelan, and the two ending in a slow, tender collapse with the piano stopping as if by entropy.  “Solitaire” was more than what you were looking at.

Schreier has a lot going for her: talent, drive and being in the right place at the right time. She has been at this a comparatively short while and there was stuff to work on. Of the three running threads in all great choreography, she has musicality down cold. Her concepts glow with competence and intelligence instead of metaphor and urgency, and that may not be enough for The Choreographic Hunger Games. But it’s the third thread of choreography that’s most elusive for someone making it on brains: her work isn’t as kinetic as it could be. Schreier’s ballets have neat, clean steps, but not the kind of rhythm, pulse and movement logic that would make them as good with the music off as on. She’s gotten this far. Now she needs to push beyond her skill set.

copyright © 2017 by Leigh Witchel

“Wordplay,” “Vigil,” “Solitaire,” “Tranquil Night, Bright and Infinite,” “The Trilling Wire,” “Radiant Field” – Claudia Schreier & Company
Ballet Festival
The Joyce Theater, New York, NY
July 22, 2017

Cover: Wendy Whelan and Da’Von Doane in “Vigil.” Photo © Eduardo Patino

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