Skilled Set

By Leigh Witchel

The first thing you notice about Gemma Bond’s work is the chops of the group she assembled – all topnotch dancers on their layoff from American Ballet Theatre. The next thing you see is that her work is good enough to merit them. Bond’s choreography was some of the most fluent in The Joyce’s Ballet Festival – and sometimes the hardest to read.

Bond’s work looks familiar and different all at once. An English dancer who started out at the Royal Ballet and is now in the corps de ballet at ABT, she has had a longer career in the U.S. That mix informs her dances. Her choreographic language is comfortably academic; she knows ballet steps and she knows pointe work.

Bond presented two-large scale works sandwiching a duet. The opener, “Then and Again” featured a cast of six women in red shifts and two men. The music, Alfredo Piatti’s “12 Caprices for Solo Cello,” was as well-sourced as Claudia Schreier, but alas, all recorded.

The women moved at the outset with doll-like arms held at right angles; a reminder that if Bond’s language is classical, it’s not American neoclassical. It recalls her British schooling, which puts as many ideas in the torso as the legs.

Bond’s most subtle skill is that she knows the difference between adagio and allegro. She opened with two variations, one in adagio, the second allegro, bridged by the dancers concluding in pointe tendue. Each had different vocabulary, not just different speeds.

The dancing was cool, and most of the message was in the design, yet there was the impulse toward feeling. A man propelled his partner into a tight turn, and she used her head and neck to further the momentum. The entrances and exits deposited another pas de deux couple, this time brighter and more playful. She wrapped around him, he spun her round. Another woman came in to observe and then slotted in to form a trio, but the piece still remained cool. Bond was asking a lot out of Piatti’s score. Cello has a restrained dynamic and she was running up against that. In a section with an archaic, two-dimensional quality (think “Afternoon of a Faun” or “The Rite of Spring”) the right-angled arms returned, then a solo, and the cast collapsed in a line at the end.

Christine Shevchenko and Cory Stearns in “The Giving.” Photo © Rod Brayman.

“The Giving” offered us an encore look at Corey Stearns (who had done partnering duties in Emery LeCrone’s show), this time with one of ABT’s newest principals, Christine Shevchenko. Kyle Edmund designed simple but tricky costumes with lacing like a Calatrava bridge. The space-age music in multiple movements was by Lori Scacco.

Even in adagio Shevchenko is a serious technician, impeccably placed on her axis in balances and turns. Stearns seems most vivid in dark roles, but here he smiled and seemed very much himself and at ease, as if the smaller stage helped him relax.

They danced together but Stearns went off as her Shevchenko’s head bowed. The stage went dark, and she reached after him. The emotions in “The Giving” were varied, put painted in watercolors. Shevchenko wouldn’t tell her lover not to go, or even collapsed in sorrow when he left. You could only tell how much she missed him by how delighted she was when he returned.

The duet had similar repetitive elements and a clockwork feel in its allegro movement: turn and spin and hold, over and over. After, Stearns walked back into darkness to leave Shevchenko alone in a square of light. Both dancers put their arms behind their backs as if shackled. He came back to her and caressed her face, flipping her to his shoulder but this wasn’t meant to be. Their arms were again held behind them; they leaned, caressed and rolled, but her left he in her once more square of light as the stage dimmed.

Cassandra Trenary and James Whiteside in “Impressions.” Photo © Rod Brayman.

The closer, “Impressions” was even more ambitious than “Then and Again.” The large cast included ABT dancers from corps to principal and the groups were more organic than in the first work, less controlled and more individual. The music, by Jennifer Higdon, began with pizzicato strings. James Whiteside, who also designed the costumes (His business cards read “Have BeDazzler, Will Travel”), entered, bracing his arms at his sides and pushing out his pecs in a Look at Me pose.

The most unabashedly queer ballet dancer at top rank today, Whiteside seems to be the go-to guy for busting gender conventions in dance. Bond gave him an allegro solo, but – as Alexei Ratmansky did in his “Serenade After Plato’s Symposium,” – it was filled with “women’s” steps: tight fast gargouillades that Whiteside zipped through.

All the dancers had power to spare and were in top form. Skylar Brandt nailed everything from arabesques to fouettés. While the others reclined on the floor (shades of Robbins’ “Interplay”) Whiteside and Cassandra Trenary lay down. The others left them to dance. Whiteside stretched, rolled over, and came to Trenary in a moment of chaste intimacy.

Their duet was packed. Bond had Whiteside flipping Trenary, turning her; she exploded into bursts of footwork. It was dense enough again that a technician like Trenary still needed to focus on it rather than her performance to stay on top of it.

A pas de deux is a relationship until proven otherwise. After a group of other dancers returned, Whiteside danced the pas de deux again – what seemed to be the same steps. Except with a different partner – a man, Tyler Maloney. Was this infidelity? Bisexuality? Trenary got up, but rather than reacting, she also just slotted in to continue the dance as Maloney left. At the end, Whiteside left her alone at center stage, and the others dispersed, leaving her balanced on her pointes. For a finale, Devon Teuscher began an allegro, joined by Calvin Royal III, then Whiteside. He left but she remained and paused to finish the work.

Bond has craft and confidence – of the choreographers in the festival up to that point, she produced the most professional results. But in some ways like her compatriot Christopher Wheeldon, her facility can be insulate her work as well as shape it. Even when Bond was talking about feelings, her choreography seemed to hold them at arm’s length. It may just another thing that translates differently depending on which side of the Atlantic you’re on, but what would it be like for her to take a deep breath and dive down?

copyright © 2017 by Leigh Witchel

“Then and Again,” “The Giving,” “Impressions” – Gemma Bond Dance
Ballet Festival
The Joyce Theater, New York, NY
July 25, 2017

Cover: Stephanie Williams and company in “Then and Again.” Photo © Rod Brayman.

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