Switch Hitters

by Leigh Witchel

Versatility is a double-edged sword. Scottish Ballet is a versatile company. It brought three markedly different works to New York on the range of classical and contemporary technique, and did them all well. Which of them you preferred was a litmus test of taste.

The most contemporary work of the evening, “Motion of Displacement” opened on a dark stage, illuminated by incandescent light bulbs. The cast appeared linked in a contorted line that they returned to periodically; the dancers dragged and ebbed in a wave.

Choreographer Bryan Arias danced with Netherlands Dance Theater, and you would see how much he owed to Jiří Kylián: the ambivalent emotional and physical landscape that’s become the trademark of contemporary ballet. The vocabulary also owed to Kylián: a mobile torso, often in an S curve, with isolations above the rib cage distorting the line.

John Adams’ “Shaker Loops” began as an otherworldly drone and purred along, gaining speed with a violin line soaring above. As it moved to a crescendo, three men tossed and raced on the stage. Arias’ pacing was implacable; the dance felt like someone charging down a highway without ever pausing to see where they were.

If classical vocabulary has its artifice both for and against it, contemporary has the same issue with its naturalism. Pliés and tendus are motions. A contraction is a reaction – it’s almost impossible to disengage it in the viewer’s eye from shock, recoil or angst. It requires an explanation – why does everyone onstage look so upset? Contemporary vocabulary is also as full of clichés as 19th century classics. Here, two men raced forward to stop and stare at the audience in mute shock. That’s about as new as a 35 year old ballerina acting like an adolescent virgin. Which you buy into depends on what you see as cliché or language.

A pair of women with pointe shoes and without pants showed up for two tricky pas de deux. Arias’ pointe vocabulary was also familiar: in the last two decades we’ve seen a lot of partnered slides on pointe. But steps are steps, and everyone is entitled to them. More wearing was the similarity in construction: the transitions between duets tended to be alike: the new couple walked in as the old couple walked out.

After the pas de deux the line of dancers reassembled, but this return felt like a choreographic vamp: something you do when you have two minutes of music and 20 seconds of ideas. Everyone left except one woman and a man who decided to remain with her. The music segued to Bach, and again, the approach was familiar. Couples replaced other couples; one duet even had a woman with clenched fists suspended in her partner’s grasp while continuing to walk in the air. How many dances have we seen that in?

If the choreography wasn’t original, the dancers looked good in “Motion of Displacement,” and at home in its fluid style. But for all the pungency and emotions implied in the movement language, the effects were never earned.

Jamiel Laurence and Andrew Peasgood in by Bryan Arias’ “Motion of Displacement.” Photo © Andy Ross.

Christopher Bruce works much harder at making sense out of his dances – even too hard. He has his specialty: dances to compilations of rock songs such as The Rolling Stones or Bob Dylan. “Ten Poems” did the same thing, but differently: this time the compilation was of poetry by Dylan Thomas, recited with bardic intensity by Richard Burton. It was a risk that wasn’t a risk, because Bruce has a formula no matter what he’s using for a compilation – act the words out.

Bruce is too strong a craftsman to be chained to the lyrics, but at times he comes close. At the words “green as grass” a man lay down as if he were in a meadow looking up at the sky. In “Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night” at “rage” another pounded his fists. Sure enough, someone played a hunchback in “The Hunchback in the Park.”

Towards the end, somehow inevitably, young soldiers were mowed down in their prime. It was heartfelt, and this isn’t the moment in history to cavil with any voice against destruction, but the familiarity of it all kept it from being affecting. It’s why Bruce’s compilations are both satisfying and negligible. The greatness – and challenge – of dance is that it has a thousand allusive associations, not just one literal meaning.

Christopher Hampson has a long, solid career of dancemaking, and his “Sinfonietta Giocosa,” done originally for Atlanta Ballet in 2006, was more utilitarian and less conceptual than the other works, but avoided the traps they fell into.

To Martinů’s long, nervous and not-that-jocose take on baroque music, Hampson did a straight music visualization for six men and six women. He has a similar advantage on our shores to Alexei Ratmansky; growing up outside the Balanchine tradition looks fresh to us.

Sleek, neoclassical, compact and energetic, “Sinfonietta Giocosa” was an often bald, often bold, statement of style as well as a ballet meant to make better classical dancers.

The cast was all in black, wearing unadorned leotards and tights: men in one line, the women in the other. One man went to center, took a preparation and turned. It was exposing – stuff like that needs to blow you away, and they looked as if they were still getting their sea legs after a transatlantic trip and last-minute cast changes.

The dancers looked more like themselves by the second movement when they could attack the demanding technique with confidence. It began with a duet for women as Hampson turned a foot strengthening exercise – echappé to second position, come off pointe slightly and push yourself back on to the tips of your toes – into choreography. These ladies had very strong toes.  The women did solos with speedy pointework and tight turns, ceding to the men; one man did a slow solo with sustained balances and turns out of and into deep plié, the next man moved allegro with double assemblée turns.

Hampson wasn’t trying for the deeper emotional territory of either Bruce or Arias, but he had better control of his form than the latter and less pretense than the former. There was one uncommon moment towards the end: a brief duet for two men. The taller of the two braced the smaller and supported him in penchée, then held him prone on his own bent thighs. And yet it held no more coded meaning than any other duet, which in its own way was daring.   An abstracted same-sex duet moves the idea from novelty to part of the norm. When it was done, Martinů sped up and the ballet raced to its close.

The dancers were more consistent than the ballets, doing everything well, or better than well. Versatility is the company’s brief, which makes sense. Scottish Ballet is smallish (36 dancers) and is the main game in Scotland, where it needs to be something for everybody. But that’s a much harder path to take than simply being a good classical or contemporary company. Sometimes, versatility just gives everyone something to dislike.

copyright © 2017 by Leigh Witchel

“Sinfonietta Giocosa,” “Motion of Displacement,” “Ten Poems” – Scottish Ballet
The Joyce Theater, New York, NY
April 12, 2017

Cover: Christopher Bruce’s “Ten Poems.” Photograph © Andy Ross.

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