The Sisters Are Doing It For Themselves

by Leigh Witchel

Like the ballerina herself, Ashley Bouder’s foray outside New York City Ballet was to the point (if on the short side), jazzy and a little bit brassy. The jazz and brass were literal: the evening was produced in collaboration with The New York Jazzharmonic. The evening, billed as “At This Dance, Women Take the Lead,” featured women composers, conductors and choreographers: Along with a revival of a work by Susan Stroman, Liz Gerring contributed the draw card: a “female pas de deux” for Bouder and fellow NYCB principal Sara Mearns.

The show led off with a piece of Bouder’s own. She choreographs rarely and worked like a tailor rather than a philosopher; “In Pursuit Of” used a main couple and two subsidiary ones, and took them through four movements of varying moods: an opening, smaller duets and a danse générale to end with the main couple playfully pushing the others to the floor where they began. Her ideas got stronger as the piece went on, but this wasn’t a deathless work; it was a competent, amiable one: a dance, not a statement.

The music, by Miho Hazama, the Associate Director of the Jazzharmonic, was an extroverted composition for big band. The first thing Bouder got right was staffing: she had access to a pool of talent at NYCB, some of the people she chose are rising in the corps, others underused and hungry for the spotlight. She fit the “In Pursuit Of” to the dancers and made them look good.

Indiana Woodward, like Bouder, is a shorter powerhouse who has begun to get roles – in her solo moments her musicality put punctuation marks into the phrases. Ghaleb Kayali was the Nutcracker Prince at Bouder’s debut as the Sugarplum Fairy way back when, and she hadn’t forgetten him. Showing him off in duets, she made a strong case for his rediscovery as a lithe and elegant dancer.

Devin Alberda and Ashley Hod danced the leads. Hod had long, patrician looks; Alberda was refined even in a showboat ballet, with controlled arms, swift batterie and pristine turns. He’s one of NYCB’s most bittersweet coulda-shoulda-woulda dancers – ferociously talented and mired in the corps, it was great that we got to see him, but he should have moved up years ago or left.

In their bluesy duet, Hod changed into a short skirt and a Star Trek Red Shirt wrap top (the costumes by William Ivey Long looked as if they were made on a strict budget as a favor). Alberda partnered strongly but the two seemed suspicious of one another as they danced, as if they needed to get out of their own heads and into each other’s. And yet, they had no trouble connecting when they were partnered in the Stroman, so it seemed to be a choice that didn’t pan out.

Interesting that Bouder chose three men cut from the same cloth. Along with Kayali and Alberda, Spartak Hoxha also looked his best, and all three were wiry, elegant peas in a pod. Laine Habony completed the trio of women, who were more diverse in type.

As with most new choreographers stretching their wings at NYCB, her model was not Balanchine. He’s no longer part of life there except second-hand. Their first-hand model is Peter Martins, and he’s a solid craftsman, but they’re also picking up his lesser traits: punchy phrasing and a formulaic approach.

Even more interesting is watching a woman choreograph ballet for men. Men generally don’t do a huge chunk of female ballet technique; most of us know pointe work by sympathy only. The only thing women don’t do is lift and support; and the lion’s share of male technique is jumping and turning. Bouder knows that cold, and added the flow and phrasing that men sometimes forget about in grand allegro.

Liz Gerring’s “Duet” for Bouder and Sara Mearns was an athletic, anti-superstar dance that didn’t cater to fan expectations: Bouder and Mearns together at last! Yes, but . . .

The two danced to a composition by Anna Webber that was a soundscape for winds, starting with a slow beat and ending with gurgling breaths in the reeds. In a moment of economy and product placement worthy of Beyoncé, the simple costumes were from Bouder’s own dancewear line.

“Duet” was a double solo of about ten minutes of aerobic exertion: In some ways it was closer to the theory of a Balanchine aesthetic than Bouder’s own work: steps and nothing but steps. The two women lunged, jogged, leaned over in arabesque. The style was close to Cunningham, the positions flattened, the limbs straight rather than curved. The exertion headed towards a frenzy of jetés, the two women jumping in place before rotating off to end.

Gerring’s work was clean and rigorous, and props to both women for flouting their own mystique. A little, at least – at times they looked how ballet dancers do when they think they’re doing modern dance. Gerring’s palette was steppy and leggy. “Duet” translated to ballet-trained dancers reasonably and respected their abilities.

Both women have tremendous power, so it was a treat to see them together no matter the circumstances, and they matched better here than they might in a classical ballet. It was a stretch to call it a pas de deux – even a “Duet.” It was a double solo. The two women danced independently – if you call it a pas de deux, explore them dancing together. It took guts from all involved to eschew milking stardom but that might have made “Duet” more interesting. You really had to like basic dance steps to get into it.

Ashley Bouder and Andrew Veyette in “Blossom Got Kissed.” Photo © Diana Mino

The closer was an encore of Stroman’s “Blossom Got Kissed,” a tightly-crafted Broadway number that went by like a shot. The Jazzharmonic, conducted by Ron Wasserman, felt instantly in their element with the score by Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn. Bouder did too – stuff like this is child’s play for her.

In a powder blue tutu, she blundered into a group of hepcats and chicks in black and red. They were all dancing in couples, and she tried to join them, but she ain’t got that swing. Andrew Veyette was taken by her anyway and asked Maestro Wasserman for something sweet and lowdown – pianist Chris Ziemba obliged. Bouder and Veyette’s dance ended in a kiss, and suddenly – thanks to a breakaway outfit with a red dress underneath – she’s got rhythm too.

The reason for “Blossom” was utilitarian: it gave the Jazzharmonic a chance to shine and ended the evening on a big, happy note.

Like Broadway, the number traded on stereotypes – the ballet girl who can’t actually dance, the nerdy guy in glasses – but there’s a purpose to stereotypes that goes past prejudice. In a tight medium, cliches and stereotypes are a way to get maximum information ASAP – the whole story in a sentence because the audience can fill in the blanks. You could argue that the girl-gets-guy dance undercut Bouder’s feminist thrust, but life, art, and producing are full of these compromises.

Or did it? Bouder’s a smart, successful woman, and her success came both by breaking the rules and by playing them better than anyone else. It’s not for men to define feminism, but it certainly has room for both strategies.

copyright © 2017 by Leigh Witchel

“In Pursuit Of,” “Duet,” “Blossom Got Kissed” – The New York Jazzharmonic, The Ashley Bouder Project
Symphony Space, New York, NY
March 18, 2017

Cover:  Ashley Bouder and Sara Mearns in “Duet.”  Photo © Diana Mino

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