by Leigh Witchel

Ballet Collective has always emphasized interdisciplinary collaboration, but the finale to this year’s concert at Skirball was a visual extravaganza that fulfilled a scenic artist’s wet dream: a dance whose designs practically obliterated the choreography. It took balls for Troy Schumacher to take that back seat in “Translation.”

Almost all of the piece happened in the dark, with the dancers only appearing as silhouettes. The haunting combination of live music and mixed recordings was performed by Juliana Barwick, and the lighting was by Brandon Stirling Baker, but it was the environment by Sergio Mora-Diaz that stole the show. The visuals were eye-popping yet simple: strips of translucent fabric served as projection screens for a wild light show.

When the curtain parted, the projections seemed to be of luminous bubbles, like an aquarium somehow transported outer space. The bubbles seemed to elongate into chemtrails and morphed into a new, stunning, design for each section. Barwick’s music was contemplative, at first a Kyrie with the same outer-space quality.

The choreography was slow and simple – the first section was taken up by shadowy forms slowly populating the space, sitting in a circle and then departing. In the second section a short story played out in silhouette. One humanoid clasped another’s hand, but while looking away at their own hand. The female humanoid walked off, and walked off again to end the movement. It extended a running theme of Schumacher’s: the difficulty of connection.

Near the end, the lights came on. We saw the dancers and the space clearly, and felt the same elated disappointment Dorothy must have felt seeing behind the curtain in “The Wizard of Oz.” Did we really want to know how it was done? The cast drifted as a group; turns in unison became a line. The light show returned and faded out to end.

Even if “Translation” hadn’t been beautiful, Schumacher would have earned major points for courage and risk. This looked like nothing he has ever done. The whole thing was as psychedelic as “2001: A Space Odyssey,” as tricky as an Alwin Nikolais piece, and as trippy as a late-night planetarium show. The thing to reckon with was, it wasn’t much of a ballet. But if the other works could make up for that, would it matter?

Sean Suozzi and Daniel Applebaum in “The Last Time This Ended.” Photo © Erin Baiano.

Two of the other three works on the program were encores of earlier short duets by Schumacher. The mood of 2015’s “The Last Time This Ended,” was watercolor. Mark Dancigers’ music was a conversation and so was the dance, with phrases for Daniel Applebaum and Sean Suozzi in response. The title suggested we were looking at a relationship that already happened.

The work was the kind of frail, tender soap bubble that Schumacher does best. Both wearing street clothing (jeans and shirts), Suozzi came to Applebaum. He put his ear to Applebaum’s chest to listen for a heartbeat as Applebaum dipped low into a penchée, then the action was switched. There were hints of sadness in the vocabulary: reaching, contracting, looking away, but the two echoed one another in bigger jumps. Later, Applebaum flipped Suozzi up and over in a back somersault. Suozzi walked away from Applebaum, towards the wing. On a small flourish before the music evaporated, he looked back – and blackout. Once again Schumacher was dealing with the difficulty – and anxiety – of connecting. Male duets are big again, but Schumacher didn’t try to define the relationship or preach a cause. “The Last Time This Ended,” was either a danced New Yorker story – or the world’s worst cruise.

Ashley Isaacs and Daniel Applebaum in “The Answer.” Photo © Erin Baiano.

“The Answer,” from last year, looked like a miniature version of the pieces Schumacher’s done for New York City Ballet. A sprint of a dance for Applebaum and Ashly Isaacs to twitchy music by Judd Greenstein, its mood reflected how Schumacher has looked at most onstage interactions: dance as play.

Applebaum and Isaacs raced through jumps and turns; she looked at him and shifted her arms freely. He responded by doing the same: a game of follow the leader. Quick entries from the side, filled with as much activity as the music, built to a series of turns, and a jump to the floor as the dance ended again in a blackout.

Both duets were ingratiating, but it’s interesting to notice the chasteness of Schumacher’s partnering. Gender in ballet is the topic of the moment. Schumacher is a clear proponent of equality, and the world doesn’t need him to be a tote-and-carry Stakhanovite like Liam Scarlett. But does equality need to be sexless? After a while that felt infantile.

Sean Suozzi and Lauren King in “Orange.” Photo © Erin Baiano.

For the first time, Ballet Collective invited a different choreographer to share the bill. Gabrielle Lamb created “Orange” to music by Caleb Burhans: drones and hymns on strings and piano. The cast – a quintet from NYCB in simple costumes – walked in the darkness, turning at sharp angles in two-dimensional plastique with the obsession of asylum inmates. They impelled themselves into turns and movement with a strange sense of community. Nobody connected; even as they reached and touched they seemed self-absorbed, but still they were somehow hurting together.

Megan LeCrone offered Mimi Staker her hand; Staker put her cheek in it. One touched the other’s upraised foot, put her hands round her head as if touch were an experiment. Aaron Sanz entered to form a trio; all three put their hands atop one another’s before the women left Sanz to a solo.

Lauren King danced with Suozzi, putting her hands under his neck, as they moved as if through gel. They clasped hands. King’s serene beauty has a way of making quiet moments magical – she did the same thing for Schumacher’s “Epistasis” in 2013. She echoed Suozzi and reached her fist to the floor. And on that poignant moment the piece ended abruptly.

“Orange” contrasted interestingly with Schumacher’s work; it was like watching loneliness danced. But the neurotic solitude of “Orange” was in its own way as much a cliché of contemporary dance as Schumacher’s adolescent tenderness is his ballet trope.

The childhood of a choreographer is a long one, but the signs are Schumacher is nearing the end of his. “Translation” was a great leap forward in artistic courage. But for him (as for so many brainy young choreographers) Schumacher has avoided working with the steps as kinetic architecture: he sees steps as a statement rather than a dance phrase. We’re waiting for his “Apollo” moment, when he makes something that doesn’t want to be anything but a ballet.

copyright © 2017 by Leigh Witchel

“The Answer,” “Orange,” “The Last Time This Ended,” “Translation” – Ballet Collective
NYU Skirball Center for the Performing Arts, New York, NY
October 25, 2017

Cover: “Translation.” Photo © Erin Baiano.

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