So You Think You Can Make Dances?

By Leigh Witchel

Building a better mousetrap doesn’t mean building one that runs more smoothly. It means designing one that catches more mice.

The Cirio Collective’s notes described the genesis of the company as an idea for a summer residency to bring dancers and other artists “together to explore and develop new works without boundaries and without fear.” A nice concept, and one you might expect from dancers if they felt constrained in their main gigs. But no matter how much that matters to the artist, it’s not necessarily something an audience can see: process over product.

The collective, led by American Ballet Theatre principal Jeffrey Cirio, was chock-a-block with great dancers, the bulk of them from Cirio’s alma mater, Boston Ballet.

But then there were the dances. The choreography largely ignored ballet, a weird thing to do in a ballet festival. If it had been top-notch choreography, it could have made a case for itself, but this was stuff that took itself very seriously, without landing higher than a number on “So You Think You Can Dance.”

The opening piece, “Fremd” mixed Olaf Bender with Chopin. You know that gag video, “Contemporary Eric,” that shows 15 essential moves for any “So You Think You Can Dance” number? Shortly after the beginning, Cirio did #1 (The Knee) and later on #13 (The Peekaboo) and #14 (Why Is Your Head In My Hand?) In another piece, someone did #7 (The Pewp). It’s something to think about if your work can be summarized by a Youtube gag video, particularly if you do #7.

Other clichés came from Jiří Kylián: the single gesticulating finger, and the woman partnered by carrying her around the waist as she continued to walk. Clichés can work; ballet is filled with them. But they didn’t here.

A short film introduced ABT soloist Blaine Hoven as part of the group, playing a man clothed in newspaper, beset upon by two women in a subterranean world. The video showed the generational migration to thinking of dance as a recorded form. It’s both broadening and dangerous; choreography for film is made in short bursts that gets cut and mixed. Apply that to the stage and the result is choppy.

Whitney Jensen in “In the Mind: The Other Room.”  Photo © Sabi Varga.

“In the Mind: The Other Room” began with a long solo for ballet prodigy Whitney Jensen, clothed in black like an inmate in an Emo asylum. Three others dressed interchangeably in asymmetrical black, like Ninja Garanimals, stalked her.

“Minim” used poetry: “I saw the face of God today. It was riddled with doubt.” Ouch. If you’ve passed beyond your third decade on earth, stuff like that hurts. Cirio’s work didn’t rely on academic vocabulary. It was free form, which probably made it great to dance, and tough to watch for more than the length of a video. Violins segueing into industrial music, distorted voices, it was all as familiar as the 15 Essential Moves. Without ruthless editing, trite content is like taking off a girdle if you’ve never exercised – everything inside is mush.

“Tactility,” by Gregory Dolbashian, was a better idea for the group. It took Cirio and Hoven placed them in a sand-gray environment, in clothing that looked like layers snipped and sewn from a dress-up box. The athletic duet showed off how beautifully they moved. They still did The Knee, but that was part of a movement palette.  Every move Hoven and Cirio made was about the contrast of a sharp attack followed by a loose rebound, before they finally crawled towards a sidelight to conclude.

It’s no fun to slam a young group with only good intentions about building a better mousetrap. There were great moves and great movers, but the Collective has a lot of learning to do about dance making. Most of the pieces felt like they had been made by people who hadn’t seen a lot, and looked too much to what they had seen on TV.

copyright © 2017 by Leigh Witchel

“Fremd,” “Sonnet of Fidelity,” “Minim,” “In the Mind: The Other Room,” “Tactility,” “Efil Ym Fo Flah” – Cirio Collective
Ballet Festival
The Joyce Theater, New York, NY
July 24, 2017

Cover: Paul Craig, Lia Cirio and Isaac Akiba in “In the Mind: The Other Room.”  Photo © Sabi Varga.

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