American Ballet Theatre
The Richard B. Fisher Center for the Performing Arts
Bard College, NY
October 3, 2009
by Lisa Rinehart
copyright © 2009 by Lisa Rinehart
The Richard B. Fisher Center for the Performing Arts at Bard College is a pile of Frank Gehry exotica plopped into the bucolic woods of Duchess County, NY. Productions can look beautiful in its industrial interior of concrete and pale wood, but American Ballet Theatre’s repertory program featuring premieres by Alexei Ratmansky, Aszure Barton and Benjamin Millepied, as well as a revival of Clark Tippet’s “Some Assembly Required” looks crowded and civic.
The Fisher is a concert hall -- meaning there’s a distinct lack of theatrical artifice. There are no wings or curtain, so we see dancers milling about before each piece. Exits and entrances are squeezed into side doorways normally used by conductors. The floor -- or perhaps the building’s acoustics -- amplify the already annoying clonk of point shoes to River Dance levels. (Even a non-talent student couldn’t beat up Scarlatti’s piano sonatas quite as effectively as the clomping going on during Ratmansky’s three couple ballet.) The lighting is either dim or garish, leaving the Barton gasping for romance, the Ratmansky unseeable at times, or, as with the Millepied, threatening to overwhelm the capacity of the lighting board. And finally, during the Millepied, twenty-four dancers, six musicians, a conductor, a piano, and a hefty percussion set-up pack the stage tight as a Tokyo subway car. No wonder the dancers made a sort of prayer circle before this one started -- a step out of line and there could be blood.
All in all, the Bard performances feel like a savvy money saving measure; an out-of-town technical rehearsal for gentler audiences before heading south for this week’s Avery Fisher Hall engagement -- interesting to see if Lincoln Center presents the same challenges.
One piece that doesn’t suffer from the location logistics is Tippet’s “Some Assembly Required.” Created twenty years ago on Amanda McKerrow and John Gardner (they’ve staged the current version), its volatile, sweltering intimacy feels right at the Fisher. There’s a sense of peeking into private rehearsal moments, intensifying Tippet’s portrait of passive aggressive co-dependence. Simone Messmer and Isaac Stappas do a good job with the treacherous lifts and brute carries although Messmer isn’t a waif-ish type and we see Stappas’ effort as he muscles her above his head. But strained seams behind silky beauty is the point here. When Stappas lays on the floor, cups his hands around Messmer’s knees and holds her above his chest, the shaking and quivering is part of the picture. A carefree waltz turns confrontational, a gentle lift into a haul and a playful tap segues into argument with the seething rhythms of a Shepard play. Messmer literally becomes the monkey on Stappas’ back.
But Tippet balances the duet with tender moments. Stappas curls himself around Messmer like a lock of hair twirled on a finger. The two kneel and simply look at one another until, willingly, one scooches closer, then the other, until they’re nose to nose asking the wordless question “Alright, what do we do now?” And they share a little sigh before breaking into the duet’s cheerful end as if to acknowledge that things are seldom as effortless as they seem.
Set to William Bolcom’s jazzy and spare “Second Sonata for Violin And Piano,” “Some Assembly Required” is evidence of the choreographic promise tragically cut short by Tippet’s death in 1992. I think he would be pleased to see his dance rise head and shoulders above such an accomplished crowd.
copyright © 2009 by Lisa Rinehart
Photo : Katsuyoshi TanakaDancers: Isabella Boylston and Isaac Stappas in “Some Assembly Required”