“The Impulse Wants Company,” “Dear and Blackbirds,” “All That We See”
NYU Skirball Center
New York, New York
October 29, 2014
by Michael Popkin
copyright © 2014 by Michael Popkin
BalletCollective’s performances last week at NYU’s Skirball Center were director and choreographer Troy Schumacher’s most ambitious yet. The small company that stages Schumacher’s works on colleagues (like him) moonlighting from New York City Ballet has appeared periodically at the Joyce Theater and other venues since 2010. The idea has been contemporary collaborations, not just between choreographer and dancers, but also composers, musicians, designers and even a poet. But by transferring the venue to the Skirball Center’s more dramatic stage last week, premiering two ballets as part of the program (one of them a collaboration with the conceptual artist and painter David Salle), and adding a reprise of last year’s successful “The Impulse Wants Company,” the company enjoyed its biggest success to date.
Photo of Troy Schumacher with BalletCollective at the curtain of “All That We See” © Matthew Murphy
“The Impulse Wants Company” – a narrative ballet based on lyrics by company poet and muse Cynthia Zarin - led things off and was followed by the two new works. Because the first of these, “Dear and Blackbirds,” was a brief duet also based on Zarin’s lyrics, the program was structured as two poignant narrative ballets followed by the new and music driven “All That We See.” This last was a hoe down for five dancers to a jazzy score, but with action (according to the program) generated by concepts that Salle provided the company by creating a painting that he cut up into pieces and sent to the dancers in sections. We never saw the artwork and it’s unclear if the company ever saw the whole thing either, but the ballet was superb and more than enough on its own.
Music for the entire program was provided live by Hotel Elefant, a small Brooklyn based contemporary-classical ensemble, playing scores composed for the company by its frequent collaborator Ellis Ludwig-Leone.
Both of the quasi-narrative works generated in response to Zarin’s lyrics were stylized coming of age narratives with an underlying pathos. In “The Impulse Wants Company” a young girl on a beach (danced with delicate mystery by Claire Kretzschmar) was alternately part of a group of six other youngsters and alienated from them. She looked as though she represented a narrator experiencing and recalling the poem’s story of youth and loss. First entering into the group’s innocent play, Kretzschmar quickly became abstracted and isolated. After joining in at the beginning, where she was part of the patterned blocking, the next moment she would look sadly on from the periphery, or thoughtfully try out extensions on her own, striking balances after pirouettes in arabesque, but then repeatedly falling out of them as if trying out the weight of her body and what it felt like to let her limbs go slack.
In the ballet’s action, it looks as if a boy (Taylor Stanley) eventually dies in the water, marking the end of an age of innocence for the ensemble. (The poem was not reprinted in the program, but a neighbor in the theater recalled that it ended with the word “Shark”). So when the dancer who plays this character does a compelling and physical solo at the conclusion, it feels like an apotheosis for the youth (we in the theater weeping for this Adonis) and a celebration of his life. With this final dance, the ballet has three scenes that are divided by brief pauses of darkness on the stage. The middle scene, that takes place after the doomed boy has exited but before the end, is particularly brilliant.
Here the rest of the cast re-entered from the dark, spinning from stage right to left across the stage with their arms extended. Reforming a static group, they looked off toward something we couldn’t see, but that they obviously did. Focusing into the distance – perhaps at Stanley swimming too far off; but also perhaps adolescents looking into their futures – they called to mind adults with experience (like the poet) looking back on their childhood’s tragic moment of grief with compassion for themselves and each other but also the world beyond. Dancing his final churning, jumping and twisting solo, Stanley was then magnificently alive, with Brandon Stirling Baker’s highly contrasting lighting dramatizing his physique. It was a haunting ballet with character, feeling and pathos.
“Dear and Blackbirds” – the new duet – was the story of an adolescent romance. But like the action in the preceding ballet, it felt recollected in adulthood instead of narrated in real time. The dancers here were Schumacher himself (stepping in for Harrison Coll, whose last minute injury the prior week during NYCB’s final performance complicated the casting) with Ashley Laracey. Mixing partnered and individual entrances in a flowing composition, Schumacher first playfully postured in front of Laracey, trying to get her attention, while she stayed narcissistic, adopting beautiful attitudes. It looked like a mating ritual. But as he grew more serious emotionally - sadder and more mature - she related to him more and posed less. Their denouement was tender; the couple seemed to have acquired each other but also a sense of fragility and loss as he put his head to her chest and she held him closely. The music here was a very slow and absorbing string quartet, where that for the prior ballet had been a piano quintet with more varied tonal and rhythmic structure.
The final ballet, “All That We See,” showed how well Schumacher constructed the program because, full of movement, it brought an exuberant release to the plaintively dramatic mood of the prior works. The evening thus concluded – as “The Impulse Wants Company” had ended with Taylor Stanley’s vibrantly alive and physical solo – with an affirmation of the joy of simply moving in the face of the tragedy hovering offstage in the prior ballets.
Hotel Elefant here switched instruments to add a strummed guitar providing reverb rhythms against a tenor saxophone with jazzy lines. Kretzschmar and Stanley, with Meagan Mann, Lauren King, and David Prottas, surged across the stage, exited and re-entered in formations that broke up and reformed to syncopations in the music. Entrances for individuals varied duets, trios and quartets. One superbly rhythmic passage had the two boys throwing the three girls in circling, intricate and weaving repeats. It was beautifully absorbing. At another moment, King entered for some sweepingly rhythmic gestures of her arm and hand, before the other women joined her. Another time Mann did a solo jogging number, running in place with very high knees, pulling each step right to her chest, to regular and accelerating rhythms.
All of these steps had familiar components, but were combined with individuality; their originality (like Kretzschmar’s solo of tombés in the opening work, or Stanley’s turns and attitudes there at the end) was to show off the dancer’s unique physical personalities memorably. The driving movements of the group were compelling at the end when – taking a page from Justin Peck’s crafting of ensembles but also from Christopher Wheedon’s blocking for his corps de ballet in “DGV – Danse à Grande Vitesse” – Schumacher had his dancers both adopt crafty poses in sequences or move in swaying lines against the score. Larry Keigwin’s rhythmic gifts also came to mind. With the Skirball Theater’s high tech lighting adding drama and Reid and Harriet’s costumes for this work dressing the dancers in casual wear with colorful accents, the ballet was good enough not to want it to end.
Photos © Matthew Murphy from top to bottom:
Top – Troy Schumacher with BalletCollective the curtain of “All That We See”
Middle – Troy Schumacher and Ashley Laracey in “Dear and Blackbird”
Bottom - Meagan Mann, Claire Kretzschmar and Taylor Stanley in "All That We See"