2016 Nantucket Atheneum Dance Festival: Program Notes

By Joseph Carman

This year’s Nantucket Atheneum Dance Festival (July 18-23) is all about the new. Among the eight works presented on the culminating performance evenings of July 22 and 23, there are two world premieres, and, apart from Jean-Christophe Maillot’s Roméo et Juliette (1996), all the ballets have been choreographed in the 21st century. Refreshingly, three of the pieces were created by established women choreographers.

Tyler Angle, the dance festival’s artistic director, has pivoted away from classic warhorses and the works of Jerome Robbins and George Balanchine this season to show the brilliant work that today’s choreographers are producing— to emphasize the “now” of ballet. Angle feels passionately about the work of the dance makers produced on the program. He has also secured an impressive roster of dancers from the Royal Ballet, American Ballet Theatre, Pennsylvania Ballet, Pacific Northwest Ballet, Cincinnati Ballet and the Jessica Lang Company.

Wayne McGregor, one of the world’s most revered choreographers of contemporary ballet, was appointed Resident Choreographer for the Royal Ballet in 2006. His visceral, hyperphysical movement style has pushed dancers beyond the boundaries of classical ballet vocabulary, while retaining the sheer beauty and formality of the art form. Qualia, titled after a philosophical term which connotes a raw sensory experience, was the first ballet McGregor choreographed for the Royal Ballet (2004). “I had seen Qualia, a while back in London and it was the first time I had seen his very distinct movement style,” says Angle. “I hadn’t seen dancers at the Royal, who are so beautifully trained in a style of such beautiful restraint, dancing with this kind of abandon. To see all these dancers in a completely different vernacular was very impressive.” The sensual pas de deux from Qualia, set to a score by the electronic musician Scanner, is emblematic of the McGregor’s unique style, in which the interconnectedness and intertwining of two dancers is ingeniously crafted.

McGregor’s Chroma (2006), choreographed for the Royal Ballet to a commissioned score by Joby Talbot, is one of the first great dance masterpieces of this century. Having won a Laurence Olivier Award for Best New Dance Production in 2007, the piece has since been absorbed into the repertoires of many of the greatest dance companies, from the San Francisco Ballet to Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. The pas de deux from Chroma ferociously explores the theatrics of human bodies in their interchange of thoughts and emotions.

Annabelle Lopez Ochoa has often gravitated to storytelling in her ballets. Her Cylindrical Shadows, created for Pacific Northwest Ballet in 2012, takes a less literal narrative approach, instead evoking the memories of trauma. The source material for Cylindrical Shadows, performed to a collage of music by David van Bouwel, Johann Sebastian Bach and Henry Purcell, stems from a moment when Ochoa learned of the sudden, unexpected death of a dear friend. The piece explores how humans process and survive such disruptions. “I personally believe that there is no difference between life and death; they are not opposite, as we are taught to believe,” says Ochoa. “They are both part of a single continuum—the continuum of life.”

La Chasse, a duet choreographed by Matthew Neenan, Pennsylvania Ballet’s Choreographer in Residence, was inspired by a dynamic 1911 Cubist painting by French artist Albert Gleizes that depicts a vibrant hunting scene. Set to the second movement (Andante con moto) of Franz Schubert’s Piano Trio No. 2 in E-flat major for piano, violin, and violoncello, the ballet captures the propulsion of Schubert’s score with its shifting moods. As in Ochoa’s work, says Angle, “there are undercurrents of a story or a setting in which you get these kinds of emotional vignettes. I look at these pieces as possessing their own emotional paradigm about loss or community.” The two dancers of La Chasse circle each other, connect and separate in a touch-and-go interplay of human poetry.

Angle’s passionate love for Schubert’s compositions also includes Die schöne Müllerin (Op. 25, D. 795), the composer’s song cycle based on poems by Wilhelm Müller. The score is considered one of the finest examples of lied, the genre of German songs of the Romantic period for solo voice with piano accompaniment. Angle had seen Jessica Lang’s company perform her piece The Wanderer, set to the complete Die schöne Müllerin song cycle at Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival. “When I watched that piece at Jacob’s Pillow, the feeling I came away with was that it was so musically sensitive,” says Angle. “Her movement was trying to approach that level of cultivation.” Angle was particularly fond of a Franz Liszt piano transcription of six of the Schubert songs, published as Müllerlieder. Angle asked Lang to choreograph a completely new piece to the transcription that still retains some of the narrative of a journeyman who falls in love with a miller’s daughter, only to meet his tragic ending. “The research was there, the depth of her involvement was already there, and I wondered if she would be interested in doing something on a smaller scale.” Fortunately, she was.

Troy Schumacher, a dancer with New York City Ballet, is also one of that company’s most promising choreographers. His works possess a kind of youthful spontaneity and contagious energy. The score for Invisible Divide, which he choreographed in 2015 for his own company BalletCollective, features a commissioned score from Ellis Ludwig-Leone, the frontman and acclaimed composer for the American baroque pop band San Fermin. The piece is accompanied by a singer, guitarist, two violins, viola, cello and piano. Focused on a restless male dancer swirling inside an ensemble of dancers, Invisible Divide reads like an anthem for soul-searching millennials.

The “Balcony pas de deux” from Jean-Christophe Maillot’s RomĂ©o et Juliette evokes feelings unlike the iconic ballet renditions of Shakespeare’s tale from Kenneth MacMillan and John Cranko. “I wanted to include this duet as a counterpoint to what people are most familiar with,” says Angle. “It seems a little more emotionally immediate [than other versions]. It really seems like they’re reacting to each other and to the music. It doesn’t seem staid or studied.” For example, at a climax in the pas de deux, choreographed to Sergei Prokofiev’s splendid score, Juliet stands, legs straddled, as an ecstatic Romeo belly-slides through her legs.

To close the program, Angle wanted a work that would bridge the gap from the traditional ballet world to a newer reboot. He chose New York City Ballet alumnus Melissa Barack, who has choreographed numerous works for American ballet companies, to create a pas de trois. Angle especially appreciates her “wonderful classical training, underpinning her Balanchine style,” including her elegant use of the upper body and sleek footwork. For her ballet, Barack has chosen the fourth movement finale, marked Vivace ma non troppo, of Antonín Dvořák’s String Quartet in F major, Op. 96, nicknamed The American Quartet. Written in 1893, the quartet was inspired by Dvořák’s visit to America, especially his encounters with traditional black spiritual songs, which he called “a great and noble school of music.” It is worth noting that five of the eight ballets on the program will feature live music, including Barack’s world premiere.

And so ballet continues to evolve and thrive, while still adhering to the superb tenets of its classical legacy. This year, the Nantucket Atheneum Dance Festival shows us how that’s done—with imagination, elegance and brio.

Joseph Carman is a longtime Contributing Editor of Dance Magazine and the author of Round About the Ballet.