Dance Festival: Program Notes

By Joseph Carman

To Tyler Angle, the current artistic director of the Nantucket Atheneum Dance Festival, music always provides the impulse for dance. “You can’t extricate one from the other,” says Angle, who has been a principal dancer with New York City Ballet since 2009. He was insistent from the beginning that live music would provide the foundational accompaniment for all the ballets danced on this year’s program, the eighth annual Nantucket Atheneum Dance Festival. This year, six pieces comprise the 2014 program which covers three centuries of choreography and exhibits an impressive range of styles. The featured dancers are from American Ballet Theatre and New York City Ballet.

In 1937 the composer Arnold Schoenberg orchestrated Brahms’s Piano Quartet No. 1 in G minor, Op. 25 (1861) to grant the strings a more voluminous sound. Nearly 30 years later choreographer George Balanchine premiered his ballet Brahms-Schoenberg Quartet for New York City Ballet, and the fuller orchestration suited the expansive then-named New York State Theater at Lincoln Center. The second movement, excerpted from the ballet for this program, became one of ballerina Patricia McBride’s triumphant signature roles. Designated as Intermezzo: Allegro ma non troppo — Trio: Animato (C minor), the boldly lyrical movement in compound triple meter evokes feelings of passion and agitation. (The unsettled nature of the movement may well have reflected the the complicated romantic relationship between Brahms and Clara Schumann, who was the pianist at the work’s premiere.)

For the purposes of the more compact Nantucket Atheneum, Angle has chosen Brahms’s original string quartet arrangement. “Because the second movement has only five dancers, it is the most intimate of any of them and would really benefit being in the small space,” he says. “The music for that movement is much more dynamic when it’s just the four players. You really get the percussive nature of the piano and the great play between the strings and piano, which I feel is lost with the orchestrated version.”

A fervid pas de deux for the main couple, replete with crucially timed off-balance partnering, is complemented by three women who swirl mysteriously around the stage. Lincoln Kirstein, the late impresario and co-founder of New York City Ballet, wrote that the ballet’s dances “seem steeped in the apprehension and change permeating the sunset of the Austro-Hungarian monarchy. They suggest a world drunk on ‘wine and roses.’”

Flower Festival in Genzano pas de deux, set to a score by Edvard Helsted, is the most famously extracted segment from Danish choreographer August Bournonville’s ballet, which premiered at the Royal Danish Ballet in 1858. The libretto, which reflects the Danish simpatico sentiment for Italianate brio, originated from a passage in the non-fiction book Impressions de Voyage by Alexandre Dumas about the the lovers Rosa and Paolo. This charming duet, exuding Mozartian levity and expressing the blossoming love of youth, features an adagio and two variations (solos) each for the man and the woman. The playful coda with its enchanting circular steps concludes the pas de deux, which features a brilliant display of batterie (beats) in the Bournonville style. Angle loves the modernity contained within the classicism: “Like other original Bournonville pas de deuxs, you watch this, and it is ingenious and fiendishly difficult, but it has beautiful stuff that challenges your ideas of musicality and syncopation.”

The formal precision of the Bach Partita #2 in C Minor inspired Emery LeCrone to choreograph a ballet for two couples. The piece was one of six partitas that Bach published in 1731 as Opus 1, the first part of his Clavier Ăśbung (Keyboard Practice) anthology. He intended them for “music lovers, for the delight of their spirits.” The partita begins with a French-style Sinfonia that moves into a wistful Allemande and then jumps into a spirited Courante. A lyrical Serebande segues into the propulsive Rondeau which leads to the finale, an authoritative Gigue. The first couple in the ballet dances together in a study of sublime partnering. The second couple dances with a sense of poetic ceremony; then the second ballerina and her partner dance intricate solos, followed by a signature pas de deux for each of the couples. For the final movement, all four dancers come together onstage–a quartet that seems to share a mutual sense of kinetic and musical wisdom. The meticulousness of the composition bonds beautifully with the exactitude of ballet’s language.

At the age of 37, Benjamin Millepied, now the Director of Dance at the Paris Opera Ballet (and the previous director of the Nantucket Atheneum Dance Festival), has choreographed 20 works for companies such as American Ballet Theatre, New York City Ballet and the Dutch National Ballet. Nico Muhly, the celebrated young composer who has collaborated often with Millepied, created the score, Drones and Viola, for Millepied’s most recent work for NYCB, titled Neverwhere, which premiered in 2013. Muhly and Millepied share a sense of rhythm and timing; the six dancers glide through Muhly’s jagged-edged, propulsive meter. Both the music and the episodic choreography are fragmented into sections as silences synchronize with blackouts. In a poignant final pas de deux, Millepied’s seamless partnering sails through Muhly’s neo-minimalist melodies.

When ABT soloist Isabella Boylston received a grant from the Annenberg Foundation to further her career, she chose to commission a dance by Swedish choreographer Pontus Lidberg. The premiere, a duet featuring herself and James Whiteside, will take place at this year’s Nantucket Atheneum Dance Festival. Hailed as a major choreographic talent, Lidberg has created over 30 works for companies such as The Royal Danish Ballet, Beijing Dance Theatre, Le Ballet du Grand Théâtre de Genève and the Royal Swedish Ballet. A filmmaker as well as choreographer and dancer, Lidberg has been praised for his award-winning 2007 dance film The Rain, which documents tableaus of human relationships, one of the choreographer’s favorite themes.

One of ballet’s most sought-after choreographers is 27-year-old Justin Peck, currently a soloist with NYCB. In 2012, he choreographed a pas de deux to AntonĂ­n Dvořák’s Piano Quintet in A major, Op. 81 for the Youth America Grand Prix gala, the closing night of that ballet competition. Titled Furiant, the ballet explores movement that ebbs and flows from ballet’s classicism to seemingly improvised moments. The superbly phrased piece is characterized by intricate footwork and ingeniously intertwined partnering.

In Angle’s view, assembling the Nantucket Atheneum program has been a joyful challenge. “Putting programs together for an event that has an outreach program and that connects with community focuses your esthetic attention,” says Angle. “What do you really want to show a community? What’s fabulous about it is that we have a full range of dance goers. We have those who probably only watch Dancing with the Stars and then we have people who come to see everything in New York, Boston and San Francisco.”

In addition to the accessibility, however, Angle wants the quality of the program to be superior to most dance galas. “The goal is to give the program the same level of quality that you find in international music festivals,” says Angle who spends his free time attending music festivals in Europe.

And so, as Balanchine often said: “See the music and hear the dance.”

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