A Choreographic Roster of Royalty For 2019

by Joseph Carman

The roster of choreographers for this year’s Nantucket Atheneum Dance Festival reads like royalty among today’s masterful dance makers.  And the festival’s superb dancers are stars from the New York City Ballet, Pacific Northwest Ballet, Miami City Ballet, the Juilliard School and L.A. Dance Project. This is New York City Ballet dancer Tyler Angle’s seventh season as artistic director of the dance festival, and his curation of this summer’s program manages to simultaneously feel urbane, fun, erudite, entertaining and musically enlightened. Live music will accompany seven of the nine ballets presented.

Engaging a choreographer like Benjamin Millepied, who was a principal dancer with Angle at New York City Ballet, serves as a great example of Angle’s smart choices. International audiences have lauded Millepied, the former director of the Paris Opera Ballet and now the director of L.A. Dance Project, for his theatrical approach to contemporary choreography. His fine work is represented in two pieces for this season’s festival: a pas de deux from Appassionata and Hearts and Arrows. The latter piece was premiered by L.A. Dance Project in 2014 and is set to the String Quartet #3 by Philip Glass.

Millepied has often gravitated towards minimalist composers, and Glass’ score provides a propulsive engine to power the choreography. The dancers in Hearts and Arrows (the last two movements of the full ballet are performed here) move in clustered formations that break apart and convene to create stirring images. The choreography of Hearts and Arrows demands an interconnectedness among the eight performers as they ebb and flow through movement phrases. Angle also confesses that he chose the ballet because he wanted to dance the male duet that punctuates the piece. Hearts and Arrows originated as part of Millepied’s “Gems” trilogy, a collaboration between L.A. Dance Project and Van Cleef & Arpels. The look and feel of the ballet was inspired by the play of light on diamonds, with darkness illuminated by flashes of brilliance.

In 2016, the Paris Opera Ballet premiered Appassionnata, set to Ludwig van Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 23 in F minor, under the title La Nuit S’Achève (The Night Ends). This excerpted pas de deux (the entire ballet features three couples), highlights the turbulent emotion that matches the Sturm und Drang of Beethoven’s turgidly romantic score. The choreographic language here speaks of sweeping partnering and the surging physicality of heartfelt passion. The New York Times praised the choreography for the way, “it shows Mr. Millepied’s trademark fluency and skill in its smoothly evolving transitions from complex ensemble interactions to pas de deux tender or tempestuous.”

The Spanish choreographer Alejandro Cerrudo has made a big splash on the dance scene in a short time period. Currently the resident choreographer for Hubbard Street Dance Chicago, his work has been seen globally from Morocco to Australia. Cerrudo brings a slinky sensuality to his dance making and infuses his steps with a sleek, almost improvisational, quality. Set to Nils Frahm’s hauntingly restless piano piece Familiar, this excerpt is from Cerrudo’s Silent Ghost, which Aspen Santa Fe Ballet premiered in 2015. Cerrudo conjures up a fever dream of a duet, a place where danger and rapture can exist in the same space. Nevertheless, “the meaning is up to the viewer, and often changes with time,” says Cerrudo.

The New York Times former chief dance critic Alastair Macaulay recognized Kyle Abraham’s Runaway as an example of the “Best Dance of 2018.” Abraham, who directs his own contemporary dance company A.I.M, is gifted with an eclectic choreographic style and possesses an avant-garde esthetic that moves easily from ballet to hip hop. His work draws on personal experiences, as well as politics and human behavior. A mesmerizing solo from Runaway, choreographed on New York City Ballet dancer Taylor Stanley (and danced by him here at the Nantucket festival) mirrors the contemplative tones of acclaimed composer Nico Muhly’s score, Quiet Music.

If anyone embodies a choreographer with the “it” factor, that would be New York City Ballet’s Justin Peck. Just 31 years old, Peck has choreographed over 25 ballets, including one of his earliest pieces, Chutes and Ladders, for Miami City Ballet in 2013. The dramatic first movement of Benjamin Britten’s String Quartet # 1 in D Major, Op. 25 provides the springboard for this dynamic pas de deux. “When I heard it for the first time, it had a hypnotic effect on me,” says Peck. “I listened to the whole thing through without stopping—I was sort of in a trance. I thought it would work so well for a dance for two people. It has this sort of intimate feel about it that offers great contrasts—sort of introvert/extrovert at the same time. It constantly shifts back and forth between these two. I really wanted to pay my respects to the music.”

In 2017, the brilliant Russian choreographer Alexei Ratmansky created the ballet Odessa for New York City Ballet. The work is set to Sketches to Sunset, a suite of music composed by Leonid Desyatnikov for the 1990 Russian film Sunset, that includes tango and klezmer music. The gutsy tango duet from this work defines Ratmansky’s bold, deep approach to his art. Relationships coalesce, change and sometimes disappear with the figures in his ballets, but it’s impossible for them not to bare their souls.

Another Russian-born choreographer from a different era, George Balanchine, often recognized as the greatest choreographer of the 20th century, is represented on the festival’s program with Square Dance and the Coppélia wedding pas de deux. In 1957, Balanchine choreographed Square Dance on New York City Ballet for ballerina Patricia Wilde, a prodigious jumper known for her speed and attack. Balanchine loved American folk dance and thought that square dancing shared a common focus on form with classical ballet. Set to music of Antonio Vivaldi and Arcangelo Corelli, the main pas de deux excerpted from the ballet begins with a largo section for the harpsichord and moves right into the allegro movement. “There’s such a fullness to that whole section musically that is wonderful,” says Angle. “It’s such a statement of purpose. All of the steps are so simple and sublime, connecting with the music.” In the original version of Square Dance, Balanchine placed a square dance caller onstage with the musicians to call out the ballet steps (“Watch her feet go wickety-whack,” he crowed). For the 1976 revival of Square Dance (and the version seen here), Balanchine distilled the work to exclude the words and to concentrate on the music and dancing.

Coppélia, one of the great comic story ballets of the 19th century, was originally choreographed by Arthur St. Léon in 1870, restaged by Marius Petipa in 1884, and revised by Enrico Cecchetti in 1894. This wedding pas de deux from the final act is Balanchine’s version, excerpted from the complete ballet he staged together with the legendary ballerina Alexandra Danilova. After the hijinks early in the ballet’s story, when Swanilda, the heroine, outfoxes both her fiancé Frantz and the eccentric Doctor Coppélius, the wedding couple’s pas de deux in the ballet’s final scene culminates in the purity of serene classicism. The spirited score by Léo Delibes exudes charm, buoyancy and poignancy.

Tradition notwithstanding, the Nantucket Atheneum Dance Festival has also consistently fostered new talent through significant choreographic premieres commissioned by the festival. This season, the festival has again commissioned the promising 24-year-old choreographer Austin Goodwin, a Juilliard graduate, to create a premiere work, Chorus Cavalcade, to a new score by Christian Frederickson, renowned for his compositions for theater and contemporary dance. Goodwin’s signature style gravitates towards seamless fluidity that complements Frederickson’s elegantly flowing passages. Chorus Cavalcade will feature eight dancers.

As artistic director of the dance festival, Angle says that Molly Anderson, the executive director of the Nantucket Atheneum, has given him input and insight that has made him a better director and collaborator. “Molly is a treasure,” he says. “It’s a joy to work with her.”

And as with all the past Nantucket Atheneum Dance Festivals, the program can be appreciated by seasoned dance lovers as well as complete newcomers to the world of dance. It’s rare to gather so many fine dancers to perform such illustrious choreography. And what a wonderful idea: producing a great program of dance in such an idyllic setting.

Joseph Carman is a longtime contributing editor for Dance Magazine and the author of Round About The Ballet.