Set in a steep, verdant mountain valley, on an open-air stage surrounded by flowers, with trout-friendly Gore Creek running in the background, the Vail Dance Festival represents a summer respite from urban life for some of the most prominent professional dancers in America. It’s easy to imagine that these performers luxuriate in the high-country air—their bodies freer and more relaxed than they might be on stage in Manhattan. Damian Woetzel, who was a principal dancer at the New York City Ballet for 20 years, and now serves as president of the Juilliard School, is the Artistic Director. He brings not only top-flight talent to the festival, but an ongoing emphasis on promoting artists who sometimes get pigeon-holed in their dance companies, as well as offering many opportunities to create, collaborate and present new work. Woetzel himself tells audiences regularly that the festival is about the “next step,” for artists and for the art itself.
Woetzel also believes in educating audiences. Who else would invite the Jose Limón Dance Company, founded in 1946, and presenting an unaltered version of classic (and very dated-looking) modern dance on stage with Ephrat Asherie Dance, a group whose founder also trained in modern dance and ballet, but found her voice through b-girling (break dancing), Hip-Hop and club dancing? It all works because Woetzel presents context in his on-stage commentaries, and because summer audiences are not as hide-bound as those in New York. It is as if he is telling dance lovers to get over their ballet-centrism.
Justin Peck follows New York City Ballet founder George Balanchine and the other original choreographer of the company, Jerome Robbins, as Resident Choreographer and leading artist in the field. He is still young, his voice is excitingly fresh, and he has been a prolific dance maker, creating over 35 dances for NYCB and other companies. Works from all three artists are included throughout the festival, but on the second night, July 30, when “New York City Ballet Moves,” a touring company consisting of principals, soloists and corps de ballet members of the company presented their own evening on the stage at the Gerald Ford Amphitheater, it was Robbins vs. Peck.
Peck, who choreographed the recent Spielberg re-do of “West Side Story,” was clearly influenced by the dancing-in-the-streets feeling of the movie as well as by the original work by Robbins. “Partita,” presented at Vail, offered dancers in white tennis shoes, a slouchy/quick athleticism, and a refreshingly non-traditional music score. The composer Caroline Shaw, who first met Peck at the Vail Festival a few years ago, was the youngest Pulitzer Prize winner (in 2013) for her “Partita for 8 Voices” which the Pulitzer committee described as “a highly polished and inventive a cappella work uniquely embracing speech, whispers, sighs, murmurs, wordless melodies and novel vocal effects.” Presented in a recording by Shaw’s performing group “Roomful of Teeth,” the music was purely vocal, and added texture and rhythm that was organic—reminiscent of the percussive syllables of South Indian music. The cast of young dancers seemed completely fluent and completely committed to this contemporary vein.
Principal dancer Tiler Peck danced as one of the pack in the piece, happy to join this typically egalitarian Peck ballet. Roman Meija, a soloist at NYCB, is also the Artist-in-Residence at the Festival this year, and he was a stand-out in “Partita” along with KJ Takahashi, a new member of the corps. Standing out in this ballet means giving oneself into a style completely, and merging physically with the unusual sounds and voices coming from the score. India Bradley and Claire Kretzchmar had duet moments which stated the themes of the ballet but also offered a contrasting set of body types and styles—Bradley angular and hyper-mobile, Kretzchmar more powerful and athletic. Gilbert Bolden III, Harrison Coll, and Ashley Hod were also part of the gang.
Opening Night featured Peck and Mejia in in “Other Dances,” a Robbins dance the choreographer originally created in 1976 for Natalia Makarova and Mikhail Baryshnikov as a pièce d’occasion for a gala performance at the Metropolitan Opera House to benefit the New York Public Library. In 2012, Peck danced the piece in excerpt at the Kennedy Center Honors, where Makarova was an honoree.
The dance, called a masterpiece, entered the repertory of both the American Ballet Theatre, where Makarova and Baryshnikov were working at the time, and New York City Ballet. Peter Martins and Suzanne Farrell debuted the work there. Peck, who has been dancing the part for years, came to Vail in part to serve as a partner/mentor for Mejia in several classic New York City Ballet roles, “Other Dances” being one of them. Clearly, Mejia, who is still a soloist in the company, is being groomed to be a leading male.
The dance is one of several Robbins works set to piano music by Chopin (Elaine Chelton could have been playing by candlelight). Like the score, which includes four mazurkas and one waltz, the piece is charming, a study in musical choreography. Mejia is, as yet, not as sublimely liquid in his performance as Baryshnikov is on YouTube video, although he seems to have a good partnership with Peck.
“Odeon (excerpt),” by Ephrat Asherie Dance, was an odd but interesting amalgam of Latin jazz (performed live) with a buttered-down version of street dance. The six dancers and four musicians in the company seemed to be inventing a new form—Soft Break, a chiller version of Hip-Hop, a B-girl creation for kids on gummies. Mellow.
Musically, “Press Play,”, a debut for DanceAspen, with a score borrowed from Fatboy Slim, was in a similar world as Asherie Dance, with a dance beat and Hip-Hop influence. DanceAspen, however, is ballet-based. They are a pandemic dance company—former Aspen Santa Fe Ballet dancers (that company closed late in the lockdowns) who, stranded in Aspen, decided not to jump ship for possible work in New York, but to stay and create a new company.
“Press Play,” by Festival Artist-in-Residence Caili Quan, features four female ballet dancers wearing brightly colored men’s suits over crop tops. The baggy clothes detracted from any ballet lines the dancers were making, and they were more technical but less charismatic than the New York-based club dancers who make up Ephrat Asherie Dance. The Jose Limón company brought a huge contingent for their own evening on the Ford Amphitheatre stage, but looked a little corny, on opening night, as they presented one piece, an excerpt from Limón’s 1971 dance, “Waldstein Sonata” (completed after the choreographers deathly Daniel Lewis)’ which contained lines of dancers crossing the stage doing stag leaps with arms locked in rigid, asymmetrical formations, and some music visualization crossed with old-fashioned, Humphrey-Graham-style body sculpting. Woetzel’s programming is indeed educational, but that doesn’t mean one couldn’t feel a little sorry for these dancers. They looked committed to the past.