BalletX performes Justin Peck’s Become a Mountain at Vail Dance Festival. Photo: Christopher Duggan

Vail Dance Festival 2023

Written by:
Michael Wade Simpson
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Three nights at the Vail Dance Festival this weekend were a great sampler of the caliber and diversity of performances being offered during the two-week festival. On Opening Night, Friday July 28, there was a Greatest Hits kind of offering with some of the best dancers in the world in snack-sized performances. Tiler Peck, a principal ballerina at New York City Ballet, showed off a crisp attack, and the ability to smile non-stop as she turned like a top, and ran flying, repeatedly, into the arms of Roman Mejia, a young partner who is developing some bravado. It was Balanchine’s “Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux.”

Adji Cissoko, from LINES Ballet, the Festival artist-in-residence, performed the stunning, “Epilogue Pas de Deux,” with Calvin Royal III from American Ballet Theatre. Choreography by Alonzo King offered the extremely long-legged, hyper-flexible Cissoko the chance to contrast Peck’s Balanchine piece by showing King’s more ecstatic approach to dance. Every move Cissoko made telegraphed an almost spiritual intensity.

Justin Peck’s 2021 piece, “Become a Mountain,” was performed by BalletX from Philadelphia. It is one of his white tennis shoe ballets. The music, by Dan Deacon, featured cascading chords reminiscent of Phillip Glass, while non-stop movement in shoes was a nod to Twyla Tharp, whose “In The Upper Room” had a similar kind of build to exhaustion. The reason Peck is one of the great choreographic hopes for ballet in the 21st Century is because his bouncy, youthful works show off the group, not a few stars. The group becomes the star. The movement is more about patterns in space than steps on a single person. His inventive, playful musicality, even the old-fashioned shoes, offer a nostalgia balm in troubled times.

Other pieces at Opening Night served as intros to companies and artists performing elsewhere in the festival. “Laying the Groundwork” was a tap and music collaboration for “Music From the Sole,” featuring Noé Kains, Gregory Richardson (composer), Leonardo Sandoval, Lucas Santana and Dario Natarelli. “Immediate Tragedy” was a Martha Graham dance reimagined by company director Janet Eilber, danced by Xin Ying. Mira Nadon and Chun Wai Chan from New York City Ballet offered a pas de deux from Swan Lake Act 3 (w Nadon as the Black Swan). Caili Quan and Robbie Fairchild, two independent artists, did a playful little duet they created themselves. “Cave (excerpt)” a group piece for the Graham Company by Hofesh Shelter shows how the company is attempting to stay current. Without a single Graham-technique contraction, the dancers stomped, Israeli-style, through a work that looked like club dancing—communal, contemporary, and forgettable. I skipped the evening-length company performance on Saturday.

Heather Watts coaches New York City Ballet’s Tiler Peck at the UpClose performance celebrating George Balanchine at the Vail Dance Festival. Photo by Christopher Duggan.jpg

On Sunday, July 30, Jennifer Homan, Dance Critic for “The New Yorker” and author of “Mr. B: George Balanchine’s 20th Century”, shared the microphone with the Balanchine ballerina Heather Watts, and former New York City Ballet principal Damian Woetzel, who also directs the festival (and runs the Julliard School). In a casually set lecture demonstration format, excerpts from the book were combined with personal stories from Watts and Woetzel, and examples of dances over the history of Balanchine’s work. Dancers, including Sara Mearns, Tiler Peck, Unity Phelan, India Bradley, Olivia Bell, Mira Nadon, Chun Tai Chan and Roman Mejia from New York City Ballet, Calvin Royal III, Devon Teuscher and James Whiteside from American Ballet Theatre, Ben Rudisin fro National Ballet of Canada, Philip Duclos from Royal Danish Ballet, Mayfield Myers from Philadelphia Ballet, and NYCB alums Lauren Lovette and Robbie Fairchild all performed bits and pieces of works they knew well, illustrating the narrative. Watts, who regularly coaches dancers at NYCB, jumped to work as ballerinas like Peck graciously accepted her direction, which was sometimes being offered while they danced. It was the kind of behind-the-scenes moments you would not find on stage in New York.

“5 Live Calibrations” by Madeline Hollander. Photo: Christopher Duggan.

L.A. Dance Project, was co-founded by Benjamin Millepied, former NYCB dancer and director of the Paris Opera Ballet in 2012. Perhaps, like Alonzo King, being a ballet company on the left coast offers a certain freedom from the confines of dance expectations, but the three works presented at Vail were more experimental modern dance than anything close to classical ballet. “Everyone Keeps Me,” by Pam Tanowitz, was a work with all the interest and frustration of a Merce Cunningham work. The music was independent of the movement, and the group of ten dancers formed patterns that were playful and will-nilly, not like the lines and circles of Balanchine at all. “5 Live Calibrations” by Madeline Hollander, with electronic score by Celia Hollander, was another exercise in abstraction. Here, as in a Cunningham work, chance was employed. There were trippy movement patterns to match the trippy music. Dancers were calling out counts, and when the lights went out, repeatedly, the dance was never over. Watching the dancers in both pieces was like witnessing organisms squirming under a microscope. There was the suggestion of nature, both its organization and its chaos.

“Quartet for Five,” by Bobbi Jane Smith and Or Schraiber. Photo: Christopher Duggan.

“Quartet for Five,” by Bobbi Jane Smith and Or Schraiber featured the house string quartet, “Brooklyn Rider” playing Philip Glass’ “String Quartet No. 5”. Unlike the previous dances, the choreographers fully connected to the less-familiar Glass music. The dance paid careful attention to the score, but moments of actual sychrony came as surprises. The dance featured sections of weighty, very human choreography, completely heterosexual and nearly violent. Smith and Schraiber even make direct references to the work of Smith’s former employer, Ohad Naharin (Batsheva Dance). The two women in the piece, Courtney Donovan and Payton Johnson, long-hair flying, personified angst with power, not powerlessness.

Smith clearly came away from Batsheva with her own ideas. There have been other Batsheva-inspired choreographers, but, perhaps because she never lost her Americanness in Israel, her work offers a fresh take.

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