"Pictures at an Exhibition". NYCB MOVES. Photo: Christopher Duggans.
Robert Fairchild (ctr). "Reunion". Photo: Christopher Duggans.
Sara Mearns, Russel Janzen. "In the Night." Photo: Christopher Duggans.

Vail Dance Festival Opening Weekend 2021

Written by:
Michael Wade Simpson
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Opening weekend at the 2021 Vail Dance Festival featured torrential rain, real dancers in a real (outdoor) theater with a real audience, and dancing that was clearly an act of passion. In the wider world, the highly contagious Covid Delta variant was sweeping the nation, sending  vast, unvaccinated sections of the country back into masks, while an Olympic Games was going on in Tokyo with no spectators. Still, it was not enough to keep dance fans away from Vail. Here, in this green valley in the Rockies was a hint of what may be to come in the fall—ballet in theaters, dancers back at work, audiences witnessing live performances. It was a wonderful sight.

The Vail festival attracts dance artists at the top of their game from an interesting variety of styles—think Memphis Jooker Lil Buck, Artist-in-Residence (and African-American ABT principal ballet dancer) Calvin Royal III, the Philadelphia-based company BalletX, James Whiteside, the American Ballet Theatre leading man also known for his drag videos,  tapper Michelle Dorrance, and Melissa Toogood, a former Merce Cunningham dancer, now performing with Pam Tanowitz. But it is the New York City Ballet which brings a certain ownership to the event, with longtime NYCB dancer Damian Woetzel as Artistic Director, and with  the appearance by the entire “MOVES”  touring branch of the company. While other nights of the festival have a kind of smorgasbord feel, featuring lots of dancers doing lots of short pieces, it was the MOVES company, bringing  “Dancers at a Gathering” by Jerome Robbins,  “Pictures at an Exhibition” by Alexei Ratmansky and other entire pieces onto  stage (with live pianists) which gave the audience a deeper exposure to brilliant ballet choreography.  

Opening night included an excerpt from Balanchine’s “Apollo”, danced by Royal, from ABT, with Unity Phelan, from NYCB. These kinds of collaborations are opportunities for the dancers to perform outside the sometimes rigid casting in their own companies. Royal seemed at home in the classic role (a rite-of-passage for male ballet dancers) and his long-limbed lines were well-matched by Phelan, who has an ethereal quality that suited her part perfectly. There were not one but two Black Swans, and two Princes, in a Swan Lake mash-up. Isabella Boylston was (mostly) paired with James Whiteside, while Devon Teuscher worked with Cory Stearns. It was fun to watch them dashing on and off stage to take each other’s places without missing a beat. A couple from BalletX, Andrea Yorita and Shawn Cusseaux, brought a little soul onto stage, with a pop-ballet number, “Fancy Me,” set to “Groove Me” by King Floyd. A piéce d’occasion, created by Woetzel and dancers, was a light-hearted exploration of the diversity of artists at the festival. How often does the ballet and Broadway leading man Robbie Fairchild get upstaged by a Memphis Jookers? In “Reunion 2021” the ballet dancer had a few moments to shine, but mostly, the piece, set to Handel-Halvorsen Passacaglia played by violinist Johnny Gandelsman and cellist Michael Nicolas (from Brooklyn Rider) was a style roll call Fairchild, representing ballet,  in addition to Jookers Ron Myles and Lil Buck, and  tappers Dorrance,  Dario Natarelli,  Byron Tittle and Ai Shimatsu.  

“Dancers at a Gathering” brought the NYCB MOVES group onto the stage for Act II. The all-Chopin score was played valiantly by Susan Walters, who sat upstage at her Steinway grand, no-doubt freezing in the post-deluge dampness. The dance was choreographed in 1969 by Robbins five years after he worked on the Broadway classic, “Fiddler on the Roof,” and is said to similarly explore his Jewish roots. “It should look like a group of friends together dancing,” said Jean-Pierre Frohlich, who stages the piece for the Robbins Trust after dancing the “Man in Brown” for many years. Dance writer Deborah Jowitt called it,  “members of a community that lives in Chopin’s music.”   When Frolich stages the ballet, he emphasizes “the sense of movement and wind blowing.” This was not difficult to imagine in Vail. Ashley Hod, Tyler Peck, Unity Phelan, Gretchen Smith and Indiana Woodward were paired with Joseph Gordon, Anthony Huxley, Russell Janzen, Roman Mejia and Peter Walker. They brought a folk-dancey clarity and a minimum of balletic exaggeration to the piece. Robbins would have been proud. A moment near the end, when Huxley,  the “Man in Brown,” lowered himself to simply touch a hand on the ground ,seemed to speak for all dancers who struggled to maintain technique and sanity during a long Pandemic layoff—‘we’re back.’  

The second night at the Festival was all MOVES. “In the Night,” Robbins’ follow-up to “Dances at a Gathering,” and another Chopin piano ballet, featured three couples in love, each in different stages of their relationship. The first couple, danced by Lauren Lovette and Joseph Gordon, are young lovers, gracefully avoiding the waltz tempos of the music and making their own steps. Sara Mearns and Russell Janzen were a long-married couple with survival and compromise written into their dancing. Mearns, who has danced with NYCB since 2003, is a somewhat world-worn veteran. It was bittersweet to witness her subtly emotional portrayal of a woman no longer in her prime. Janzen, who joined the company a year after Mearns, showed fewer signs of decline, although he was not dancing ‘en pointe’, still, there was no effort to disguise his receding hairline. The couple were elegant and resigned to find beauty in their experience of enduring love. Unity Phelan and Andrew Veyette were on-again-off-again lovers making exits and reunions and generally embodying the stormier elements of the Nocturnes. Where “Dances at a Gathering” had a communal feel to it, this was about three separate couples. They could have been neighboring apartment dwellers in New York, barely aware of each other’s existence.  

“Sonatine,” choreographed by Balanchine in 1975 to piano music by Maurice Ravel, had a softer edge to it. Danced by Tiler Peck and Anthony Huxley, the piece featured a Balanchinian focus on details of technique. Pecks passé positions (where one foot touches the knee) seemed relevatory in their simplicity and charm. In contrast to the moody nights of Chopin, this was Impressionistic piano music, very French, full of colors and style. Huxley even brought the softer edge of the Ravel into a thigh-slapping, animated third movement. It was a charming somewhat slight piece–minor Balanchine.  

In between restaging the classic Petipa ballets “Paquita,” and “The Sleeping Beauty,” for the Bavarian State Ballet, and American Ballet Theater, respectively, Alexei Ratmansky, former director of the Bolshoi Ballet, choreographed “Pictures at an Exhibition,” set to the well-known Mussorgsky score. While Mussorgsky composed the piece in 1874 based on different paintings by a recently deceased friend (Viktor Hartmann), the dance choreographed for NYCB in 2014, featured theatrical projections based on  “Color Study: Squares With Concentric Circles,” a 1913 painting by Wassily Kandinsky, the abstract painter. Similar blotches of color find their way onto the flowing smocks worn by the dancers (costumes are by Adeline Andre). The date-smash of the Mussorgsky music with Kandinsky art indicates that Ratmansky was after more than music visualization. He had something to say about ballet technique and modernism.  

Wonderfully danced by Hod, Lovette, Phelan, Smith, Woodward, Adrian Danchig-Waring, Gordon, Majia, Andrew Scordato and Veyette, the sections of the piece, as diverse as the paintings illustrated by the composer, also featured movement which transcended classical technique. Ratmansky has a brilliant way with steps—a unique voice that defies the trendy styles of “Contemporary Ballet” and yet presents something totally fresh. The human qualities he brings out in the dance never abandon the classical technique, but somehow manage to present a totally different sense. Lifts held longer, men dancing together, weighty movement reminiscent of the modern dance choreographer Mark Morris, the less-formal use of bodies in space, the nods to Russian peasants as much as to the aristocracy which invented ballet—all these things combine in a dance which exemplifies playful genius.  
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