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Review: At Ballet Theater, New Videos and Signs of a New Era

Why make a dance film? What does the medium offer that a theater, with a live audience, doesn’t?

Those questions hovered around the digital program that American Ballet Theater presented on Monday night, “A.B.T. Today: The Future Starts Now,” a virtual gala featuring new works by the choreographers Gemma Bond, Darrell Grand Moultrie, Christopher Rudd and Pam Tanowitz. Of the four, Ms. Tanowitz, who choreographed the six-minute film “David,” for David Hallberg, seemed most concerned with excavating “something that can’t be done live,” as she said in a short introduction.

Developed at locations in upstate New York and Connecticut — where each creative team worked together as an isolated group, or “ballet bubble” — the premieres signaled the beginning of a new institutional chapter for Ballet Theater, what the company is calling “A.B.T. RISE: Representation and Inclusion Sustain Excellence.” In one of several promotional videos inserted throughout the program, staff and dancers elaborated — sort of — on what this means.

“We are actively engaged in a transformation that will weave diversity, equity and inclusion into the fabric of A.B.T., on and off the stage,” Kara Medoff Barnett, the company’s executive director, said.

A more candid overview might have named, in less vague terms, some of the imbalances that make such a transformation necessary: for instance, that it’s been 20 years since Ballet Theater commissioned a work by a Black choreographer (Christian Holder’s “Weren’t We Fools?” from 2000), or that of the approximately 50 works to enter the company’s repertory from 2010 to 2019, only about 20 percent were by women. (Sadly, for a major ballet company, that’s actually kind of a lot.)

With works by two Black men (Mr. Rudd and Mr. Moultrie) and two white women (Ms. Tanowitz and Ms. Bond), “A.B.T. Today” — which will be available on the company’s YouTube channel for a month — gestures toward a future ballet world less dominated by white male choreographers. Another sign of change: Each work begins with a written acknowledgment that it was filmed on land forcefully taken from Indigenous peoples.

While these digital commissions are a positive step, the artists should be invited back to Ballet Theater when they can benefit from a full stage and a live audience. With the exception of Ms. Tanowitz, who collaborated with the filmmaker Jeremy Jacob and the cinematographer Daniel Rampulla, all created works in which the camera seemed more obligatory than revelatory — in which the dance could have existed without the camera. And that’s fine: We shouldn’t expect choreographers reared in theaters to suddenly become experts in making work for screens.

Ms. Bond’s “Convivium” and Mr. Rudd’s “Touché” were both filmed at the Silver Bay YMCA in upstate New York, in a small theater lined with black curtains. Shot in black and white, the pleasant “Convivium,” for four dancers, looks like a rehearsal that we happen to be peering in on. In one of its more striking moments, Thomas Forster clasps the hands of his fellow dancers, drawing them close to him, then gravitates away, pulled toward the perimeter of the space. As he reaches in the direction of the curtains, the room seems smaller than it did before, the dancers lonelier and more confined.

Mr. Rudd created “Touché,” an intimate duet for Calvin Royal III and João Menegussi, in an effort “to normalize gay love and lust,” he said in a brief introduction. The work charts the phases of the men’s relationship, from shame, secrecy and internal conflict, toward a more tender and vulnerable connection, ending with a kiss.

The “Touché” team worked with the intimacy director Sarah Lozoff, whom Mr. Royal recently interviewed on Ballet Theater’s Instagram (@abtofficial). Their discussion about consciously navigating consent during a choreographic process — as rare in ballet as an unapologetic depiction of male lovers — is worth watching on its own, or as a companion to this dance.

Mr. Moultrie’s “Indestructible Light,” for six dancers, was filmed at the arts center PS21 in Chatham, N.Y., on an indoor proscenium stage. Propelled by a jazz compilation (Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Neal Hefti, Billy Strayhorn), it is the most joyous of the four works, like an unleashing of pent-up energy. As if to capture the buzz of being backstage, the camera roves through the wings; yet in doing so, it also betrays an emptiness. It’s clear this dance is happening in a vacant theater.

With “David,” Ms. Tanowitz and her collaborators conjure an eerier isolation. Filmed on the grounds of the Philip Johnson’s Glass House in New Canaan, Conn., the work cuts between scenes of Mr. Hallberg sitting in a plush living room — paging through images of Michelangelo’s “David” — and dancing among the pillars of Pavilion in the Pond, a stone structure that could be his own island.

About as tall as the pillars, Mr. Hallberg roams introspectively among them, at once tranquil and troubled, elegant and awkward, as he paws the ground or sinks into a deep plié with limp arms. It feels like the prelude to a horror movie, bristling with enough mystery to merit watching again and again.

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