The Joyce Theater’s Ballet Festival, a two-week long showcase of small ballet companies, opened Tuesday with Joshua Beamish’s MOVE: the company, a Canada-based group, that snagged some of the most promising and underrated talent of American Ballet Theatre for its two-day run. Unlike the other companies on roster for the Festival’s first week, Chamber Dance Project and The Ashley Bouder Project, the group’s repertory is limited to Beamish and as such the program lacks diversity. Three duets, each angsty and interested in romantic relationships, achieved various degrees of success. A world premiere, Surface Properties, closed the program, and an excerpt from Pierced, danced by Beamish, opened it.
Dancing alone, Beamish introduces his movement: silky smooth shifts, surprising twitches, lines of energy rolling through the body, either going on forever or stopping short, almost as soon as they’ve begun. He is animalistic, though the type of animal he mimics constantly changes. Duets seem to be Beamish’s comfort zone – his contribution to Wendy Whelan’s program of duets, Restless Creature, was a critical favorite in NY, and the thematic similarities between the three on the program suggest that he is drafting and redrafting in search of the right product. Pierced seems to be a first draft.
Sterling Baca and Luciana Paris continued in another excerpt from Pierced with a lover’s quarrel turned staring match, a sexy but unsurprising duet ending with Baca stabbing himself in the chest with his own pressed hands. Though the young and delightfully unassuming Baca is the most engaging performer on the program, Beamish doesn’t give him much to do as a partner. Other than the tensely flexed wrists and pointing arms where the antagonism between the lovers seems to live, the partnering is standard. The piece finds more success when the two aren’t partnering, but even here falls into sentimentality as they gaze at each other from across the stage, tears welling up in their eyes.
The two Royal Ballet dancers promised to perform burrow, Matthew Ball and Nicol Edmonds, mysteriously disappeared from the program, and were replaced by Matthew Dibble, a frequent Twyla Tharp dancer, and Jose Sebastian, another standout ABT corps member. What was surely a lack of rehearsal time sometimes read as awkwardness and an inability to inhabit the grittiness of Beamish’s movement. As Shostakovich’s piano and strings go back and forth in conversation, so do the men – the end of one’s phrase propels the beginning of the other’s. The movement is overly limby, but when Dibble and Sebastian are close and must fit into the negative spaces left behind by one anothers’ quickly disappearing shapes, the flying arms and legs are interesting. Too rushed is the piece’s development towards intimacy, but the strangeness of their points of connection – head on chest, elbow on stomach – make it okay.
Beamish has an eye for promising corps de ballet dancers: in Stay, Stephanie Williams has a soft but specific musicality and articulate legs that hesitate to reach their full length until the last moment. Choreographed discomfort and fragility add depth to Williams’s performance: Dimitri Kleioris holds her over his head in an anguished lift, and she slowly, laboriously slides down, her limbs getting stuck in the angles of his body. Her standing knee breaks after a turn sequence and she crumples, and over and over again they rest and rub their heads on one another’s shoulders.
Beamish’s duets build to his most ambitious work: Surface Properties sports a strong cast of ten ABT dancers and it’s a quirky divergence from the rest of the program, featuring shoulder shrugs, booty rolls, and pointe shoe stomps. The women strut around en pointe, swiveling their hips and making incomprehensible gestures as if they are a cool clique; a girl gang that speaks a language of their own. Cassandra Trenary reigns queen bee over this clique: only she and Roman Zhurbin can keep up with Beamish’s musicality, and she struts and stomps with the most sass of them all.
Beamish negotiates silence and shifts in tone with ease and clarity. He builds tension skillfully, too – the entrance of each new dancer feels important, and often is. The piece grows chaotic or too serious at times, and certain movements (the body rolls, the turtle-like head initiations) aren’t subtle enough to appear so frequently in his works.
A highlight of the piece is the visual design by Matt Keegan: black patterns on a white background simply and succinctly complement Beamish’s playful, scientific exploration of shape. Lauren Post shape shifts in the air, climbing over the men of the piece and rarely allowing her feet to touch the ground. Meanwhile, an image of stairs forming is projected behind them. Trenary pirouettes frantically, her constant motion unhampered by her partner’s hands or any notion of front or back. A small black circle is her only accompaniment.