INTENSIO: Nocturne/Etude/Prelude, Welcome a Stranger, Simkin and the City, Simkin and the Stage, Islands of Memories
New York, Joyce Theater
5 Jan 2015
It is difficult to find anything wrong with Daniil Simkin. The ABT star, a mere 28 years old, has near flawless technique, a winning, eager personality and a boundless energy. No huge shocker then that he has already started his own impresario career. During the brief respite between Nutcracker and the start of ABT’s next tour, Simkin has squeezed his project INTENSIO into the dance calendar, making Tuesday its New York City premiere (it was at Jacob’s Pillow last summer).
Simkin’s gathered group – with the exception of Les Ballets Jazz de Montreal’s Celine Cassone – consists of ABT mainstays Isabella Boylston, Alexandre Hammoudi, Calvin Royal III, Cassandra Trenary and James Whiteside performing a mixed program of contemporary works.
The evening got off to a shaky start with Jorma Elo’s Nocturne/Etude/Prelude, which is set to Busoni’s Bach transcription, and two Chopin works. Boylston, normally an anchor, was wobbly, and never quite got into a convincing groove. Whiteside – currently sporting frosty blue hair and a charcoal beard – walked on like a long-lost member of X-Men (maybe Wolverine’s brother or Storm’s fraternal twin). Still, from the beginning through to the end of the night, Whiteside performed with a welcome edge that was sometimes lacking on Tuesday evening. Some particularly nice moments were pirouettes in demi-plie and several rather difficult slides where his long limbs had to stop on a dime and hold it- – and he did.
When the Chopin kicks in, things start to swim. One step swirls into the next in a continual, unending spiral. If you were on a boat you’d be seasick. Simkin’s solo manages to be both sharp and fluid. In this piece each dancer works best alone. Boylston too was steadier without either man. Their solos were the best executed and the most musical; whenever the triumvirate reformed things fell flat.
Just before intermission Simkin included two film-and-performance works by Alexander Ekman. Simkin and the City, which went viral with the Internet-savvy dance crowd a couple of years ago, always gets a good chuckle. Playing the earnest, romantic, naive danseur, Simkin traipses around New York admiring the buildings with the dramatic flourish of the best courtly princes. Although not new to most dance audiences, the 90 second bit shows that, although Simkin may have earned the Wall Street Journal’s labelling of being “slightly cornball,” he is no less charming for it.
In tandem with this, Simkin pushed a projector out onto the stage to screen Ekman’s Simkin and the Stage. Wearing at first warmers and then a princely tunic and tights, Simkin mimes and dances along to Ekman’s film which includes archival footage of the young Simkin – groomed from birth for a dance career by his ballet parents. As a child Simkin, his fair hair in a bowl-cut, stares straight into the camera with a seriousness that could stare down Churchill. If Simkin wasn’t so winsome, this home video section wouldn’t work. But Simkin’s off the cuff, Chaplin-esque humor saves the filmographies from feeling indulgent, and in actuality are the best part of the night. While by definition it could be the most pretentious bit of programming, it is, miraculously, the least. What it does indulge in is the public’s natural, insatiable desire for behind-the-scenes access to an artist – their training, discipline and creativity.
Gregory Dolbashian’s Welcome a Stranger is too even paced to be dynamic. Using a semi-industrial score pieced together from works and remixes by Brian Eno, Nicolas Jaar and Dolbashian, Stranger has a forced air of urgency. Dry ice clouds billow across the stage, and the dancers crouch and crawl around each other like a sea of arachnids. The biggest void is a rhythmic hook that one wants the dancers to be able to grab onto, instead of the movement – wormy, derivating from neck, shoulders and the upper spine – existing in alienation from it.
Boylston gets her groove back in Annabelle Lopez Ochoa’s Islands of Memories. She wasn’t the only one, the complete cast seemed more comfortable and was more – perhaps almost too – emotive in Memories. Using Max Richter’s adaptation of Vivaldi’s “The Four Seasons,” it’s hard not to read Memories as automatically histrionic: Richter’s score tugs heartstrings and has been used by many contemporary artists (including Brian Brooks in his fairly recent Torrent). Memories shows off the men well, and they all approach it with a certain gravity which looks different on all of them. Whiteside and Simkin are both particularly serious – Simkin’s chin down, earnest and focused, Whiteside’s head is high and something about his stature verges on the camp. Whiteside relishes his role and is an attentive partner, his eyes glued to the female pelvis each time he dances with them. Hammoudi is equally attentive, but focuses more on eye contact, especially with Boylston. Trenary is particularly fierce in this, with chiseled poise and razor-sharp reflexes.
The shirtless men flex their shirtless pecs throughout Memories and the women come out at its conclusion with their previously pinned hair falling loose around the shoulders; in this particular moment, it all feels very dance-reality-TV. The lighting is moody, and the entire piece features a suspended mirror backdrop and swirling op-art projections on the floor (which are of course reflected in the mirror). The lasting memory of the piece is a group of very sexy people dancing intensely together, but dancing what? The choreography is left behind in lieu of an overproduced spectacle.