In 2015, the Joyce Theater established a biannual ballet festival to showcase emerging talents in the field. The purpose is to go beyond the walls of large institutions like New York City Ballet and San Francisco Ballet. The truth is, there are scores of enterprising young choreographers out there, putting together pickup groups, making their own work. This year, focus has been on female choreographers, generally under-represented at the big companies. Four of the five ensembles at the festival were led by women, and the fifth was the brainchild of a brother-sister team.
One of the attractions of this summer showcase is the opportunity to see fantastic dancers at a much smaller venue than usual. Because these choreographers are mostly freelancers, they use their friends, who tend to come from big companies like American Ballet Theatre, City Ballet, Dance Theater of Harlem, Boston Ballet, Atlanta Ballet. It is what dancers do over their summer breaks. It’s moving to see how devoted they are to their friends’ creative ideas; they make the best possible case for the work.
This year I was only able to catch Gemma Bond, a choreographer whose work I have been following since her first foray into choreography, as part of the Innovation Initiative workshop at American Ballet Theatre in 2010. Her star is on the ascendant; it was recently announced that she will make a new work for Washington Ballet next year. Bond is also a corps-member at ABT, notable for her neat, lively, precise dancing. (She trained at the Royal Ballet.) Her performers are culled from that company – a luxury cast that includes Corey Stearns and James Whiteside (principals), Christine Shevchenko and Devon Teuscher (newly-minted principals), and a smattering of soloists, including Thomas Forster, Skylar Brandt, Cassandra Trenary and Calvin Royal.
A tip-top group, which Gemma Bond does her best to show in the best possible light. Her style is expansive, lyrical, handsomely coordinated, with a focus on the beauty of the line of the body. In the first piece of the evening, Then and Again, a recurring image showed a dancer standing in profile in a neat arabesque à terre, with one leg extended behind and one arm reaching elegantly forward. The women, in pretty red baby-doll dresses (by Ruby Canner), bent their legs while standing on pointe, feet together, and bourréed gracefully sideways. Much attention was paid to the arms, held just so, or linked, or raised. Tall, melancholy Stephanie Williams and Devon Teuscher seemed to be locked in planetary orbit around Thomas Forster, with Williams mostly on the fringes and Teuscher more closely entwined. Where the handsome Mr. Forster stood on the matter was unclear, as he was mostly busy negotiating Ms. Teuscher into elaborate, sensual lifts. The dancers, especially the women, looked beautiful, and that beauty, underscored by a lush-sounding cello score by Alfredo Piatti, seemed to be the point, an end in itself.
The second piece, a pas de deux entitled The Giving, glorified its dancers even more. For the music, Bond chose a vaguely space-age score for synthesizer. At the start, silhouetted lighting outlined Christine Shevchenko’s figure and profile as she held out a corner of her pleated skirt (by Kyle Edmund). There she stood, an embodiment of feminine mystique. Corey Stearns lay at her feet. The pas de deux began sensually, with slow spins in which Shevchenko held up her arms, or Stearns gently moved her arms and legs, embracing her from behind. But then a dark cloud settled over the couple, and Shevchenko swayed and struggled, her hands clasped behind her back. The pas de deux ended with the two dancers kneeling, as if in mourning or prayer.
The third work, Impressions, was more streamlined, as evidenced by its low-key, gray, athletic look, designed by one of the dancers, James Whiteside. Whiteside was the central figure here; at first he tangled with Cassandra Trenary, and later with the young dancer Tyler Maloney. A projection of clouds and dancers’ silhouettes was too pallid to make much of an impression. Here, Bond introduced a few less classical flourishes: a broken phrase for the arms; supple, rippling upper body movements for Calvin Royal.
Impressions is her newest creation, and there are signs that Bond is beginning to move beyond her concern with showing beautiful dancers doing what they do best, being beautiful, expressing vague emotions. The sections are more varied in tone, as is the movement vocabulary. Bond has skill – the transitions are particularly well-crafted – and a welcome tendency to privilege emotional resonance over athletic display. It’s intriguing to see pas de deux that are clearly conceived from a woman’s point of view. Her choreography is musical and esthetically pleasing. With luck, the vagueness that pervades it will sharpen into something more distinct and bold.