All choreography is an act of translation, in a way – choreographers translate music into movement, or abstract ideas into physical realities. But Troy Schumacher takes the notion of dancemaking as translation more literally. Ever since he started his own company, BalletCollective, a few years ago, he has insisted on the idea that his works are actual translations, of poems, stories, paintings. His newest work, performed this week as part of a quadruple bill, is entitled, simply, Translation.
What’s different about Schumacher’s dances isn’t so much the end result as the process. He always commissions new music – mostly from young alt-classical composers based in Brooklyn — and builds the ballet up from the bottom, with the help of an external source of inspiration. In Translation, that source is the fantastical fiction of Ken Liu, who writes about objects that come to life and complicated familial and cultural time-travel in books like The Grace of Kings.
I’ve found in the past that this method leads to works that feel fragmented and lacking in internal structure. Because the dancing and music exist in relation to something outside of them, and because the audience isn’t privy to the conversations in the studio, an important piece of information is missing. The dances don’t completely stand on their own two feet.
That was the case for two of the works on the program tonight, as well: The Answer and Last Time it Ended. Both were duets. One was for a man and a woman (Daniel Applebaum and Ashly Isaacs), the other for two men (Applebaum and Sean Suozzi). All the dancers hail from New York City Ballet, where Schumacher is also a soloist, and are excellent.
The duets have a start and stop quality, as does much of his choreography. The dancing comes in bursts, alternating with moments of casual repose. Frequently the dancers mirror each other, approaching, retreating, stretching, contracting. But the dancing, like the music Schumacher commissions from composers like Judd Greenstein and Mark Dancigers, almost never unspools in longer periods or arcs. There is quite a bit of repetition, too. In the first duet, the two dancers barely touched; it was more sporty, friendly. In the second, particularly toward the end, there were more fraught/romantic undertones. One man supported the other in an arabesque with his head pressed against the other’s chest; then the other did the same. But both duets felt sketchy, lacking in development.
The evening also included a work by a guest, Gabrielle Lamb, who has made dances for BalletX, the Royal Winnipeg Ballet, and others. Her dancers wore socks instead of pointe shoes. In beige form-fitting jeans and tank tops, they slithered and undulated about the stage, turning themselves into twisted creatures with claw hands and arched backs. Arms looped, limbs tangled. The music, by Caleb Burnhans, consisted of soupy chords for strings. The movement was not un-interesting, but the piece lacked a sense of purpose or structure. The “source art” was a multi-media piece by the conceptual photographer Trevor Paglen. A reproduction of the image, a square of glowing orange light, appeared in the program. But the dance did little to illuminate the photo, or vice versa. Something had been lost in translation.
But with the final work, Translation, these internal contradictions ceased to matter. The curtain opened on a kind of cosmic wonderland of dappled lighting (by Brandon Stirling Baker) and projections (by Sergio Mora-Diaz). The stage became a completely magical, dream-like constellation of lights and shadows. Within this kaleidoscope, the dancers appeared as slow-moving silhouettes, dark matter, almost an absence. Everything they did was augmented and abstracted by the glimmering landscape.
Meanwhile, offstage, the singer and electronic composer Julianna Barwick created the score in real time, singing into a synthesizer that transformed her voice into sweet, haunting loops of sound. There was a beautiful duet for two women that seemed to reference the Vitruvian Man and George Balanchine’s Symphony in Three Movements. The silhouettes highlighted the purity of the dancers’ movements. The whole thing was magical.