Tuesday’s mixed program at American Ballet Theatre (ABT) was billed as “The New Romantics.” Two of the works were premieres, one by a recently-retired dancer (Gemma Bond), the other by a current member of the company (James Whiteside). If by romantic, the programmers meant that the ballets deal with relationships, the title is not inaccurate; all three of the ballets featured couples (and one threesome) engaged in matters of the heart. But the emphasis here was on new. This was a night to check in on the creative efforts of two emerging voices on the ballet scene. And to round things off, the final piece on the program was Jessica Lang’s Garden Blue, from last year.
In reality, Gemma Bond is no longer emerging but fully emerged. She has now made ballets for Washington Ballet, Fall for Dance, New York Theater Ballet, ABT’s studio company, and, soon Ballet Nacional de Cuba. This was Bond’s first ballet for her own former company, from which she retired earlier this year. Her piece, entitled A Time There Was, and set to Benjamin Britten’s “Suite on English Folk Tunes” and the Fugue and Finale from “Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge” is ambitious, with a cast of 15, a dramatic color scheme, and dark undertones. In the program, she writes that it lays out her “impressions and meditations on the joys and perils of our contemporary lives fully lived.”
There is much to admire in Bond’s ballet, even if the piece never fully reveals itself, at least in a single viewing. Bond’s intentions, and the relationships she illustrates onstage, remain unclear. The trouble, in part, is with the response to Britten’s music, which is complex, highly textured, filled with surprising sounds: folk fiddles, a dulcimer-like harp section, martial trumpets, layered percussion. It’s music for close listening, not easy to make sense of or to dance to. It does lend a sense of gravity and an aura of mystery. There is something of import going on, though we never fully understand what it is.
The costumes, by Sylvie Rood, send mixed messages too: corset-like tops and leotard bottoms for the women, decorated with a faintly medieval, armor-like design. At the beginning the women also wear unflattering detachable sleeves. The men are in matching tunic tops; at one point – it’s not clear why – they don skirts. Is the ballet meant to be set in a different time? The lighting, by Serena Wong, is hazy, foreboding. The relationships, too, seem fraught with some deeper conflict. The first pas de deux, for Cassandra Trenary and Corey Stearns, contains several dramatic lifts and a curve of the torso that suggests mourning. The one that follows, a folk song with martial undertones, is rhythmic and almost militaristic. “Hunt the Squirrel,” set to a wonderful fiddling tune, is more straightforward, with quick, playful footwork for Zimmi Coker and Gabe Stone Shayer. In “Lord Melbourne,” Devon Teuscher is held aloft by four men, in the shape of a cross. The ballet ends with an ominous and virtuosic pas de deux for Isabella Boylston and James Whiteside. Nothing in the ballet is less than intriguing, but its meanings remain opaque, removed. Perhaps a second viewing will reveal more?
James Whiteside’s New American Romance, which had its world premiere at the Vail Dance Festival this summer – this was the New York premiere – is much more straightforward. Though he has choreographed extensively for his own stylish pop videos under the artistic identity JBDUBS, Whiteside is a relative newcomer to formal ballet choreography. Last year he created a short work for the company’s choreographic workshop, the ABT Incubator. But Whiteside clearly has an instinct for structure – already evident in his videos – and for creating pleasing stage pictures, as well as a knack for interesting partnering. (He is an excellent partner himself.) His piece, set to Claude Débussy’s “Suite Bergamasque,” elegantly played by Jacek Mysinski, moves along with wit and a breezy charm and sense of momentum. I would characterize the style as “glam romantic.” The women wear long, midnight blue romantic tutus, the men flowing blouses. The cool lighting, by Brandon Stirling Baker, delineates their elegant silhouettes. There are hints of other ballets in the choreography, conscious or unconscious, like a section for three women in which they frame and reframe their faces with their arms, wrists flexed, like the party guests in George Balanchine’s La Valse. In a recurring move, the dancers circle their wrists as they lower their arms, a gesture both sophisticated and slightly flippant. The key section of the ballet is set to the familiar “Clair de Lune.” The lovely Devon Teuscher dances searchingly, first with Joo Won Ahn, who places his cheek tenderly next to hers, and then with Calvin Royal III, who has entered halfway through. Royal and Ahn too have their moment, until finally, all three end up entwined in an amorous heap. Love is a many-splendored thing.
Unlike Gemma Bond’s A Time there Was, New American Romance stays well within Whiteside’s comfort zone. It will be interesting to see where he goes from here. Bond, who has repeatedly shown an ability to create well-made, balanced works, is seeking to evoke a deeper, more complex landscape. That she’s not quite there yet is nothing to despair about.
Between the two new works came Lang’s Garden Blue which, with its, richly-colored backdrop and costumes by Sarah Crowner (gorgeously lit by Nicole Pearce) and lush score by Antonin Dvorak (the first three movement of the “Dumky” trio) is as pleasing to the eye as ever. Here, the dancers are like streaks of color, human flowers, butterflies in a garden. With Garden Blue, Lang practically invents a new genre: ballet as abstract painting.