I love the ballet but I don’t often write about it because I am intimidated by its technical nature. I can be moved to tears by a performance but when I sit down to try and describe what it was that affected me so deeply, I lack the vocabulary to effectively describe anything I’ve seen. The only time I’ve ever written seriously about the ballet was after Richmond Ballet’s performance of Romeo and Juliet, and I only felt qualified there because it was a story ballet that was based on a Shakespeare play that I know very well and because Malcolm Burn’s choreography is so linguistic in nature that I felt like I was analyzing a theatre performance as much as a dance performance.
My intimidation is increased exponentially by the fact that many of my friends are dancers with the Richmond Ballet, so I am always talking to people who are most familiar with the aspects of the performance which are most opaque to me. I am honestly terrified of sounding stupid when I talk about ballet, that as an audience member and not a dancer I am perhaps missing the entire point of a performance I’ve seen.
With that caveat, I would like to talk about the Richmond Ballet’s New Works II performance Saturday night.
The New Works II performance was a chance for dancers with the professional company — plus one faculty member from the school and one trainee — to choreograph new short pieces on the trainees. The trainees are the top level students in the school at Richmond Ballet: one step below the professional dancers. The trainee program is usually two years, but occasionally dancers will get to stay in the program for a third year if there are special circumstances.
The vibe was experimental, dancers with little or no experience choreographing expressing themselves from the other side of the process, getting to create a piece and coach younger dancers.
Although it was a show that was obviously going to be less professional and less polished, I was more excited for this performance than anything else recently because it gave me a chance to see some of my friends choreograph for the first time and it was a chance to see some of my friends who are trainees take center stage for the first time. Two of my friends in the company were choreographing and two of my friends in the trainee program were dancing for the last time in Richmond.
There were six pieces total, and I enjoyed all of them but there were two in particular that struck an emotional chord with me.
My favourite piece of the evening was Escaped, choreographed by Mate Szentes to music by Yann Tiersen. Before each of the pieces, the choreographer gave a short introduction; Mate said that his piece was about a mental escape into a fantasy world where you can be with the person that you want to be with, someone you know that you could never be with in reality. The dance was a pas de deux, a duet between Dominique Jenks and Dylan McIntyre. Once again, I should say that I am not an expert in the technical aspects of dance, so my impression of it was purely emotional.
The music from Yann Tiersen was aching, minimal, and beautiful. The lighting was stark: a wide spotlight in the center of the stage that served as a kind of boundary, perhaps delineating the real world from the fantasy? Dominique began in the center of the light with Dylan slowly circling her at its perimeter. Their partnering was the best in the entire show, coordinated and powerful. The sense of yearning that Mate described in his introduction was clear throughout. Each of their beautiful movements together was punctuated by a painful separation as they moved from the center of the circle of light out to its perimeter. You can never fully immerse yourself in your fantasy, reality always needles you throughout that you are living a lie. At one of the piece’s most poignant moments Dominique came to the edge of the stage, at the perimeter of the light and leaned out en pointe toward the audience as Dylan held her arm. Was she trying to reach us? Trying to escape the circle of light? Was the circle the fantasy or reality?
I found out later that Dylan and Dominique are dating, which I would imagine made their chemistry on stage easier to portray. When Dylan approached Dominique for the first time, I started crying and spent the rest of the piece trying to watch carefully through misty eyes. Mate said in his introduction that he thought the theme of yearning and fantasy were both universal and painful, and I think he was probably right. This piece hit me in every dark, abandoned, cobweb-infested part of my romantic heart. It was like being young and falling in love all over again, with all of its inflated gravitas and world-ending emotional swells.
I was told by someone else from the ballet that Mate envisioned this pas as a component of a full ballet; I really hope that Mate is able to flesh out his complete vision soon. If he is ever able to complete the piece I would buy a dozen tickets for every performance and give them away to strangers just to make sure everyone could see it.
The other piece that really moved me was Train of Thought, by Fernando Sabino to music by Philip Glass. This ballet couldn’t have been more different from Mate’s piece. It was for a larger group — five of the female trainees — and went in a separate emotional direction. The dancers wore a simple white collared top with a black midi skirt. The costumes, paired with the dancing gave a kind of severe, repressed, Prussian feel to the whole piece.
For much of the piece, four of the dancers moved in unison in movements that were more coordinated and controlled, while one dancer was more free, expressive, and often melancholic. This pattern rotated, with different trainees rotating into that place as the previous integrated back into the group. This didn’t feel like the traditional corps de ballet and soloist structure that I’m used to seeing in story ballets because the single trainee never seemed to be exalted among her peers, if anything it felt very much the opposite. Whenever one of the trainees was apart from the group, she felt othered, like she was experiencing an ecstasy or a overpowering grief that the rest of the group could never understand. Either through her own emotional isolation, or through the lack of empathy from the group, she was alone. The tightly controlled costuming and movement of the corps (for lack of a more accurate term) gave the impression of a society that desires conformity and decorum and doesn’t allow people to feel deeply in public, so they must vent their secret hearts in isolation.
This inversion of the corps/soloist dynamic was important to how I understood the ballet. The corps/soloist arrangement comes from classical ballet originating in the Renaissance in Europe and in 17th and 18th century Russia, a time of intense class hierarchy when the masses of the people served to raise powerful people onto pedestals. In a democratic world, society can often serve to crush the weak rather than raise the strong. It is a different, more postmodern idea of how communities work.
The painful beauty of the piece was in the way that different dancers rotated into and out of the corps and soloist positions, allowing us to see that a repressive society is actually composed of a group of individuals who all want to feel. There is an agonizing hypocrisy to the fact that we resent a repressive society when we are in pain, but we are willing to be complicit members of that society when it is hurting or ignoring someone else. Camus said “The slave begins by demanding justice and ends by wanting to wear a crown.”
In general, I don’t love Philip Glass as a composer so I may have reservations about the possibility of adapting this piece into a longer ballet solely for that reason. I think that his music worked wonderfully for a shorter piece — especially this one because of the themes I identified — but the repetitive minimalism of his music loses interest for me after about 15 minutes.
It is dangerous to analyze the work of artists you know; they are present to tell you when you are wrong. But this is what I left the performance with. Insofar as themes and ideas in art are in the eye of the beholder, this is what those pieces were.
Once again I should say that I liked all the pieces in the show, but for various reasons I feel much less comfortable writing extensively about the other four. I also think it would be charity on my part not to go on for another 2,500 words trying to cover the others in incoherent rambling the way I’ve done these two.
The next Richmond Ballet performance will be Studio One in September, featuring a piece called “Portrait of Billie,” about Billie Holiday, Balanchine’s Tarantella, and a new piece by Ma Cong.