Can Ballet Look Good in a Small Space?

March 2, 2008

I recently saw performances of two small ballet companies in small, informal spaces. In both programs, the dancers were excellent and the choreography was just OK. But one company looked great, the other didn’t.

    The Washington Ballet has done its “7 X 7” program for several seasons now: seven choreographers, seven pieces, seven minutes each. It’s a great idea for the audience, because you know that any piece you don’t like will end soon. When you walk into their studio in Washington, DC, 9as I did last Friday) with its light grey Marley floor, soft white walls and panels, the dancers are already warming up in the space. The atmosphere is both airy and welcoming. The theme this year was love, and the dancers often focused on each other in performance. The costumes and lighting were minimal. None of the seven pieces grabbed me, but the dancers did. They were really into it, and I felt like I was witnessing their feelings as they danced, rather than their efforts to project. They never stared out into space without seeing. They were right there, with each other.

    After Nejla Yatkin’s piece, the floor was covered with rose petals, and a bunch of dancers surged into the space with wide brooms to sweep up—to the song “I Never Promised You a Rose Garden”—boogie-ing as they cleaned. It was a pretty great way to demonstrate the “Be Here Now” philosophy of their studio series.

    The night before, I saw Dominic Walsh Dance Theater at the very cozy Joyce Soho. All four pieces (by three choreographers) had full sets and costumes, some quite elaborate. The dancers performed as though they were projecting to the balconies, which were nonexistent. We could see the muscular effort to create dramatic intensity. In general, the dancers looked too big and too formal for a small space, and i felt too close. One of the few exceptions was the beginning of Walsh’s Amadeus for Anita, in which Dawn Dippel (a 2008 DM “25 to Watch”) slowly moved her hand around her face. It was a beautifully delicate beginning, where the intimacy of the space worked for the dance, not against it.

    The most annoying part was the overlong, over-gracious bows. It was like they were pretending this little loft space was the big theater they wanted to be in. (Granted, this was their first time in this space, whereas TWB dancers were performing in a studio they rehearse in on a daily basis.) I felt bad because this was Dominic Walsh Dance Theater’s NYC debut, and I had heard good things about the company. But I think I would rather see them on their home turf than a space that’s not right for them.

    The moral of the blog is Pay Attention to the Space You’re In.  I guess that’s a variation of Love the One You’re With. If it means altering your sets, costumes and performing demeanor to match the space, that’s a good thing.