Juilliard Dance Ensemble

February 23, 2002

Jermaine Spinet in Robert Battle’s Base Line.
Nan Melville, courtesy Julliard Dance Division

Juilliard Dance Ensemble

Juilliard Theater
New York City

February 23, 2002

By Joseph Carman

If you look at the biographies of dancers from major international contemporary companies, you will find plenty of Juilliard graduates. The directors of those companies will tell you why: Juilliard’s students are exquisitely trained, know how to work, and understand what it ultimately takes to be a dancer.

The Juilliard Dance Division celebrated its fiftieth anniversary with its Spring 2002 concert; it had been directed by the late Benjamin Harkarvy. The Juilliard Dance Ensemble confirmed what savvy New Yorkers know; namely, that this school knows how to put on a show. In addition to the precociously mature dancers on view at the school’s theater, the Juilliard Jazz Ensemble and the Juilliard Theater Orchestra played live music (a rarity in these days of tight budgets) and the production values were superior to those of many professional groups.

Juilliard has always served as a choreographic laboratory for both fledgling and proven choreographers. The February concert showcased New York premieres by three male choreographers, all Juilliard alumni, with diverse points of view. Robert Battle thrust the dancers into unabashed physicality, Lar Lubovitch unleashed his musical fluidity, and Ohad Naharin disarmed the audience with his alternating intensity and humor.

Battle’s Base Line matched Victor L. Goines’s jazz score with athletically primal movement fit for an urban jungle. The choreography evoked a twenty-first-century take on Jerome Robbins’s essay on 1950s rebelliousness, New York Export: Opus Jazz, particularly in the robust group energy and a duet of alienation performed sensitively by Courtney Blackwell and Peter Chu. Battle’s choreography was most successful when he focused on the physical. In contrast, when the ensemble of Base Line tentatively circled the stage carrying unwieldy metallic shards, inertia prevailed.

The Juilliard dancers immersed themselves in Lubovitch’s aqueous choreography for Thus Is All, a world premiere set to familiar arias from Mozart’s operas. Downstage of six singers in period costume, the dancers abstracted the emotional essence of the music via Lubovitch’s sweeping, long-lined phrases. Aya Sumika’s glimmering clarity and poignant interpretation of a solo danced to a duet from La clemenza di Tito evoked the type of audience attention that heralds the arrival of an extraordinary talent. At a time when gimmickry and bad taste seem too common in the performing arts, Lubovitch’s commitment to glorious dancing and solid craft are refreshing. Thus Is All would be a welcome addition to the repertoire of any dance company ready for its demands.

During the second intermission, Blackwell appeared onstage in a loose-fitting man’s suit twitching to a lascivious cha-chacha recording and surveying the incoming audience. Such was the sly beginning of Minus 7 by Naharin, who is fond of breaking down the boundary that separates those on either side of the proscenium. The piece, danced to a collage of music ranging from “Hava Nagila” to “Over the Rainbow,” proceeded with a wildly convulsive semi-circle of seated dancers and ended with the performers seeking dance partners from the audience; one of those included a woman with a broken arm in a sling, more than happy to oblige.

In the lobby of the Juilliard Theater a photo exhibit from the last half century reminded dance fans of the incomparable Juilliard faculty members of the past: Doris Humphrey, José Limón, Antony Tudor, Anna Sokolow, Martha Hill, and Martha Graham, among many. There is no reason to believe that history isn’t still being made there.