Opening Up That Valve of Imagination

October 13, 2010

No matter how good a dancer is, she or he has to start at the beginning when it comes to making a dance. On Tuesday, American Ballet Theatre presented “The Innovations Initiative,” putting forth four of its dancers’ forays into choreography. It’s great that ABT is giving them this opportunity. But it seems a bit premature to call such a program “innovations,” when they are just beginning to understand how to use the building blocks of movement, music, and space.


This was a benefit for the company (at Rose Theater of Lincoln Center), and I wondered if it was fair to expose these first baby steps to an audience of donors and critics. The four dancers—Gemma Bond, Craig Salstein, Nicola Curry, and Daniel Mantei—had been through a four-week workshop under the guidance of Kevin McKenzie, Alexei Ratmansky, and Stephen Pier. So the pieces had a certain professionalism—and yet they looked more like very polished studies than complete ballets. Anyway, I noticed that the audience did enjoy being let in on such an early phase of this new initiative.


All four ballets were done to classical music played live, were for small groups (four to six dancers), and had lots of partnering and lyrical movement. So there was a veil of sameness over everything.


Nevertheless, there were striking moments in all four ballets.


by Gemma Bond, began and ended with two women in Isadora tunics opening one arm gently to the side. In between they were partnered by two men in lovely duets, with sensitive echoing of the shapes. One particularly beautiful lift made me think of a swan dive upside down.


Craig Salstein’s piece was more spirited but less consistent. Titled When It’s Over, It’s Over, it had three couples bickering, and I felt like he ran into the same problem that Melissa Barak did in her last piece for NYCB. If you’re gonna use words, get a playwright. But the dancers took to it in a lively manner. Luis Ribagorda, partly cuz of his a purple shirt and partly cuz he just looked so real (and partly cuz I never noticed him before), stood out. My favorite moment was the end when Stella Abrera, after being abused (slapped!) by Jared Matthews, finally sends him away, and swirls into a bittersweet solo, as in “I’ve washed that man outa my hair but still miss him.” Plus, well, it’s STELLA!


Nicola Curry’s piece, La Relation, started with dancers perched on the edge of the stage watching us—an idea that wasn’t really followed through. For me it was maily an opportunity to watch Sarah Lane again. She doesn’t move as big or as loosely as the other two women, but everything she does has a certain form and style.


In Armaments, Daniel Mantei chose a narrow vocabulary that was distinctive in its restraint. But it didn’t stretch very far, so it seemed two-dimensional within the lushly three dimensional Tchaikovsky music. The big moment in this—and I feel it was a real discovery, something he didn’t plan but found in the process—was when the six dancers, one at a time, started walking/drifting backward on a diagonal to a lovely violin passage (played by Ronald Oakland). Back and forth, like a river going both ways.


A choreographer lives for moments like this, when you see what you’ve done and wonder how it got so gorgeous. With luck, it doesn’t look quite like anything you’ve seen before on the stage.


No one can tell you how to find these moments, but you have to set up your rehearsal with a porous structure so there’s enough play in the process. And then that valve of the imagination magically opens up.



Scene from Nicola Curry’s La Relation, Sarah Lane on the right. Photo:  Gene Schiavone, Courtesy ABT