Illuminating innovation in Arch Ballet’s winter 2020 season

Illuminating innovation in Arch Ballet's winter 2020 season
Arch Ballet. Photo by Justin Yiu.

The Sheen Center for Culture and Innovation, New York, NY.
February 20, 2020.

Aesthetic and meaning — memorable art achieves something in both areas. Arch Ballet’s work always intrigues and satisfies me because in it, a highly innovative aesthetic delivers potent meaning on our contemporary world. Under the direction of Artistic Director Sheena Annalise, the company’s mission evinces a striving for ingenuity as well as a modern sensibility; it works to “ensure the continuous evolution of ballet, designed for an inclusive and varied 21st century audience.” 

The two-act program began with Pointe in Motion (2017), choreographed by Annalise and danced by the full company — Gabrielle Girard, Tori Hey, Ari Mayzick, Aoi Ohno, and Nathan Rommel. Annalise also designed the costumes. Aks & El composed the score. The work is a jambalaya of bright colors, striking movement and pleasantly catchy electronica music. It’s an experience of dance art as carefully paired and juxtaposed creative media, as well as what ballet can see itself being in the 20th century and beyond. 

Surreal similarly offered a strikingly innovative and unique aesthetic, a compelling score, and boundary-pushing movement. The whole company danced this work as well. It began with dancers backlit in a tableau, creating shadows of mysterious shapes. Lights came up and the dancers began to move to new formations. One of the first things that caught my eye was the ballerinas wearing headpieces that protruted from the back of the head (costumes designed by Annalise for this piece also). This refreshingly unconventional styling characterized much of the piece’s aesthetic. The dancers began to move in a classical vocabulary that Annalise kneaded, stretched, turned upside-down and inside-down. 

Angularity of limb placements, rolling of joints and body parts, and sharp gesture added flavors of hip-hop and jazz dance vocabularies. Eclecticism was alive across the stage. The dancers performed it all with conviction and clarity, yet also a pleasing softness. Formations shifted often enough to be compelling, but not so often to bring a feeling of chaos. The score, from Petite Biscuit of Paris, added an element of freneticism to how it all came together. The costumes of varied colors and cuts, with those memorable “backwards” headpieces, fit right into this intriguingly unusual aesthetic world. The title seemed apt — it was all surreal, like a Picasso or Dali painting come to life. 

Like so much of Annalise’s work, the movement and supportive aesthetic media alone were enough to satisfy — no overt theme was needed. In a world of constant chatter about its own state, given the rise of social media and constant online news alerts, that aesthetic focus can be incredibly refreshing. Annalise’s work reminds us that it can be meaningful to experience visual creativity for its own enjoyable sake. 

At the same time, there were certain creative choices that spoke deep meaning — such as a pas de deux of two danseurs. The section had potent sociopolitical and historical meaning, as well as meaning for ballet as an art form. Another memorable section was the dancers in a circle and three of them leaning back, like petals from the center of the flower. This was compelling imagery and illusion, that which I wonder could have been called upon more of the work — to build on that theme of a surreal aesthetic. 

The ending section brought further interesting turns, such as slower movement towards the end — a shift in quality and tempo that caught my attention. The dancers clumped and, for the first time, all looked at the audience. It seemed to ask audience members the question, how will you go forth? Will you bring something of your own, or will you fit into the given mold? Lights dimmed and the curtain fell. As audience members later gathered, one said “I only wish it were longer!” I took that as a compliment from her, that she enjoyed it enough to want more. It was certainly on the shorter end, as a work — which I actually enjoyed. It felt like a perfect package, as “surreal” and pleasantly out-of-the-box as it was.  

By Kathryn Boland of Dance Informa.

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