The generosity of live art: The 2023 Newport Dance Festival from Newport Contemporary Ballet

Newport Contemporary Ballet. Photo by Natalie Huntoon.
Newport Contemporary Ballet. Photo by Natalie Huntoon.

The Lawn at the Great Friends Meeting House, Newport, RI.
July 22, 2023.

One could say that dancing for an audience is an offering: putting everything you have to give on that stage to create the magic at hand. Newport Contemporary Ballet’s 2023 Newport Dance Festival was a quintessential example of this generosity of dance art — the result of thoughtful choreography, 150 percent committed performances and various works possible from the efforts of a wide range of collaborators. 

Every summer, the company brings together dance companies from across the U.S., and the world, in order to foster creative exchange, collaboration and greater access to the art form for the local community. There’s a generosity inherent in that mission, as well! On this night, Mother Nature was just as considerate, offering a perfectly temperate summer night on which we could enjoy the dance art gracing the stage. 

Tom Gold Dance (New York, NY) opened the program with XV, and therein set the tone for that generosity through the moving body. In an even somewhat literal sense, the two dancers kept coming back to a gesture of an outstretched hand, offering to each other but also to the audience. They danced the rather classical vocabulary with lift, length and ballon just as luminous as their sequined gold shirts. The score supporting their movement was vivacious to match. Also multiplicitous was Gold’s clever weaving together of various timing structures: from unison to non-unison to canon. 

Works created in our time yet still in a classical idiom feel rare – so I appreciated that quality in this work. At the same time, another repeated gesture of an arm swinging through a full range of motion had me wondering, what might more such joint release and unconventional movement paths bring to this work? All in all, XV was a golden nugget of ebullient movement – a great opener for outdoor dance on a bright summer night. 

Newport Contemporary Ballet took the stage second, with the world premiere of Amy Hall Garner‘s Ripple Effect, an illustration of graceful continuity in the body and through bodies as a unified whole. Non-unison movement and atonal chords (score by Felix Mendelssohn) brought an initial unsettled atmosphere, yet harmony soon arose. The movement vocabulary had a clear sense of circularity, but also of opening and closing; cycles have beginnings and endings, yet also just flow on. 

The ensemble also moved with a spritely quality, leaping and maintaining vertical energy while grounded. Their effervescence rang right along with the hope in the score’s melody line. Also notable was the harmony that Hall Garner ordered on the stage — always dynamic, yet not so busy as to become muddled.

Just when I thought a tonal shift could be in order, the work softened into an easeful pas de deux. Their classical line and length, her extending a leg while he lifted her skyward, supported their unity. More or less energetic, the work continued the generosity of this program. The light and elation of this work: we all need it sometimes!

Two pieces later came the world premiere of Secrets, from Simona De Tullio of Breathing Art Company (Bari, Italy) and also danced by Newport Contemporary Ballet. The work built an enticing, almost “spy drama” feel – with the three dancers surreptitiously maneuvering around each other, and mystery in the air from how the score and movement intersected. De Tullio also effectively layered into the movement wide variance of intensity and rhythm. That allowed me to stay very much engaged, to keep absorbing and appreciating the stage’s offering. 

The dancers finished with their heads down, chins to chest. I wondered and laughed a bit to myself – spy mission completed? Whether or not, the work was bursting with entrancing drama: in body, atmosphere, and beyond. Still to that point, there was no abatement in this program’s generosity. 

In yet another two works was the world premiere of In the Wind from Newport Contemporary Ballet Artistic Director Danielle Genest. She brought her typical quality to this work — an energetically bursting, yet also clean and crisp stage. Movement vocabulary had a fluid waviness, like ocean water over rocks or willow branches bouncing and swaying in a breeze. Aloft, lifted by trusty partners, dancers expressed shape and gesture – in the wind, indeed! 

A settling of energy mid-work felt like the eye of a storm – particularly when a crescendoing of action and ferocity followed it. The crescendo decrescendo-ed before too long, to close out the work – wrapping it up in a neat little package. Everything has its life cycle, I thought. 

Fifties, another world premiere from Boston Dance Theater Artistic Director Jessie Jeanne Stinnett and danced by her company as well as Newport Contemporary Ballet, closed out the program. It did so with pure ebullience, just as the first work had opened it. Audience members almost immediately began to clap along with Chuck Berry’s “Johnny Be Good”, the first of many 1950s era rock tunes in the work. Two dancers moved center stage while castmates upstage clapped and cheered them on – what a party! 

“Stand By Me” (Ben E. King) offered merging and dissolving shapes, like shadows of a night when such a song might be written and sung. Later came a swooping sense to the movement, dancers coming in and out of each other’s levels, that aligned with the sliding, eliding feel to the music at hand. Later on came the head rolls and popping hips to represent the youthful rebellion within this music and those who loved it: that which filled roller skating rinks and kept diner jukeboxes humming. 

I might want to see formations and transitions clarified in future iterations of the work (at times, it came to feel a bit blurred), something of course challenging to avoid with an ensemble this large and movement this vivacious. Or, perhaps that formlessness could have been truthful to social dance contexts – perhaps it’s in the eye of the beholder!

Something more classic and refined came with Louis Armstrong’s unmistakable crooning; “dancing cheek to cheek”, the dancers moved through graceful social dance steps – softened to gravity’s force in a contemporary dance idiom. This stylizing of social dance steps artfully illustrated the movements of countless weddings, school dances, and other social gatherings – all the contexts wherein people have danced together. The dancers closed the piece by acknowledging the audience, warmly gesturing to and facing us. We too became part of their community joined in movement.

Also taking the stage was De Tullio’s In Your Arms, a solo full of mystery, an unconventional aesthetic, and wide palettes of kinesthetic and emotional color; Itzak Galili’s meditative but also emotionally raw work Memories, through primal infusions in score and movement getting into deep nooks and crannies of our mammalian minds (danced by Boston Dance Theater); and Tom Gold Dance’s pensive, yet also refined duet B’Shert, with onstage shadows and wandering in the dancers’ paths bringing a different tone to something otherwise quite classical and staid. 

It was all part of the gracious offering that was this program. To say that I look forward to the next iteration of this festival – for me, a highlight of each summer – is quite an understatement. That’s what generosity does: it attracts, it excites, it softens, it connects. Count me in! 

By Kathryn Boland of Dance Informa.

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