Presenting its first program curated by new artistic director Ethan Stiefel, and dancing before a live audience for the first time since February 2020, New Jersey’s American Repertory Ballet — showing no signs of rustiness — made a glistening return to the stage in “Emergence.”
A timely quadruple bill of contemporary ballets, performed at the New Brunswick Performing Arts Center on October 23 and 24, the show revealed the ballet-trained dancers’ adeptness at interpreting not only classical but also newer movement vocabularies. At times, when several of the pieces fall short choreographically, it’s the dancers’ compelling performances that sustain the allure.
The program opener, “Wood Work,” an ensemble piece choreographed by Stiefel (for the Washington Ballet in 2019), is set to appealing music, based on traditional Nordic tunes, by the Danish String Quartet. Inventively, Stiefel imbues the choreography with folk-dance sensibilities — flexed ankles, bent elbows, chugs in turned-out demi-pliés, walking steps done with a heel touch to the knee preceding each weight shift, and an interesting juxtaposition of formality and earthiness conjured by a couple (Jonathan Montepara and ARB2 member Madison Egyud) reveling in folksy legwork and arm positions while maintaining spatial relationships and attitudes suggestive of Baroque court dancing.
But rather than developing a unified piece through variations on this thematic vocabulary, Stiefel interweaves his quirky movements with standard phrases of classical ballet steps that bear no discernible connection to the folk elements. Yet in the work’s principal solo, while one wishes for more novel choreography, dancer Aldeir Monteiro shiningly reflects the lilting quality of the score’s vernacular melodies.
The show’s choreographic highlight, the edgy “World, Interrupted,” created by Amy Seiwert, starkly portrays the difficult emotions that permeated our “shutdown” existence of the last year and a half. Danced sans pointe shoes, and bare-legged, on an empty stage, the work is sleekly built out of expressive movements derived, in large part, from pedestrian actions. We feel the frustration of confinement as Annie Johnson gives stunning interpretation to a deceptively simple-looking solo, furiously jogging in place within a narrow lane of light, as if futilely running a race against no one. Inter-personal tensions are made visible in a confused duet danced with expert dramatic subtlety by Montepara and Ryoko Tanaka. Ultimately, the stage fills with bodies, as jogging motions start to send dancers traveling through space — with the exception of one guy. As the lights fade out, his movements are taking him nowhere — at least not yet.
Following the eloquent Seiwert piece came another relevant ensemble work, “Saudade,” also reflective of our pandemic-induced emotional landscape. The first ARB-commissioned piece of choreography by Tanaka, a company dancer since 2018, the ballet is set to an original score by former ARB2 dancer Haley Wright.
Propelled by the big chords, rippling arpeggios, and lush sound of Wright’s romantic piano music, the work’s full-bodied, sometimes overwrought, choreography exudes strong energies, as well as a humorous relatability, lent by Janessa Cornell Urwin’s pajama-like costumes — reminiscent of the comfy clothes we all sported throughout those home-bound months.
The ballet quickly begins to feel repetitious, however, as the movements don’t evolve much and remain eye-catching only as danced by longtime company member Shaye Firer, who imbues them with her own imprint, a fast, powerful attack.
Closing the program was the disappointing new ARB commission “Mexican Music,” choreographed by David Fernandez and featuring prints by Mexican design brand Pineda Covalin in its costumes and scenic projections. The dancers’ colorful dresses are yummy and the floor-to-ceiling black and white floral drawings projected as backdrops are irresistible — they look like pages from a giant coloring book, screaming out for you to grab colored pencils and crayons and go to work on them. And the accompanying selections of 19th and 20th century Mexican music are enthralling.
But it’s only in a few group sections that the slim choreography holds its own alongside the stimulating score. Most of the time, the dance appears to ignore the rich orchestral textures, pulsating rhythms, dynamic builds, exciting punctuation, and firm structures of the music. The minimal choreography looks naked amid the aural abundance. Nonetheless, the dancers commit wholeheartedly to the movements and perform with a gusto that more than saves the day.
American Repertory Ballet’s next presentation is the annual “The Nutcracker,” set for McCarter Theatre in Princeton, November 26 through 28; Patriots Theater at the War Memorial, Trenton, December 9 and 10; and the State Theatre New Jersey, New Brunswick, performed with a live orchestra, December 17 through 19. www.arballet.org.