The rebirth of the rebirth of Cool: New York Theater Ballet

"We all like to think to ourselves, I could do that, right?"

The opening post-performance remark by dance teacher Sarah Stackhouse was telling. Alluding to the ever-escalating razzle-dazzle of modern dance performance (Circ du Soleil? Momix?), she spoke of the virtue of winding back to something accessible, something perhaps even we could do ...

I was offered tickets to see Signatures 10, a performance by the New York Theater Ballet. This outfit is sometimes confused with the New York City Ballet by barackberrying blow-ins with short attention spans (like me). I had no idea what I was about to see, no time to Google, and more importantly, no idea what this little dance company was really all about. From its "About":

New York Theatre Ballet was founded in 1978 by its artistic director, Diana Byer. It is the most widely seen chamber ballet company in the United States ... has earned acclaim for its restoration and revival of small masterworks by great choreographers and for its innovative ballets based on children's literature.

In other words, don't come expecting to be blown away by a hybrid of "So You Think You Can Dance" with special guest Baryshnikov and Circ du Soleil. As I soon found out, this is about education - scholarly, sensitive glimpses into dance history, when nuance and contemplation of one's neck ruffle were all the rage ...

I'd taken a handful of ballet lessons with the artistic director, Diana Byer, on a whim of nostalgia - to thoroughly scare myself with childhood memories of a draconian ballet, piano, tennis and judo regimen. Her classes reminded me so much of the British RAD system I was was schooled in downunder - ultra disciplined, almost anal, and strangely thrilling to exhume.

"You're not bad considering this is your first class in 33 years," she said, as I strained to turn everything out in my newly-old pink rights, Bloch's slippers and black leotard.

Fast forward to last night ...

My three galpals and I trooped up to the Gould Theater and waited patiently on the sidewalk with the "voucher people". We know who we are, don't we ... as do the ushers. After some anxious "pick us pick us pick us pick us pick us pick us" moments and guilt about being in front of some elderly voucher people (who thankfully also got in),  three of us were admitted - the fourth, Wendy, graciously bowed out to go watch baseball.

Because the ticket office dithered about deciding if voucher people are worth feeding, we thoroughly enraged one patron who initially refused to stand up to let us squeeze past to our seats while the performance was in progress. No way was I squeezing past him to visit the restroom at intermission!

Once seated, we wondered if we'd stepped into some time warp.

One performance was an Elizabethan-looking number called Capriol Suite by Ashton. This was a slow, classical painting in motion featuring the most barf-inducing peach colored costumes complete with neck frills. I kept thinking of Peter Greenaway's The Draughtman's Contract, wondering if all hell was going to break loose any minute now.

Then there was a humorous piece called Three Virgins and a Devil by Agnes deMille which featured a darting Devil who played a cello on a pogo stick quite deliciously, and who finally managed to suck the three unfortunates into his lair.

Then was a series of very prosaic pieces which confounded me as the performers wore black against a black background.

All through I noticed myself looking for something wow, startling and unexpected. It never came. I whispered to my friend that perhaps this was a student recital. I wondered if the young dancers, like me, were force fed this stuff when they'd really rather be dancing in something avante garde over at the Joyce ...

Judgments, judgments ...

We stayed for the talk afterwards - and I'm so glad we did.

We learned that this is the only company dedicated to reviving little pieces of forgotten history - we given the rare opportunity to peek into an old, jewel-encrusted box and gaze upon the gems inside. We were not being sock-in-the-eye entertained, so much as educated.

We learned about the passion of Diana to stay true to her bliss, how she goes to the library and throws herself into deep research to bring this history to us, for a very reasonable - especially for NYC - $15-25 a seat.

We learned how many of the costumes were borrowed from other companies - due to "funding". How money does not grow on trees when you are not mainstream.

We learned about Labanotation, a kind of pattern language for documenting movement, much like a score documents a musical piece. From Wiki:

Created by Rudolf Laban, Laban Movement Analysis is a language for interpreting, describing, visualizing and notating all ways of movement in four main categories: body, effort, shape, and space. Used as a tool by dancers, athletes, physical and occupational therapists, it is one of the most widely used systems of human movement analysis.

I did not know this! I simply came across it when a friend with a bad back mentioned Laban at the same time I was doing Feldenkreis.

And so much more.

Although I should have read about the company prior to the performance, and so see it in the same headspace as the appreciative audience, I'm secretly glad I did not. I am glad for the judgment and criticism that pervaded my mind throughout the performance, comparisons to what I'd seen at the Joyce, and my irrational annoyance of seeing drab back dresses against a black backdrop. I'm thankful for my complete turnaround, my coming away with narrowed eyes pried wide open.

This styles of dance may not be precisely my cup of chai. But I can so much admire the passion and dedication involved in bringing it to us, of educating us, that the dance itself seems almost beside the point.

Support efforts like this - next time, I'll pay full price.

A rehearsal led by instructor Sarah Stackhouse


pippijewelry said…
It sounds like a really cool show. I will definitely check them out if I am ever out that way. :)
Monika said…
Interesting to read about Rudolf Laban’s life – his initial aspiration in relating movement to the spatial environment.
The discipline of organizing movement with spiritual concepts reminded me of the work of George Gurdjieff a Russian contemporary.
Thank you for the entertaining summary of the evening.

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