Ethan Stiefel, the artistic director of American Repertory Ballet, has choreographed a thrilling new showpiece for the company. Titled Variants, it brought a June 11 mixed bill at the New Brunswick Performing Arts Center to a rousing climax. This outstanding program, dubbed “Premiere 3” and presented on June 10 as well, also featured a dramatic new work by Amy Seiwert and the company premiere of Arthur Mitchell’s lovely Holberg Suite, a ballet in pure neo-classical style.
Set to Johannes Brahms’ “Handel Variations, Op. 24,” a score with many fanciful passages and an irresistible motor impulse, Stiefel’s Variants suggests the influence of choreographer Twyla Tharp, with whom he often worked as a dancer. Notably, Tharp and the late Jerome Robbins co-choreographed this same music in the 1980s, offering a contemporary comment on the history of the so-called symphonic ballet. Stiefel’s version is more playful. Variants offers a series of wonderful cameos, expanding the classical vocabulary with a hodgepodge of references to other styles and rising, at times, to a pitch of zaniness.
The “characters” include, among others, Lily Krisko, spinning dizzily at high speed; the exuberant Tomoya Suzuki, pulling out all of ballet’s athletic stops in a bravura performance; and Annie Johnson proudly sweeping the floor in a folk dance. Riyoko Tanaka and Aldeir Monteiro circle together, caught in a romantic orbit. Clara Pavel and Savannah Quiner mirror and pass each other; and Anthony Pototski, apparently overcome by the power of the music, staggers drunkenly and attempts to catch the melody in his hands.
Though the finale presents formal patterns, with lines that mesh and cross, soon everyone takes to the ground, flopping and sizzling in a breakdance move. Howard C. Jones’ clever décor pays tribute to the music in its own way, showing us a grand piano that cracks open and explodes into airborne fragments, which seem to turn into falling confetti at the end. What a celebration!
Seiwert’s Sight Line inhabits a different musical world, the hypnotic rhythms of the Balanescu Quartet prompting the choreographer to stretch her dancers to dramatic effect and take the long way around. Though both the music and the dancing are contemporary, the melodies and the chains the dancers make are rooted in folk tradition.
Duets for Annie Johnson and Andrea Marini frame the piece. They dodge and catch each other by the foot, and rush at each other with flying leaps. Seething and struggling, they clasp hands firmly. The group ties itself in a farandole, or gloms together and catches the rhythm, pumping like a piston.
Savannah Quiner enters cautiously, threading her way through the fierce ensemble. They partner her by turns, as she passes by; but, taking someone by the hand, she has the power to move the whole crew.
There is no seething in Mitchell’s Holberg Suite, a work of effortless charm in which the dancers go about their business as swiftly and lightly as the breeze, and the steps evolve crisply in classical trios and duets.
The merest hint of drama arises in a section featuring Nanako Yamamoto and Andrea Marini, where he kneels before her, and she caresses his face. Two women pass between them, briefly recalling the kind of obstacle that separates the hero from his elusive ideal in George Balanchine’s Scotch Symphony, but here the human curtain parts and becomes a doorway leading Yamamoto and Marini to happiness once again.
The late Mitchell was perhaps the greatest of Balanchine’s students. And while his Holberg Suite may be a mere jeu d’esprit, this ballet deserves a permanent place in the repertoire.
For more on American Repertory Ballet, visit arballet.org.
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