Making love doesn’t get easier when partners wear helmets. That’s the chief lesson to be learned from “Le Combat,” the tragic boy-meets-girl, boy-slaughters-girl romance by the late American choreographer William Dollar. Ballet master Paul Sutherland revived this tale of fatal attraction as the centerpiece of New Jersey Ballet’s “Warriors of the Ballet” program, Saturday at the Mayo Performing Arts Center in Morristown.
Ostensibly relating an episode from the Crusades, this fictional story borrowed from a Renaissance epic recounts how a Crusader named Tancred falls in love with the warrior-maiden Clorinda, who fights for the Saracens, only to slay her on the field of battle. Recent events have given “Le Combat” a timeliness it did not possess when Dollar created it for the Ballets de Paris in 1949. Dollar’s most enduring work has more to do with the concerns of its own era — with competition between the sexes and with psychology — than it does with wars in the Middle East either today or in the 11th century.
Audiences at the premiere would have recognized Clorinda as a “femme fatale,” who dies as a result of her attempt to compete with men. Thoughtful observers may also consider the psychological angle, and the implications for relationships in which lovers wear defensive armor. By the time Tancred and Clorinda unmask, it is too late for intimacy and he can only fling her corpse around in despair. Adding to the ballet’s mysterious atmosphere is Marie-Laure de Noaille’s amazing backdrop in Surrealist style, which depicts a medieval siege tower curiously anchored with ropes and featuring projections that have no obvious purpose. Raffaello de Banfield composed the darkly glowering music.
Helmets impose a limit on the dancers, too, depriving them of their customary ability to communicate with an audience using facial expressions. As if this weren’t enough, Dollar also constrains their gestures. The knights hold their arms stiffly, one hand resting on the pommel of an invisible sword and the other extended forward as if clutching a lance or banner. Their mission has reduced them to killing machines, scarcely human. Yet by restricting the dancers’ movements and our vision, Dollar obliges us to focus where he wants us to. This ballet is all about the dancers’ legs, kicking aggressively in “cabrioles,” “temps de flèche” and “ballottés,” their feet pawing the ground like horses’ hooves.
We can also detect the presence of a woman on stage, even when a certain Crusader remains in the dark. As Clorinda, dancer Risa Mochizuki displays a sinuosity and lightness that contrast with the brute force of the Christian knights led by Andre Luis Teixeira’s Tancred. Raeman Kilfoil, Andrew Notarile and Yuuki Yamamoto were his comrades-in-arms, as tinny and pompous as one might expect Crusaders to be.
“Le Combat” is an especially severe work, yet the way it translates a story into codified movements of a dancer’s legs and feet seems typical of classical ballet. This drama of concealed identity also makes an intriguing foil for the White Swan Pas de Deux, in which the ballet’s heroine, Odette, unburdens herself to her suitor, Prince Siegfried. From the moment he raises her from the floor, where she lies folded over, their duet becomes a series of openings as she raises and stretches her legs and swoons backward into his arms. Though forced to wear a swan’s disguise, in this duet Odette radiates candor and vulnerability. Here is the intimacy that eludes the lovers of “Le Combat.” Mari Sugawa and Leonid Flegmatov danced the excerpt from “Swan Lake” modestly but with the requisite poetry.
“Warriors of the Ballet” opened with choreographer Nai-Ni Chen’s imaginative staging of “The Three Riddles of Turandot,” set to music from Puccini’s opera; and the program also featured excerpts from the ballet classics “The Sleeping Beauty” and “Raymonda.” Staged by former Mariinsky ballerina Natasha Girshov, the “Raymonda Suite” gives everyone plenty to dance, with three duets in contrasting styles. Kotoe Kojima-Noa and Albert Davydov were sprightly and playful in the “Engagement” pas de deux; a worshipful Narek Martirosyan carried Christina Theryoung through the “Farewell” pas de deux; and Sugawa returned to steal the show with her seamless lyricism in the “Dream” pas de deux, again partnered by Flegmatov. The high-spirited ensemble included Gabriella Noa, Iori Araya, Kilfoil and Ruben Rascon.