Human beings can dance almost anywhere, and wherever they dance a crowd will gather. However, there is no substitute for the ritual of community that we call “theater.” So when New Jersey Ballet returned to the stage of the Bickford Theatre at the Morris Museum in Morris Township on June 15, this company’s fans had reason to be grateful.
After a year of traumatic lockdowns and outrageous fear-mongering, happiness was being allowed to watch the sprightly “Pas des Odalisques” from Le Corsaire again. Entitled “New Look 2021” and offering a peek at New Jersey Ballet’s upcoming season, the program included this gem among a suite of excerpts from Le Corsaire and Coppélia. In addition, the program showcased video dances created during the past year and a pair of modern works choreographed by Pedro Ruiz and Rodney Rivera.
The “Jardin Animé” scene from Le Corsaire revives an ancient trope — the flower ballet — continuing a tradition of elegance. Historically, this 19th century divertissement stands poised midway between the gallantry of Michel Blondy’s Les fleurs of 1735 (within Les Indes Galantes) and the pure-dance classicism of George Balanchine’s La Source (revised in 1969). In the “Jardin Animé,” long-limbed Se Hyun Jin leads an abbreviated corps of flower maidens down the pathways of a formal garden. The maidens strike coy attitudes, and frame and support the star. Almost indolent in its rhythms, the divertissement reaches its climax as the ballerina strikes a pose holding a blossom triumphantly in each raised hand.
The other Corsaire excerpts display more energy. The “Pas des Odalisques” offers a series of virtuosic solos featuring Catherine Whiting, Eunice Suba and Ilse Kapteyn. Each has her moments: Kapteyn leaping and stopping firmly in relevé poses; Suba showing off her feet in clean brisés jumps; and Whiting displaying her temperament in feisty ballotté kicks. Then comes the melodramatic “Pas d’Esclave” from the same ballet. Risa Mochizuki portrays the captive Gulnare, pulling away from the slave trader in taut arabesques, her legs flashing in splits as he lifts her. Mochizuki has style, lengthening her neck and dropping her shoulders to present the most attractive line. Best of all, this passionate performer conveys emotion even while veiled.
The videos that New Jersey Ballet created during the Lockdown also express a yearning for freedom. In Margo Sappington’s “Risa’s Dream,” Mochizuki falls asleep in a basement studio and imagines herself chasing Ava Prentice through fields of green until Mochizuki reaches a brook she cannot cross. Choreographer Frederick Earl Mosley, meanwhile, sets his “Breakout” video in a driveway and in a pocket park atop a building. In these al fresco locations, there is no limit to how far dancers Kapteyn and Whiting can project their energy.
The new live works included “Valses Poéticos,” by Pedro Ruiz, which begins with a solo of continuously threaded movement for Kaitlyn Dal Bon. Yuuki Yamamoto’s duet with Nahoko Namamoto has a more weighted, sculptural plastique. By the time this pas de deux concludes with the dancers forming an X-figure, Namamoto has given up flirting and clings to Yamamoto’s body as he drags her upstage. “Letter to 2020,” choreographed by Rodney Rivera, gives Mochizuki another opportunity to play the firebrand. Whether holding one hand out in denial, scribbling calculations in the air or clearing away obstacles, Mochizuki brings an electric charge to the movement.
The evening concluded with a sampling of dances from that timeless classic, Coppélia. Much could be said about this ballet from 1870, whose quaintness and madcap humor conceal a warning about the dangers of robot technology that could not be more relevant in 2021.
At the Bickford, however, the “dark” side of Coppélia was not on view. Instead, we were treated to the “Dawn” and “Prayer” solos from Act III; plus the charming episode from Act I in which the ballet’s wily heroine, Swanilda, tests her suitor Frantz’s faithfulness by shaking an ear of wheat. If she can hear the kernels rattle, it means he loves her. Alas! The wheat has not ripened, and so, try as he might, Frantz will not be allowed to enjoy Swanilda’s embraces.
Set to the delightful music of Léo Delibes, “Dawn” and “Prayer” offer delicate effusions of lyricism; the interpreters, Suba and Kapteyn, did not disappoint. As Swanilda, Whiting has the speed to elude and taunt her pursuing lover, genially portrayed by Yamamoto. The corps of Swanilda’s friends, however, could use another rehearsal. Evidently much remains to be done before New Jersey Ballet brings the full Coppélia back onstage — a jubilant prospect for ballet lovers.
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