Some thoughts on a new Dance Collective
It’s been a few weeks since my last dance-blog post—for which I apologize—but I’ve been spurred to action by a recent studio-showing by a new startup, the Satellite Ballet, held at the Baryshnikov Arts Center on April 18. The ensemble is the joint creation of Kevin Draper, a trained architect and poet, and Troy Schumacher, a member of New York City Ballet’s corps de ballet. They’ve been working together for a little over a year, and have presented a single piece so far (entitled “Progress”), and hope to have their first New York performance at the Baryshnikov Arts Center in the fall.
I don’t know much about Draper—he did not speak at the gathering and there’s not much information about him on the group’s website—but I have often admired the elegance of Schumacher’s dancing in such roles as the Jester in Peter Martins’ “Swan Lake” and the lead Candy Cane in Balanchine’s “Nutcracker.” He’s the kind of dancer who brings intelligence and polish to roles that are usually played for laughs (like the Jester) or tend to pass by with little fanfare.
Draper and Schumacher have teamed up with a trio of musicians from the indie-music scene in Portlad, Oregon: Nathan Langston, Nick Jaina, and Amanda Lawrence. Langston, a violinist, and Jaina, an self-taught musician who plays the piano (and various other instruments), were also on hand at the preview performance, which was intimate and laid-back, but also very polished and carefully planned: the studio was just the right size, the light was perfect, and there was even good wine, paired with lovely hors-d’oeuvres. Schumacher’s instincts as an impresario are spot-on, and the participation of several of his lithe, talented colleagues from NYCB, both onstage and in the audience, added an extra layer of refinement to the proceedings. Clearly, were were in for some good dancing.
And so it was. The dancers were: Teresa Reichlen, a principal, whose cool glamor and creamy lines lend an aura of ease and balance to everything from Sugarplum to Rubies and Odette; Justin Peck, a rising corps-member (and emerging choreographer) notable for his lack of affectation and centeredness onstage; Ashley Laracey; Daniel Applebaum, another corps-member, with a staccato, dramatic quality; and Sam Greenberg, also from the corps.
The curious principle behind this collaboration is that both the choreography and the music are generated by the texts, which are poems by Kevin Draper. Draper’s poetry is the motor behind the entire collaboration, one which came about by coincidence: Schumacher and Draper used to live in the same building, Draper wrote poetry and had an idea for a ballet, and a project was born. The three excerpts performed at the BAC are based on Draper’s poetry, translated into music and steps by Schumacher, Langston, Jaina, and Lawrence. The collaboration also includes a design element consisting of still projections by Draper. The text is not a part of the performance itself—there is no verbal component, and the dancers are not asked to read or interpret the poems—and thus dissolves into the steps. The spectactor can either try to decipher the intentions of the original text, or can simply observe the dance as something complete in an of itself, forgetting its origins.
So, what are these texts? What are Draper’s poems really about? Here is a little sample from “William Cody,” one of the sources for the ballet “Progress”: “At the time we had 16 buffalo in the troupe. / It was not missed on me / That after leaving 3 million pounds of meat on the Prairie / My wife’s estimate / And she was a butcher among butchers / The irony that I spent the sums / To give those lucky few a grand tour of Europe. / And fed them as well as the Oglala / Who only killed and ate one buffalo that year / And I charged a good crowd to see that.”
And here are the opening lines to Draper’s libretto for the ballet “Epistasis”, whose title is a scientific term for a complex phenomenon in which one gene is suppressed or modified by another: “After the last heaven / Packed up and headed West / To freeze in the mountain / And eat its family / There was nothing for gods to do / But watch satellites / Watch them watch TV.
In other words, the poetry is neither lyrical nor particularly intelligible. What does it all mean? The key seems to be in the images evoked by the words. In response to a question on this very issue, Schumacher wrote to me: “One reading can take on a completely different meaning from the next, much like watching dance…It’s fascinating to me to sit down with Kevin and go over a libretto, discover what he’s referncing, and then try to interpret that through choreography. Especially because, like most good dance, his narratives are very abstract….For example, Nick Jaina, one of our composers, loves visual images. He’ll take one idea and write a whole movement with that idea in mind. It’s the same with dance. A couple of lines could be enough for a whole pas de deux.” I was especially struck by another thing Schumacher said: “Having a guide like this doesn’t take away from any creativity, but adds to it. It focuses all of us on expressing something together.” This, in turn, reminded me, inevitably, of much of the dance and performance art I’ve been seeing downtown in recent weeks. For example: Juliette Mapp’s “The Making of Americans,” which just finished a run at DTW, a work that takes as its starting point Gertrude Stein’s manic epic of the same name. The book, with its repetitive phrases that weave a mosaic-like narrative about the rise and fall of an American family, becomes a kind of grid onto which Mapp embroiders episodes from her family’s prehistory, bits of Michael Jackson’s biography, and, above that, the history of Gary, Indiana (Mapp and the Jacksons’ hometown). Stein’s book has no obvious connection to any of these stories, but it provides both an external impetus for Mapp’s imagination, and an internal structural element (repetition, development, variations on a theme). (Another example of this use of external material is John Kelly’s performance piece “The Escape Artist”, playing at PS122 until April 30, which draws its inspiration from the paintings of Caravaggio. And yet another: Richard Move’s “re-enactment” of a 1963 interview of Martha Graham, “Martha@…The 1963 Interview,”which recently ran at DTW.) All of these beg the question: where does inspiration come from, what is creativity, and does it lie within us or outside of us?
The other day at the Baryshnikov Arts Center, it quickly became clear that, beyond Draper’s text, Schumacher has another, perhaps even greater source of inspiration: George Balanchine. It is evident in the training and look of his beautiful dancers, in the electricity that runs through their fingers, in the unostentatious way in which they present the steps. And it comes through in Schumacher’s movement, which reveals little glimpses of his conscious and unconscious, of works he has danced and others he has observed. The first pas de deux, from “Progress,” was full of supported glides across the floor and turns on one bent leg, straight out of “Four Temperaments.” (“4T’s” runs through these works like a waking dream.) In a pas de deux from “Epistasis,” Sam Greenberg and Teresa Reichlen took flat-footed little steps, like Apollo and his muses in Balanchine’s 1928 ballet of the same name; later, Greenberg pushed Reichlen’s knees together, a gesture reminiscent of the second pas de deux in “Stravinsky Violin Concerto”. There is a note of Balanchine, too, in the importance of abstracted, distilled gesture. But there are other sources as well: a little bit of Robbins, and even a touch of Benjamin Millepied. This is not a criticism; new ballets are always, in part, a re-thinking of the past. And there were personal notes as well, especially a sensual, playful, use of the hips. And an over-riding emphasis on expressivity and beauty, a lack of vulgarity or pandering, that was especially refreshing. It’s hard to tell from such brief selections, but Schumacher seems to have a good eye and good taste, and that’s not a bad place to start.
For all the emphasis on the originality of the compositional method, the music performed at the B.A.C. did not sound particularly experimental or challenging to the ear. In fact, the musical passages were downright melodic, almost cinematic in an understated way, reminiscent of Nicola Piovani’s limpid scores for the films of Nanni Moretti. More than anything, it evoked moods: urgent, or lyrical, or searching, but never jarring or unpleasant. As always, it is a joy to have live music combined with dance; the responsiveness and spontaneity it brings out in the dancers simply cannot be replicated with the use of a recording. Everything is alive, everything breathes, everything is now. Schumacher is right to care about this aspect of his collaboration. And, even if collaboration cannot replace inspiration or craft, it does have the virtue of allowing artists to spin off of each other’s ideas, insights, and enthusiasms. As Schumacher wrote to me: “It focuses all of us on expressing something together.”
You can watch video of Satellite’s first ballet, “Progress,” here.
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