In a world where the foreignness of story ballets isolates audiences, New Zealand's artists are branding dance as relatable—a symbol of the human condition.
The Royal New Zealand Ballet makes its New York City debut as part of the Joyce Theater's spring 2014 season. Ethan Stiefel, who was appointed artistic director of the company in 2011, has brought his dancers to the city that graced him with praise and popularity. In the packed theater, where ballet celebrities like Marcelo Gomes and Kevin McKenzie fill the seats, it is clear that the New York City dance community has missed the ultimate bad boy from “Center Stage.” Though Stiefel himself never makes an appearance, his fiancée and current American Ballet Theatre Principal Dancer Gillian Murphy guest stars, and her presence adds hype to the otherwise unrecognizable names in the program.
The bill opens with “Black Swan” choreographer Benjamin Millepied's “28 Variations on a Theme by Paganini,” a neoclassical ballet set to Brahms' dreamlike melodies. Much like Jerome Robbins' “Dances at a Gathering,” Millepied's sweet and simple repertoire plays with a vague narrative of lovers in pastels as they whirl around the stage in a Degas-esque scene. While the work itself is a lovely example of dance for dance's sake, Stiefel's direction and his choice of costuming corrupt it, as they try to make a spectacle of ephemerality and lightness. The dancers employ exaggerated épaulement and showcase plastered grins as they move through the space, and they attempt a display of opulence when the aesthetic of the piece demands neutrality.
Gillian Murphy enters in a long tutu with distracting fringe atop the bodice. She is the focus of each section, asserting a hierarchy within the troupe. Though she does share several ethereal moments with the public—including a series where she seemingly never comes down from pointe, eternally floating—she does not fit with the rest of the corps de ballet, who use a different, less expansive technique. Lucy Green is the second female soloist, and though her vivacity and youthfulness is a nice contrast to Murphy's sensitivity and professionalism, her enthusiasm occasionally fosters a less refined performance.
The night picks up with “Of Days,” which is stunningly provocative and succeeds in its abstractness where the former piece fails. Staged by Andrew Simmons, a former company member, the work plays to the strengths of the group and is exactly what it claims to be: a contemporary ballet. Dancers in grey leotards appear on the stage, and a spotlight slowly spreads backward as four women become distinguishable. Throughout the piece, the ensemble uses rotund port de bras to imbue the movement with an emotional depth. As a motif, the cast sometimes pauses in a tendu arabesque with their arms behind them like swans, allowing spectators to absorb their gorgeous lines.
Finally, Javier de Frutos' “Banderillero” is a modern exhibition of the bull-bullfighter relationship in Spain. A white rectangle of marley covers part of the traditionally black floor, and whenever a soloist walks onto it, her motions become violent and animalistic. When she is outside the white outline, she is once again human. A man may whisper to a woman on the outskirts of the square or dancers may walk across the front of the stage as though they were strolling down a New York City street.
The piece has instances of hectic gyration as well as contained ballet poses, as though it is juxtaposing propriety and naturalism. Though at times the combination of Asian drumming and tribal-style dance gives an unsettling vibe of cultural appropriation, overall the choreography feels more like an avant-garde statement on globalization and cultural mixing.
This weekend, the Royal New Zealand Ballet takes viewers on a tour of contemporaneity with a program that includes pointe shoes as well as half-ponytails. In its return to the United States after two decades, the company makes a bold impression—these dancers bring ballet into the 21st century.
The Royal New Zealand Ballet performs at the Joyce Theater through Feb. 16. Tickets from $10.