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The Power of Proximity

Sofiane Sylve. Photo by Matthew Murphy.

Generally speaking, when we see ballet stars or Broadway-caliber shows in New York, we’re some distance away. But I recently saw two performances at arm’s length proximity to the performers, to predictably powerful effect—Avi Scher & Dancers, and Black Watch.

Last weekend, Scher presented a second annual program of big-name ballet dancers performing his choreography. Just 27, he clearly has ambition, connections, and good timing, scheduling several nights at Alvin Ailey Citigroup Theater just a fortnight in advance of New York City Ballet’s spring season. And yet guests from that company included Tyler Angle and Ana Sophia Scheller (paired in a duet that displayed her diamond-hard precision and his plush muscularity) and the charismatic Savannah Lowery, who danced the finale of DreamScapes with alum Sofiane Sylve (now at San Francisco Ballet), still fierce and, at moments, transcendent. We usually see these amazing dancers at a cool remove in the capacious Koch Theater, where they seem almost alien in their perfection and effortlessness. But a couple of yards away, I an reminded of how strong their legs are, how hard they work, and how unforgivingly physical ballet is, even in the casual preshow barre warm-ups done onstage.

Two other NYCB alums, Carla Korbes and Seth Orza, danced together in Mirrors. When these two joined Pacific Northwest Ballet several years ago (a couple years apart), both were still maturing, and Korbes had just been promoted to soloist. So it’s gratifying to see them carrying their principal ranks quite handily, returning to a city where stiff and ample competition may never have allowed these fine dancers their due. Boston Ballet‘s Misa Kuranaga and Joseph Gatti performed Utopia, showing her dramatic flair and his precision. In Classroom Fantasy, Scher included students from Manhattan Youth Ballet, as well as Deborah Wingert (who danced at NYCB under Balanchine) in wistful and admonishing elder roles. Sitting so close does have its detractions—seeing ABT‘s terrific Craig Salstein display his humor, so effective from a mile away, overpowers from a few feet (ABT’s Met season opens May 16). Scher’s choreography is by no means revolutionary, but it follows in ballet’s lyrical romantic and storytelling traditions, and relies on the cast’s star power to transform it.

At St. Ann’s Warehouse, I sat in the second row for the National Theatre of Scotland‘s Black Watch (through the 8th of May). Written by Gregory Burke and directed by John Tiffany, it’s about the proud Scottish warrior clan, of the pseudonymous tartan, evolving over 300 years to be reduced to a sad phantom in the recent Iraq war. The bold action (movement by Steven Hoggett) takes place on a runway stage flanked on two sides by audience bleachers, and consists primarily of running or moving set furniture. A few scenes involve stylized mock fighting, marching (and falling) in formation, and, most memorably, changing one soldier’s uniforms to reflect the clan’s history by lifting Jack Lowden (affectingly responsible despite his youth) and seamlessly slipping kilts and fatigues on and off of him. At moments, the actors were close enough to the first row viewers to brush by them, a distant reminder of the perils and vagaries of combat (and of theater). Being so close definitely reinforces this compelling drama and the visceral movement powering it.

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SundayArts is made possible in part by First Republic Bank and by the Rubin Museum of Art. Funding for SundayArts is also made possible by Rosalind P. Walter, The Paul and Irma Milstein Foundation, The Philip & Janice Levin Foundation, Elise Jaffe and Jeffrey Brown, Jody and John Arnhold, and The Lemberg Foundation. This program is supported, in part, by public funds from the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs in partnership with the City Council. Additional funding provided by members of THIRTEEN.
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