Our Ballet Company, Our Town

At my first good look at what Douglas Martin can do with American Repertory Ballet, I was impressed. On Sunday, May 22, at Rutgers’ Mason Gross theater, the men looked fabulous, and that’s the litmus test for a regional company. Patrick Corbin’s new “Follia,” showcasing their technique, is a knockout. To Vivaldi-era music, six men in Corbin’s idea for muscle-man costumes (tabard-style black rectangle bibs over longish shorts and pointy black shoes) looked gorgeous in Victoria Miller’s side lighting. With just a hint of hips, Corbin has put sexy in a classical ballet box.

It’s paired with “Eight Jelly Rolls,” a hark-back to Twyla Tharp’s all-woman company of the ‘70s that also happens to have black bibs and bare backs for costumes. Six women pretend they don’t care to (hurray!) live music (Jonathan Benjamin and Vince Giordano’s Nighthawks). I searched for a Jennifer Way or a Katie Glasner (they staged this version), and the one who came closest to Tharp’s tossed-off insouciance, who almost made me believe that she was making it up as she went along, was Michelle de Fremery. When de Fremery turns from left to right, her energy field turns with her.

At the opposite end of the emotional spectrum, Michael Crawford and Alexander Dutko had a poignant, compelling excerpt from Randy James’ new “The Heart is a Lonely Hunter” (with a score by Philip Glass).

As for Martin’s new “Ephemeral Possessions,” for six couples, I say a hearty “Nice Going.” Martin rang several deft and pleasing changes on the standard classical ballet for couples. Using a tried-and-true score, Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings, he took City Ballet-style black and white costumes and made the tops blue, with a backdrop to match. Into unison movement – classical but not filled with clichés’ — he dropped a couple of aha! moments (a dragged foot here, a rocking exit there), and he used space well, varying the number of dancers but starting and ending with two. A smiler.

The best was first; Philip Jerry’s “Our Town” opened the program. I’m a sometime student of Thornton Wilder’s work (my current favorite re-read is his picaresque novel Heaven’s My Destination) and I can’t believe I didn’t get to see this ballet in 1994 when Septime Webre was the director. Webre had recruited Martin and his wife Mary Barton from the Joffrey Ballet, and two former Joffrey dancers, the late Philip Jerry and his partner, Corbin, were also living in Princeton. (Philip Jerry’s brother, Chip Jerry, has his law practice with his wife Marilyn, on Poor Farm Road in Princeton.) Jerry spent his last years going back to school and graduating from Princeton University and as ARB’s ballet master. Corbin had danced four years with Joffrey but by the time he moved he had begun his starring career with Paul Taylor’s company.

Jerry revised the “Our Town” he had done for a non-professional company (this, according to Mary Pat Robertson, the school’s director) by resetting it for Martin and Barton, who staged this version.

In other homey coincidences, Stephen Campanella dances the paperboy, and in 1994 he was George and Emily’s little boy (played here by Giovanni DiMauro). And, of course, the play had premiered at McCarter in 1938. Wilder was at that point eking out his living by teaching at Lawrenceville School.

Having in mind Wilder’s low-key tone, I was at first put off by the grandiose music, Aaron Copland’s “Fanfare for the Common Man,” which bursts forth after a bent-over man drags the first of the two ladders across the stage. But the music does work, matched by hugely expansive, symmetrical movement as the dancers present themselves. ”Here we are. Here’s our town. Here we circle.” (Oh, the Paul Taylor effect!). Appalachian Spring meet Grover’s Corner.

Then we see Emily (Brittany Fridenstine at this performance) grow up. She has a sweet aubade – very alls-right-with-the-world – followed by some story-telling and the moment when she and George give each other The Look, and the stage turns rose pink. In their first pas de deux, joyful and youthful, with breath-filled suspensions, they are mostly apart.

Evil interrupts in the form of the drunken choir master and foreboding accents. By this time the music has progressed to Copland’s “The Red Pony.” When George (Marc St. Pierre, alternating with Joshua Kurtzberg) offers to carry Emily’s books, they have a more mature duet with partnered turns and lifts, but it is interrupted by George’s shenanigans with his buddies. Aw shucks. Their making up and The Kiss is followed by comic wringing of hands by the stakeholders.

I saw Nureyev’s “Romeo and Juliet” last month and am pondering the comparison of youthful love, elder dismay, and soon death, but at this point in Jerry’s piece there is no foreboding. Instead we, as parents, can identify with the on-stage parents (Audra Johnson and Michael Crawford, Samantha Gullace and Edward Urwin) and, as former teenagers, with the groom’s sister (Karen Leslie Muscato) and the bride’s delighted friends (Shaye Fiere, Jennifer Gladney, and Kara Harvey).

The short marriage of Emily and George finds its own rhythm and plays out at the back of the stage, not to music but to the relentless sound of rain on the downstage umbrella. Joy becomes concern, becomes pain, and soon George must tell his little son that Emily is dead.

We’ve been thinking of the graveyard scene since the rain started, and it begins with one dancer’s entrance ritual with a folding chair, followed by others until the cemetery is populated and a new grave dug. The forward lunge, used by the ladder-bearer at the opening, is now the theme of the umbrella procession. Emily escapes from the cortege to approach her chair and the Copland rhythms begin again.

Wilder’s script effectively captures the disconnect between the living and the dead, how none of us really appreciate life until it is too late, but I think Jerry’s choreography is more evocative, and I would like to see this again and again to figure out how he does it.

The dead, in their chairs, sway ever so slightly back and forth, while Emily desperately tries not to join them. She tugs against the invisible reins until finally one of the graveyard characters gives her permission to re-visit.

How she seems to dance with each member of her family, but then falls away as their movement reveals they don’t know she is there – well, it’s a wonder, made more poignant by the fact that Jerry lived for only two years after it premiered.

Emily succumbs to the back and forth, back and forth, and when George flings himself on the floor beside her, your heart breaks.

Photos by George Jones

Patrick Corbin’s troupe, Corbin Dances, opens a three-night season at the Joyce Theater on June 8.

Future dance events, from press releases:

May 22, 2011 (Princeton, NJ) – DanceVision and The Parkinson Alliance are thrilled to offer on Thursdays to June 9th (with possibility to extend through June 23) special dance classes for people with Parkinson’s Disease. People with Parkinson’s disease, their caregivers, partners and friends can participate in a specialized Princeton Dance for Parkinson’s at PDT Studio @ Forrestal Village, 116 Rockingham Row, Princeton, NJ. Classes are $10 per person. If caregiver or spouse or partner participates it is only an additional $5. To register, interested participants should call (609) 514-1600 Pre-registration is suggested.

West Windsor, N.J. – The Mercer Dance Ensemble presents “Poetry in Motion” at Mercer County Community College’s Kelsey Theatre. Performances will be held Saturday, June 4 at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday, June 5 at 2 p.m. Under the direction of instructor Janell Byrne, fifteen dancers will present a show that incorporates a variety of dance styles as it celebrates the body in motion. The ensemble features the college’s dance students and community dancers. Kelsey Theatre is located on the college’s West Windsor campus, 1200 Old Trenton Road.

In addition to choreography by Byrne, two dance alumni will contribute choreography. Jennifer Gladney, a dancer with the American Repertory Ballet Theatre, will choreograph two pieces, and Han Koon Oi is choreographing a piece with Asian influences. Among the dance styles are modern, classical and jazz. Tickets are $14 for adults, $12 for seniors, and $10 for students. Tickets may be purchased online, in person at the Kelsey Theatre box office, or by phone at 609-570-3333.

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