New York Theater Ballet rediscovers and thrills

Many people love dance but not ballet:  too mannered, too toney.  To counteract that perception, Diana Byer founded the New York Theater Ballet to inspire both a love for, and comprehensive understanding of, the art and how it evolves.  To that end, the NYTB presents revivals of classic chamber masterpieces and new works by emerging artists in small, intimate venues, frequently to live music, accompanied by talkbacks that allow the audience to interact with the choreographers.  Such a program admirably allows them to fulfill their credo “Rediscover the old; be thrilled by the new.”

keeping ballet honest darkelegiesBut Ms. Byer goes way beyond programming to fulfill her mission:  she puts her money where her mouth is by maintaining affordable ticket prices.  She also goes out on a limb aesthetically, training her dancers in the Cecchetti method, deemed by some to be outlandishly outmoded but which,  in Ms. Byer’s view, teaches students “to move strongly and purely, without stylistic idiosyncrasies.”  The result, displayed at the Florence Gould Hall on April 19, was ballet with an honest presence and rare clarity of emotion.

The April 19 program included a new work by Pam Tanowitz, as well as Antony Tudor’s Dark Elegies (in its entirety) and the rarely performed Pas de Deux from Romeo and Juliet; Richard Alston’s Light Flooding into Darkened Rooms;  and Rondo, by Jerome Robbins.  Through intensive research of the historical records,  Byer restores these masterworks with meticulous faithfulness to original movements, costumes, and props.  She also dips into the living tradition by collaborating with celebrated dancers who’ve performed the works in the past; Kyra Nichols, one of the original cast members of the New York City Ballet’s premier of Rondo, staged the current NYTB production.

Two notable selections were Tudor’s Pas de Deux and Alston’s Light.  In the Tudor, Romeo says farewell to Juliet, beautifully portrayed by Elena Zahlmann.  Her passion, like her focus, is internal, yet omnipresent.  Likewise, we do not see the craft in her dance even as she moves us with her comportment.  Tudor’s small, poignant gestures of parting, combined with the most intimate and unexpected lifts, paint the kind of images choreographers hope to keep in their audiences’ minds for years to come.   Rie Oura and Steven Melendez, who performed the Alston with simultaneous force and precision, fall into each other with grace, a natural force aided by the mechanics of gravity and the human body stayed by the imagination of desire.

However captivating their performances are, no mention of the NYTB should ignore the organization’s commitment to reach underserved children and families in NYC.  Their LIFT community service program provides scholarships for talented at-risk and disadvantaged children, who receive not only instruction in ballet but also individualized mentoring, academic tutoring, and warm clothing. Using the discipline of ballet as a tool, Byer shows her students that what really counts is focus, discipline, and hard work, even if you’re living in a shelter—helping children rediscover what it truly means to be “thrilled by the new.”