Ballet Today, the Good and the Bad, on Display at the Joyce

Posted June 29, 2018 5:07 p.m. EDT

NEW YORK — Ballet is an art of amplitude. For centuries, its physical style has been designed to radiate upward and outward into the farther reaches of opera houses. Nonetheless, it flourishes in smaller spaces too. The Joyce Theater, with a seating capacity of 472, is one of them.

Every summer since 2013, the Joyce has presented a ballet festival with many company debuts for the theater (indeed, for New York). This year’s edition, which began Tuesday and continues through next week, features five troupes. Levels of choreography vary and dance styles differ — not always in good ways, yet the festival adds to our knowledge of ballet in America today.

Its emphasis is largely 21st-century. Female choreographers are featured on most programs. Three of this year’s companies are led by women; a fourth is run jointly by a man and a woman. The most regularly returning troupe has been BalletX, which has presented 65 world premieres since it was founded in 2005; its dancers are among America’s best. The BalletX program that runs this weekend, stronger by far than the two that preceded it, is one that I reviewed and enjoyed in March in Philadelphia.

The festival opened with the local debut of Dimensions Dance Theater of Miami, a troupe founded in 2016 by the former Miami City Ballet principals Carlos Miguel Guerra and Jennifer Carlynn Kronenberg. The company reflects the Latin flavor of its home: Their look is athletic, energetic, sexy.

All four works it showed here were immediate hits with the audience. I did not much like the first three — Gerald Arpino’s “Light Rain” (1981), Tara Lee’s “Stepping into Blue” (a world premiere, danced by Kronenberg and Guerra), Ariel Rose’s “Esferas” (a New York premiere) — because their emphatic glamour, acrobatic energy and picturesque configurations never once cohered into persuasive images of human behavior. When choreography does not sustain some developing view of the people dancing it, it dwindles into attention-seizing stunts.

The program ended, however, with the highly engaging “Juanita y Alicia,” another New York premiere, choreographed by Septime Webre and with traditional Cuban music (bolero), played live. Webre made this in 2000 for Washington Ballet, where he was an artistic director and choreographer for many years, but now it could be Dimensions’ signature piece.

In this work, changing patterns reflected a larger idea of spirited community. Solos, a dream romance and ensembles all bounced up endearingly out of the music; the ebullience made the dancers look not showy, but exuberantly and unpredictably diverse. They turned to the left, they turned to the right; they danced fast, they danced slow; rhythm and melody pervaded them. The six male musicians, all wearing hats, combined song, percussion and strings with wonderful vitality. We are given a vivid, robust sense of a whole society. If Dimensions can find more material of this caliber, it will prove a valuable addition to South Florida — indeed, to American ballet.

Wednesday, ushers at the Joyce announced before “The Masque of the Red Death” — the sole offering by Joshua Beamish’s troupe, MOVETHECOMPANY — that it would be 75 minutes long. They were right, but it felt more like five hours while it was happening.

“The Masque,” a Joyce commission, does not lack ideas. It yokes recorded texts from Edgar Allan Poe’s tale of that name to others from Kassia St. Clair’s “The Secret Lives of Color” and David Batchelor’s “Chromophobia,” spoken with immense overemphasis by the opera star Jessye Norman in a dim acoustic that makes some of her painstaking elocution unclear. The seven dancers all got through any number of costumes (designed by Beamish) and masks. The stage area kept morphing as several curtains parted and came together, with Jimmy Lawlor’s lighting frequently changing in color and direction, sometimes in rapid succession.

Beamish can deploy dancers in stage space, with theatrically arresting gestures, various gender combinations and metric variety. Still, nothing in his “Masque” felt like dancing: Its succession of poses (largely flat-footed) and groupings felt like an entirely obscure ritual. Even though the performers were presented as individual characters, Beamish never showcased them as dancers: They registered as underpowered pawns in his inexplicable game.

Event Info:

Ballet Festival

Through July 7 at the Joyce Theater, Manhattan; joyce.org.