There was no happy ending last night in Aspen Santa Fe Ballet’s performance at the Joyce Theater. In a three-part program that had a bold, strong start, the later dances gradually lost steam and ultimately were sustained by speed rather than than style.
The program’s second piece, Stamping Ground, by Czech choreographer Jiří Kylián, had the ensemble taking solo turns, moving across the stage in silence, repeating mechanical movements, slapping their own skin, and stomping. Drum music begins to play, and we see the movements sync with the music in ways difficult to imagine only a few minutes before. Some of the roles were too caricatured to be taken seriously, and certain scenes are almost laughably literal (such as when a woman balances herself between two men, swinging like a pendulum to the beat of a clock), but it was on the whole a an engagingly playful piece. And as someone who often uses music as an entry point into dancing, which about which I admittedly still know far less, ballets set to silence can be confounding. Stamping Ground shows rather convincingly that music can be there, even when it isn’t.
The finale was pure cheese. Red Sweet, an unabashed showpiece by Finnish-born Jorma Elo, is set to the Baroque-era music of Antonio Vivaldi and Heinrich Biber, and takes its cues not only from classicism but robotics and breakdance as well. (I told my friend Jim after the performance, “I was sure they’d were all going to break into ‘the robot.’”) It didn’t quite work. The movement was quick, and it never stopped. There was no opportunity to appreciate nuance (nor much nuance to speak of), and no chance to relax and breathe before the next hyperkinetic display. Not even when the music slowed for the pas de deux did the dancers slow their pace. While the dancers were (as always) precise, Red Sweet exhausted when it aimed to excite.
Alas, the highlight of the evening was performed first — a tease. Barcelona-born Cayetano Soto’s Uneven — performed to rich, live cello music — was the most exciting “new” ballet I’ve seen since Ratmansky’s Namouna at City Ballet last year. It brought to mind some of Balanchine’s best work, not just in its stark black-and-white costumes but its mix of jazzy movements with strict classicism. (At the risk of sounding insensitive, the symmetries created with the company’s two black male dancers were also strikingly beautiful.) The dancers pushed and pulled one another, pushing themselves into awkward, sometimes precarious-looking positions. They lifted, lunged, and contorted their bodies at lightening speed, but here you could savor the detail and the incredible technique on display.
I can’t stress how talented this company is, in spite of the gimmicky dances they were forced to perform. I craved more of what I saw in Uneven, but the ballet’s title, at least, set the tone for the rest of the evening.