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American Repertory Ballet raises the glass ceiling

Graham Lustig brought his mission for ballet to Symphony Space March 24 and 25—raising the glass ceiling for women choreograp­hers—but his program for the Princeton-based company he directs, American Repertory Ballet, started with a new work of his own.

“Dialogue” follows woman through the phases of her life, structured on dialogues with men in pas de deux. She is also in a dialogue with herself through the ages as ethereal confidant (the luminous Carmen de Lavallade), carefree youth (Jennifer Cavanaugh), and child (tiny Princeton Ballet student Rebecca Gellman.) Lorraine Ernest sings “Delle Cose Belle” by Pat Rasile as part of the ensemble, perhaps representing robust adulthood. The music sets a mood that parallels the drama. Max Midroit accompanies on piano.

Cavanaugh dances inexhaustibly, the belle is lyrical and with effortless-looking flexibility, but only in a tumultuous movement with the last of her partners does she indicate a moment of chagrin. De Lavallade casts him away with the powerful flick of her hand and he reels off the stage. He returns later as part of an entourage—lifting the sleeping beauty off a sarcophagus-like structure toward her angelic ascension. She finally emerges on high as the pure child Gellman.

“Dialogues” is full of ambiguities as well as clichés. It may seem old-fashioned unless we ask questions. Do we put women on a pedestal because they have suffered at the hands of men? Is it then somewhat of a death? Lustig, to his credit, garners the lucid technique and expression his performers have to offer. For example, in the unobtrusive presence of Ernest, the singer is on stage, not pretending to dance.

The women speak, and not a moment too soon. Lauri Stallings’s title “exorcising Man” sends us in the direction of the unexpected. The choreograp­her’s movement vocabulary commands our attention. To an unusual pairing of C.P.E. and J.S. Bach the dancers, wearing Stallings’s on-the-mark orange costumes, begin with a false start. They enter and suddenly fall together almost immediately and humorously. Moving on, their dance is fast, rhythmic, and sharply accented. Naimah Willoughby is strong and confident in a silent solo. The men manhandle as partners. Domenic Guerra lets loose jazzy flourishes that nicely syncopate the sound, but Peng-Yu Chen attaches herself to his back with her legs splayed and feet flexed. She ends like a sexy princess on Guerra’s shoulders. The gutsy exorcising is memorable for its womanpower—and then? The piece barrels along at a prohibitive pace.

“Baker’s Dozen” was called a palm court dance in 1979. This classic dance by Twyla Tharp originally was to include a video of Tharp dancing. That idea was abandoned, but the title stuck. This choreographic masterpiece of womankind looks gorgeous on the 12 ballet dancers of ARB. The fact that choreographers like Stallings are building on her innovations makes Tharp’s genius look that much more outstanding. It’s performed to Willie “the Lion” Smith’s rag-style piano music played live by Midroit. Santo Loquasto’s costumes are elegant white with velvety leggings and white jazz shoes. Sunny light bathes the tony party, courtesy of Jennifer Tipton. Tharpian quick backbends and momentary falls create elevating light humor. Guerra adds his upper-body flourishes and Andrew Notarile does an awesome spiral down turn. Tharp’s 13-minute magical entertainment was staged for ARB by former ABT dancer Elaine Kudo; this gem reminds us that women are Queens of the Dance. More!

Lustig’s “Vista” looks like a cheer that has exploded into a jazz/pointe coup de danse. The bland music and unfortunate costumes aside, this vista of ARB’s excellent performers scintillates. Dancers appear and disappear in Christopher Chambers’ brilliant lighting design. Notable are John Sorensen-Link’s cantilevered partnering, the buoyant women en pointe, the imaginative flying lifts, the light teasing play, and the sensuous energy in limpid moves, like Laney Engelhard almost belly-dancing. We exit reeling from its bouncy energy and string of surprises.

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Updated 5:17 pm, July 20, 2018
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