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American Ballet Theatre debuts two works that incorporate tap and contemporary dance
This week, American Ballet Theatre returns to Lincoln Center with a fall season that is lean, adventurous and bracingly contemporary. Alongside works by eminent choreographers such as George Balanchine, Jerome Robbins (in honor of his centennial), Twyla Tharp and Alexei Ratmansky, there are two world premieres that are strikingly different. One is by Jessica Lang, whose connection with the company goes back 20 years; the other is by tap genius Michelle Dorrance, who's newer to the ballet world.
Arron Scott, an ABT soloist who joined the troupe in 2004, is unabashedly enthusiastic about Dorrance's Dream within a Dream (deferred), which is set to eight Duke Ellington compositions. This co-commission with the Vail Dance Festival is a hybrid of tap and ballet, which presents unique challenges for the classically trained dancers.
"This new piece is fun, energetic, sexy and ambitious," Scott says. "It has multiple styles of dancing -- aspects of tap, swing, working with canes, the Lindy Hop, the Charleston, and more -- as well as classical ballet, all fusing and coexisting. Working with Michelle has been tremendous. She thinks and moves so quickly, it's hard to keep up sometimes. It's hard for some ballet dancers to let go of their training and relax into vernacular dance. But she's always so good about taking one-on-one time with dancers, finding their comfort zone, and translating what they're capable of."
Scott first worked with Dorrance last spring when she choreographed for ABT's gala, an initial meeting of the movement minds that paved the way for Dream within a Dream (deferred). "Hearing and feeling the complex rhythms in her gala piece was challenging and exhilarating," Scott recalls. "The music was so complex that -- even as people who are trained to dance -- it was extremely difficult to hear."
Katherine Williams was just promoted to ABT soloist last month, and will be performing in Ratmansky's vibrant Songs of Bukovina, which debuted last year, and the pristinely classical Symphonie Concertante, a lesser-known Balanchine work from 1947. She is also creating a role in Garden Blue, Lang's world premiere set to an Antonín Dvorák trio.
Lang's work fluidly combines elements of modern dance and ballet, and often features strong visual elements. In fact, the Garden Blue scenic design by American artist Sarah Crowner was integral to the piece's development. "We've had the sets in the studio every day of rehearsals," Williams says. "We move the set ourselves. We're dancing on -- and with -- the set."
Like many company members, Williams has known Lang since adolescence. "She was my modern technique teacher at [ABT's] Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School, and I worked with her during the summer intensives," Williams recalls. "She has such a wide range, and her choreography incorporates both classical and modern elements. I feel that Garden Blue is more contemporary, while Her Notes -- a previous work for ABT that I also performed -- was more purely classical. She's very open to suggestions. It's a really nice working environment in that way, because you feel that she's hearing what you have to say and takes it in. There's a meshing of ideas."
The pieces by Dorrance and Lang are part of ABT's multiyear Women's Movement initiative to support the creation of new work by female dance-makers. One woman whose choreography has played an important role in ABT's history is Twyla Tharp: More than a dozen of her ballet boundary-pushing dances have been performed by the company.
Scott and Williams are both in Tharp's In the Upper Room from 1986, which is being revived this fall. "It's probably one of the most physically demanding pieces that I've ever performed, but it's paced brilliantly," says Scott, who's danced it previously. "In the final section, everyone is no longer worried about steps, the nerves are no longer there, and we're driving with each other and transcending into another place." ABT's commitment to presenting innovative works like these is what keeps the company moving forward.
Susan Reiter regularly covers dance for TDF Stages.
Top image: Katherine Williams in Songs of Bukovina. Photos by Marty Sohl.