(above photo taken from SenseDance website)
One night this season at ABT, I met this interesting-looking guy with arty glasses and longish blonde hair tied back into a neat pony tail. I’veÂ seen him at many performances around the city and often wondered who he was. Well, we sat next to each other and got to talking; I asked him if he was a dance writer. Turns out no, but he’s a German choreographer, named Henning Rubsam, and his small company was just about to have its season at the Ailey theater, to which he invited me.
So, Tuesday night Dea and I went. The company’s repertoire is a combination of ballet and modern dances, and Mr. Rubsam’s choreography is nicely varied and richly detailed. There were nine shortish pieces on the program, which is nice — seriously, I LOVE when a choreographer can make his/her point without too much superfluous
The first and last pieces were perhaps most complex. The first, Merciless Beauty, mainly consisted of soft, lyrical ballet by two sets of male-female partners, the women smiling brightly in pretty pink leotards and chiffon skirts, the men in dark brown capri-length tights. But what was most intriguing was when the light, playful dancing was interrupted by the presence of a character in a black shiny trench coat — danced by Rubsam himself — who took the stage rather nonchalantly, then began madly stamping the floor, flamenco-like, then morphing into more modern dance, into a set of flexed-footed, sinister-seeming kicks. The background, once a pleasing pastel, was now night black, in its center a stark, bright yellow moon. Eventually, Rubsam lay down, perhaps in exhaustion, and put his head to the ground as if listening for something within the earth. The other dancers cautiously approached him, and, sitting or standing behind him, all lay their heads sideways, one by one atop his, all faces bearing serene smiles, making for this large moon-faced effect.
In Cloudforest, the last piece, having its premiere, the whole ensemble of ten dancers, all dressed in flowing cream-colored clothes, filled the stage, dancing at times solo, at times in pairs, and at times performing group lifts — often all simultaeously — darting, sliding, bourreing on tip toe, rolling or crawling on the floor, swerving around and between each other as they made their way around the stage, sometimes looking as if one had nearly missed crashing into another. It reminded me of the “Diamonds” section of Balanchine’s Jewels, where the floor is so packed and formations are so complicated-looking, by the end you’re in awe that there were no accidents.
In fact, much of Rubsam’s ballet choreography reminded me of Balanchine, in both its beauty and sinister qualities. At one point in Cloudforest several men carried one woman high above them in the style of the Serenade ending, as if she were flying, or perhaps as if she were in a coffin and they pallbearers. The music in this last piece was intensely unsettling and allowed for a number of interpretations. Mr. Rubsam combined Bach, Barber, Brahms, and Debussy, setting scores atop each other, for an, obviously, cacophonous, traffic-jam-sounding effect. The music, combined with the movement — lyrical but on an overcrowded stage with dancers intentionally not always dancing in unison or even performing the same type of movement — made for a kind of crazed, demented beauty.
My two favorite pieces — Caves (from 2006) and Amaranthine Road (making its premiere) showcased my favorite dancers of the night — Maria Phegan and Rachel Hamrick (who has sky high extensions and gorgeous lines) — and reminded me a bit of Balanchine’s almost fright-filled seduction scenes, like that between new wife and warrior husband in Bugaku, and the Siren’s seduction of the Prodigal Son.
The choreography of Caves in particular, I found to be very evocative. The man seems to be an innocent human who’s accidentally lost his way and wound up in this frightening, subhuman world, the lair of this creature — a kind of cross between a spider and a crab — danced by the wonderfully expressive Phegan. The way she splays her legs, feet up on pointe, back bent over and fingers touching the ground, then taking large, crab-like steps across the floor, is so eerie, so creepy. The man is intrigued but frightened. Eventually they dance together, she wends her limbs around him, he is hers.
SenseDance is so titled, the website says, because Rubsam aims to provide dance appealing to all the senses. Indeed, the background scenes are often lush — often consisting of large, colorful, detailed paintings, the lighting provides richly shaded texture, and Rubsam is very particular about the music he uses, which always adds to the fullness of the dance. Caves is set to a gypsy-like guitar score by Ricardo Llorca, each pluck of a string enticingly, forebodingly suggestive. Many of the dances are set to eerie piano music by Beata Moon that adds to their disquieting, fantastical beauty.
My only qualm is that some of the dancers were just not up to par, and Mr. Rubsam’s choreography deserves better. I felt like there was a lot of promise, but generally better dancers (aside from the aforementioned) are needed to pull it off.