ABT Review: Jessica Lang-Her Notes, Daphnis and Chloe

ABT’s Friday bill showcased Jessica Lang’s world premier of Her Notes. The work is an exciting explosion of movement, complexity, and mystery. The work merits multiple viewings given the intricate and nuanced patterns Lang presents, and I look forward to seeing it three more times this ABT fall season.

Her Notes relates to composer Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel’s writing of the piano piece Das Jahr (The Year). Fanny was Felix Mendelssohn’s sister, with great musical talent; however, as a woman, she was not encouraged to publish her work according to the program notes. Despite this societal bias in the 1800s, she wrote over 400 works for the piano, an instrument she had access to in her home. She wrote Das Jahr, her most famous work, when she and her husband traveled on a yearlong trip. At the end of each month, she wrote a musical reflection of the experience on different colored pieces of paper.

Lang’s work is a dance interpretation of the music from four months, featuring creative imagery representing written pages. In the beginning, dancers enter over a rectangular scrim at the back of the stage and suspended rectangles adorn the stage for parts of the production. The work has five sections representing January, February, June, December, and a final Postlude to summarize the year. As the seasons change, various shaped suspended rectangles are lowered, with each segment having different color theme. As the month changes, Fanny turns the page to work on another reflection with a blank page of another color with dancers providing a visual representation of her work.

The cast consists of 10 dancers and Lang makes full use of her instruments, with movements rooted in classical ballet vocabulary. Lang uses classical ballet technique infused with modern/contemporary elements, particularly off-balance movements and weight shifts not commonly seen in classical ballet. Dancers bolt in and out of the action in novel and complicated patterns; for example, the lead male dances with two supporting females while the lead female dances with two supporting males. Off they go with entry of another set of dancers in this fast paced, dynamic work. With the changing seasons and resulting background and lighting, there is never a dull moment. The unpredictable nature of the work is its greatest strength as the audience is treated to a vast array of movements and combinations.

The work has a sense of humor. In one segment, several women did fish dives out of sight behind the rectangular scrim, followed by Cory Stearns falling in a similar movement, caught by one of the ladies, drawing laughter from the crowd.

I enjoyed Misty Copeland and Jeffrey Cirio in the February segment; Misty displayed nice off-balance weight shift movements while Jeffrey had several controlled turn sections. Gillian Murphy and Marcelo Gomes were rich in detail in their pas de deux. Devon Teuscher and Stephanie Williams danced the Postlude with great energy.

It is difficult to take in all that Her Notes offers in one viewing. I look forward to seeing it again.

It is a relief that the ABT World Premier this season is from someone not named Ratmansky/Peck/Millepied/Wheeldon, choreographers who have dominated new works in the recent past at major ballet companies. Also unique is that the work is from a woman (along with the first piece of the evening, Twyla Tharp’s The Brahms-Haydn Variations). I’m not sure why female choreographers have not been prominent in ballet creation. Maybe artistic directors believe they will not be criticized for selecting a big name choreographer for a new work, even if it is a failure; the current roster of “approved” big names are all men. On the other hand, investing resources in a relatively unknown choreographer that generates a flop creates great career risks for the artistic director. Whatever the reason, ABT deserves credit for deviating from the standard path in the creation of this winner of a work.


Stella Abrera and Cory Stearns, Daphnis and Chloe. Click for more photos.

Daphnis and Chloe

ABT performed Daphnis and Chloe, Benjamin Millepied’s 2014 work for the Paris Opera Ballet. The story of Daphnis is based on the 2nd century writings of Greek writer Longus. It is the story of Daphnis’ love for Chloe, and the many obstacles they encounter before they find true love. The ballet goes back to the Ballets Russes, with score by Maurice Ravel, commissioned by Diaghilev. Vaslav Nijinsky and Tarmara Karsavina choreographed the work in 1912.

Millepied’s work is a modern interpretation of this ancient story, with sets designed by Daniel Buren featuring numerous suspended geometric shapes raising and falling throughout the performance. There are no Greek statues or relics and nothing in the scenery or costumes that would remind viewers of a story from ancient Greece. Dancers are clad in loose-fitting costumes designed by Holly Hynes, rather than more classical attire.

The plot is easy to follow, particularly with the color scheme costumes where white represents good, black bad, and colorful colors festive. The simple story is that Daphnis (Cory Stearns) and Chloe (Stella Abrera) are in love; the seductress Lycenion (Cassandra Trenary) challenges their love by going after Daphnis; Dorcon (Blaine Hoven) makes a pass for Chloe; Dorcon conspires with the pirate Bryaxis (James Whiteside) to kidnap Chloe; Daphnis is hurt trying to defend Chloe from the pirates. Through all of the challenges, there is a happy ending as nymphs intervene with the god Pan and the young lovers are brought together.

Stella and Cory were particularly compelling, radiating youthful love. Blaine portrayed the evil Dorcon with abandon; his dancing has shown substantial maturity this season after his June promotion to Soloist. Cassandra demonstrated great passion in attempting to seduce young Daphnis. The choreography for the pirate segments is particularly striking, danced with abandon by Whiteside with great controlled and energetic turns.

Millipied’s Daphnis and Chloe is impressive, although the suspended scenery can be puzzling and distracting at times. I’m not sure what the suspended shapes represent and why they are there, adding great mystery to the work. Former NYCB dancers Janie Taylor and Sébastien Marcovici staged the performance for ABT.

The first week of ABT’s fall season has been a joy, filled with important, weighty works danced at a very high level to fairly full houses. The season resumes Wednesday for the final week. In addition to Ashton’s delightful Symphonic Variations, Ratmansky’s Serenade after Plato’s Symposium, Her Notes, and Daphnis and Chloe, the company will perform Ashton’s Monotones I and II and Balanchine’s Prodigal Son with leads Jeffrey Cirio/Hee Seo and Daniil Simkin/Veronika Part.