Bay Area Dance-Maker Called Up as New York Looks for Next Hot Thing in Ballet

Alysia Chang (foreground), Jamielyn Duggan, and Chantelle Pianetta of the Milissa Payne Project in Milissa Payne Bradley's ENOUGH SAID at New York City's 92nd St Y (Photo: Elizabeth Schneider-Cohen)

"Can hip-hop save ballet?"

It was a question recently asked on BBC Radio by Eric Underwood. The former Royal Ballet soloist was talking with other prominent black dancers about the systemic exclusion of black dancers from the ballet world, and the need to keep the art form relevant. As ballet companies embrace assorted strategies to become more inclusive, perhaps the real question is: can ballet save ballet?

It urgently needs a pipeline of new dance-makers, and platforms that give them the freedom to take risks. As Diana Byer, founder and artistic director of the acclaimed New York Theatre Ballet, and a stalwart champion of new dance-makers, tells me, “It is a constant struggle to find even extremely limited funds to nurture emerging choreographers.” Today, she says, “media drives a specific kind of artist and the texture of the dance scene tends to become one-dimensional.”

Monica Lima with Bugsy Gabriel, Amanda Treiber, Khadijah Munajj, Giulia Faria, Carmella Lauer, and Michael Scales at the piano in Steven Melendez' RAPIDLY AND FREELY, WITHOUT CONTROL at New York City's 92nd Street Y (Photo: Elizabeth Schneider-Cohen)

In this grim climate, Byer has persisted. Last weekend she chose six rising choreographers to present work at New York’s storied 92nd Street Y. All are current or former dancers with well-known companies (including New York City Ballet, American Ballet Theatre, New York Theatre Ballet, and Oakland Ballet), and all are New York-based—except for Milissa Payne Bradley, who hails from the Bay Area.

It’s unusual for the West Coast to be invited to a New York dance party. New York City likes to think of itself as the world’s dance capital, and every other city in America as "regional."

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I’ve followed Payne Bradley’s work since she shoehorned an army of dancers onto the postage-stamp-sized stage at San Francisco’s legendary Garage in 2013. The piece she shipped to the 92nd Street Y was tightly conceived and executed, sassy and provocative. It was the first in a two-part series called Enough Said, developed initially for San Francisco’s West Wave Festival and the Center for New Work at the Harvey Milk Center for the Arts.

In it, Payne Bradley pitted a trio of female dancers, warming up at a ballet barre, against the voices of stand-up comics Daniel Tosh, Mitch Hedberg, and Louis C.K. in audio excerpts spliced together from recordings of live routines. In the tightly prescribed and aristocratic vocabulary of classical ballet, a dancer would peel off from the barre to amplify the absurd, throw a little shade, or express their skepticism at some outrage perpetrated by one of the comics. Riffing on Hedberg’s deadpan pronouncements (“rice is great if you’re hungry and want 2,000 of something”), Tosh’s bashing of jingoists in fly-over country, and Louis C.K.’s irreverent musings on God, Payne Bradley deployed the athletic precision of ballet and the ballerina’s cool, collected exterior to add layers of witty commentary to their no-holds-barred social critiques.

Kaitlyn Gilliland, Jonatan Lujan, and Dawn Gierling Milatin in Antonia Franceschi's SHIFT TRIP at New York City's 92nd Street Y (Photo: Elizabeth Schneider-Cohen)

An equally riveting piece on the program deployed its score very differently, to dystopian effect. Stephen Melendez positioned his dancers between the sparse, vertiginous chords of Erik Satie’s Ogives (played live by pianist Michael Scales) that would come crashing down, then trail off. Six dancers made their way, in excruciatingly slow motion, from the piano side of the stage to the far side. Were they prisoners being driven from the shelter of the piano toward some unnameable horror? Or refugees struggling to reach a land of hope?

Halfway through their journey, Monica Lima broke away from the pack to roam the perimeter in brief, solo episodes of astonishing breadth and lyricism. She may have been an angel – or a messenger or border patrol agent from the dark side sent to make sure no one got away. The overwhelming impression was one of dread, contrasted with the angel’s serenity. The title of the piece, Rapidly and Freely, Without Control, seemed freighted with irony.

The deliciously eclectic composition, ‘Bird in Paris’ – a nod to Claude Debussy and Charlie Parker, with hints of bluegrass, by the string players of PUBLIQuartet – fueled Zhong-Jing Fang’s ebullient Prince Street Fantaisie. Fang illuminated her three young dancers’ vivacious personalities but skated over the complexities of the genre-bending score. (In contrast, her 2017 collaboration with Melendez, in which the pair tackled a Philip Glass suite arranged for steel drum ensemble, wrung profound emotion from its minimalist score.)

Antonia Franceschi mined an electrifying composition by cellist Zoë Martlew for emotional information in Shift Trip. Downstage, Martlew occasionally drew focus away from the trio of dancers in their skivvies, as her cello bristled, sobbed, scraped, and tangled with a recording that incorporated an array of percussion and sounds like the drone of car horns on a freeway at rush hour. The jagged choreography looked familiar, the rippling ribcages and cool sometimes combative partnering paying homage here and there to George Balanchine and William Forsythe; the score, however, made it seem new.

The magnetic Amanda Treiber proclaimed the arrival of spring in Gabe Stone Shayer’s Of her union, a sprightly, gracious solo inspired by Max Richter’s lush reworking of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons. Skittering across the space, pointes lightly pricking the ground, arms generously sweeping aside clusters of cloud, Treiber (and Stone Shayer) made us forget for a moment that ballet may be on the verge of annihilation.

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