Sheep Meadow Dance Theatre Season IV
Culture Lab, LIC
Oct 5, 2023
Choreography: Billy Blanken
Dancers: Mackenzie Burtt, Andrew Junek, Sabrina Lobner, Clara Monk, Sabrina Pretto, Omar Rodriguez, Tanya Trombly, Alexandra Skibinski, Michelle Siegel
Production Design: 10K Productions
Video Art: Lauren Woods
Costumes: Hanmari Design; Sabrina Pretto; Billy Blanken
Ballet dance calls to mind a certain opulence- grand opera houses, sprawling stages, and lavish costumes. But Billy Blanken, Artistic Director of Sheep Meadow Dance Theatre, has other ideas about what ballet can be. In his Season IV premiere, which showcases repertory previously seen only virtually or in limited engagement performances, he proves the art form can also be intimate, personal and accessible.
Season IV has something for everyone: gorgeous costumes, live cello music, multi-media artwork, animation, and of course the high quality dancing savvy New York audiences have come to expect. For the ballet purists, there are plenty of pointe shoes and pas de deux. In Blanken’s Precious Jewels section from Sleeping Beauty choreographed in 2021, dancers Sabrina Pretto, Tanya Trombly and Alexandra Skibinski delight with soft, lyrical port de bras above quick, crisp footwork. Culture Lab LIC’s intimate converted gallery space offers audiences a rare opportunity to view dance up close, every gesture and movement magnified by proximity. For a performer, this scrutiny can be nerve-wracking, the margin for error in ballet’s highly specific technical execution small. However, it also allows the dancers to be seen as individuals. Joyful and precise, the trio masters this challenge. They soar through pirouettes and hover in balances with ease. Trombly stands out for her supple upper spine while Pretto’s arms ripple effortlessly despite the speed of her feet. Skibinski’s every movement is imbued with pure joy. As a choreographer, Blanken highlights each of his dancers strengths with choreography that allows their unique personalities to shine. In Gershwin Preludes, set against a projected painting of the NYC skyline by visual artist Lauren Woods, Trombly, Pretto, Skibinski and Omar Rodriguez illuminate elements of NYC’s electric energy. Pretto embodies the city’s strength with repeated hops on pointe while Skibinski highlights its liveliness in exuberant jumps. Trombly and Rodrigeuz’s pas de deux is steeped in elegance.
For the more contemporary minded, Blanken uses ballet vernacular as the basis for creating works with a modern aesthetic. Dancing in soft slippers as well as pointe shoes, ballroom heels, bare feet and sneakers, Blanken shows off the versatility of his cast while highlighting his penchant for playing with rhythm and phrasing. Clara Monk in Brahms Hungarian Suite No. 5 sometimes mirrors the music and at others contrasts it, a hallmark of Blanken’s style, like when she unexpectedly arrests her leg in mid air for several beats before continuing a waltzing pattern. Oblivion, a duet for Trombly and Rodriguez, fuses contemporary and classical forms into a sultry yet refined ode to lost love. Allemande, a solo for Sabinski set to Bach’s Cello Suite no. 2 in D minor performed onstage by Molly Aronson, is imbued with elements of Martha Graham’s technique- spiral falls, contractions, and lateral balances. However, Blanken adds fluidity. Skibinski balances the strength required of the choreography with breath and ease.
One of the most special aspects of the evening is Blanken’s infusion of live music and artwork with dance, providing audiences several entry points into each of the ten pieces on the program. His use of visual art is especially engrossing. Large set pieces, an element of storytelling that is not an option for small companies working in non-traditional performance spaces, are reimagined as digital art displays that provide setting and background. Woods chooses paintings that elaborate themes within each dance, manipulating them with motion graphics software. For Allemande, the backdrop is an abstract painting composed of harsh black lines that stand out in contrast to soft splashes of gray, akin to the variance between Skibinski’s angular and aqueous shapes. For The Dying Swan, a solo for Pretto also accompanied by Aronson on cello, Woods' animation evokes a rippling lake at dusk, the painting a shimmering expanse of purple.
This is not Blanken’s first foray into what he calls “living dance film.” Collaborating with 10K Productions since 2020, Blanken along with producers Jonathan Park and Jennifer Lansing, provide audiences a live, symbiotic experience of animation, sound and movement. Wood’s artwork is first animated then projected onto the back wall, or onto the floor, timed with the choreography and score. The rocky landscape behind dancer Sabrina Lobner in Lunar Fragments conjures a subterranean feel. Like a creature living in the darkness of a cave, Lobner slowly emerges into soft purple light, stretching her arms and flicking her wrists. Insectile preening gives way to larger, arcing movements as Wood’s painting is illuminated from above, the light shifting to give the appearance of sunlight reaching a cave floor in intermittent rays. The effect is dazzling. One could easily become mesmerized by the interplay of light and shadow on the dark rocks, at times making them look slick with water, at others phosphorescent. That is, if Lobner wasn’t equally as mesmerizing. A riveting performer with strong stage presence, her intensity is compelling rather than demanding. She deftly vacillates between control and abandon, at once ethereal and grounded. A gesture- two hands cupping a ball of air that stretches between her hands- is repeated and varied. When the background suddenly shifts to a moon shining in a lavender sky, billowy clouds and tiny planets slowly appearing, it is as if we had been looking through a narrow lens and are now granted a broader view. Lobner plays with the small ball of air and light between her hands as if orchestrating these changes with a subtle flick of her fingers on an invisible string- a character eternal and otherworldly.
Blanken’s most ambitious piece on the program is Rose Map Psyche, a world premiere with original score by Bradley Harris. Theatrical and complex, Rose Map Psyche feels like a spiritual quest, a journey inward to connect with the sacred. The piece opens with Pretto sitting on a darkened stage, shrouded in long white fabric that drapes from a hoop around her body, creating the illusion of a mountainous landscape. Rose petals, projected from above, cascade across her face and down the fabric, reaching the dancers seated below. Taking inspiration from Peruvian Cuzco paintings in which artists assimilated cultural identifiers into Catholic art, Blanken indicates the oppressive role religion and mainstream media can play in stripping individual identity, while paying homage to an enduring creative spirit. Performers stretch and shake the fabric, catching Woods’ pastel images. At one point, the entire stage is encased in kaleidoscopic patterns creating a womb-like effect. The fabric, picked up and moved throughout the space, also indicates labyrinthine structures that both encase and guide the dancers. They circle along its pathways, meeting in brief duets or breaking out in solos, pausing to bear witness to each other's explorations. Woods’ artwork adds texture and indicates terrain, sometimes appearing celestial and at others creating a sensation of depth, like looking through a portal into another world.
While not all of Blanken’s imagery resonates- the appearance of long sticks the dancers sometimes use as props, at others partners- Blanken is onto something exciting with this idea of living dance film and his collaboration with Woods and 10k Productions. Where Rose Map succeeds most is in the symbiotic relationship between sound, movement, and visual art. Each element, singular and beautiful in its own right, connects in an immersive experience that can not be achieved alone. In the end, Blanken deconstructs his opening image of a mountain to reveal the structures used to create it. As their journey concludes, the performers come home to where they began, changed yet the same. Blanken hits his mark. Ballet can be both intimate and grand, reimagined through collaboration, and accessible to everyone.