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Review: City Dancers Unleashed in the Wild


PINE PLAINS, N.Y. — The Mashomack Fish & Game Preserve Club, a few hours’ drive north of New York City, is not the natural habitat of dancers, at least not of members of New York City Ballet and the Martha Graham Dance Company. But this is where I observed them participating in the normal behavior of their species: performing live.

The occasion, on Friday evening, was the premiere by BalletCollective of “Natural History,” a new work by Troy Schumacher, a City Ballet soloist who has long presented his choreography through the independently run collective, which he founded in 2010. That side gig has now become more central, more necessary.

City Ballet has been all-digital since March and will stay that way through the fall. The same is true of the Graham troupe. If the current members of BalletCollective — five from City Ballet, two from Graham — were going to dance in person, they would have to find a way themselves. And, as in the example of Kaatsbaan, 15 miles from here, which has been presenting dance outdoors on the weekends since early August, planting a stage in a field upstate seems a good idea.

The collective certainly discovered a lovely spot, at the edge of a pond backed by low hills. This preserve and upscale hunting club is in horse country, with stables and a polo club nearby. The area is bucolic yet cultivated. The small audience was arranged on a grassy incline above the makeshift stage, socially distanced on blankets and camp chairs or in cars, tailgate or drive-in style. In the cool of the evening, as the setting sun dazzled the water, it felt like a fine setting for a civilized entertainment.

In his opening remarks, Mr. Schumacher spoke of months of planning, of how the dancers had quarantined nearby for weeks, rehearsing on the local school’s basketball court. He spoke of the joy of working after not having worked for so long.

“Natural History” enacts that getting back to work, that remembering how to dance. As Ellis Ludwig-Leone’s vibrant score (recorded, alas) fitfully starts, the dancers begin as if each is alone, going through the warm-up routine of a daily class.

But they also immediately introduce a recurrent gesture. Elbows at their ribs, palms out, they rise, their faces tilted heavenward, open to the sky. It’s the posture of someone waiting to be beamed up by aliens, of someone ready for the Rapture.

The dance is about moving again. Sometimes, the music speeds and slows percussively, like a woodpecker, and the dancers’ feet flutter or their limbs fly wildly, as if releasing pent-up energy. When the music kicks into drive, the dance is all jumping and turning and eating space once more. Yet it also expresses a wistful longing for some higher ecstasy.

The Graham members, in sneakers rather than ballet shoes, begin with torqued and sculptural Graham daily exercises, not ballet steps. But this contrast soon fades. The choreography frequently has them executing the same moves, in different time or in unison, often in cross-company pairs: Lorenzo Pagano with Anthony Huxley, Leslie Andrea Williams with Ashley Laracey.

Only Ms. Williams and Ms. Laracey make eye contact with each other, though. Aware of the group’s quarantine precautions, I was surprised that there was no partnering, no touching. “Natural History” is, in this sense, a work of the moment, instead of an escape from it.

Still, there’s that longing. The ending returns to it. The dancers circle up, facing outward. Outward they all leap, only to retreat backward into the circle, as if pulled, perhaps by the gravity of the collective. One by one, they try to walk away and again are pulled back. Together, they rise in the Rapture pose. But they do not take off. They sink and settle on flat feet, heads down.

I was a little disappointed. Not that the dancers didn’t levitate, but that the 30-minute work didn’t. Longing for aesthetic ecstasy, I told myself I was expecting too much and concentrated on how happy I was to be there. Out of a sense of novelty and nostalgia, I had initially chosen the drive-in option. Quickly, I realized that the last thing I wanted was to watch the dance through the screen of a windshield. Out of the car, leaning against the hood, I reveled in the once-familiar and now rare sensation of having nothing but air separating me from the dancers.

The next day, back home in Brooklyn, I watched the livestream of the Saturday evening show, curious about the difference. In truth, the virtual experience was in some ways an improvement. The frame of the camera, like the arch of a proscenium stage, brought a focus and a sense of proportion to the choreography that it had lacked outdoors. “Natural History,” I thought, is a theater dance without a theater.

But then a dragonfly zoomed at the camera and brought me back to the pleasure I had felt being in that place with those dancers. This time, too, I noticed something about the ending. What I had first seen as a collapse, as an admission of falling short, could also be read as a bow — that essential gesture of connection between performer and audience. Looking at my computer screen, I clapped again.

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