A performance by Arch Ballet is always highly anticipated by their growing community of the next generation of art and culture philanthropists. The audience was filled with 50 and under trendy, diverse, and influential city goers which age range and cultural diversity was lacking when attending performances by New York City Ballet, ABT , and Joyce Ballet Festival (that often houses performances of the same institution dancers) – such as the Ashley Bouder Project this spring/early summer.
Arch Ballet is home to some of the freshest dancers, who are all extremely technical displaying a mastery of classical technique but have the ability to take the craft beyond its limits with celestial elasticity, unthinkable shapes, and picturesque performance quality. Contemporary is often defined as belonging to the present and Arch Ballet represents this ideology to a T.
The mastermind of exploration, discovery, and abstraction of the ballet idiom within this talented company of six is luminary choreographer and director Sheena Annalise. Together with riveting choreography and dancers who clearly have a taste for Annalise’s works makes for a performance that has the power to implant inspiration in the audiences’ minds for days following.
Such was the case at their spring performance for the world premiere of Two Steps Backwardperformed at The Davenport Theatre in New York City. Immediately the audience has their heads bopping to the EDM score by AKS & El. Dancers were suited in interesting cobalt blue, lime green, and white costumes – men had sheer symmetrical shirts on one side and women had matching half sleeved leotards. The first scene is a train of solo snippets from each dancer. Lengthy redhead Tori Hey begins in a high battement, then whirlwind dancer Aoi Ohno in styled fouette turns for days, followed by a turning trio lift high into the air dropping down into a continuously spinning floor work. A firecracker ballerino Jeason Taylor adds to the dramatic mash of Tasmanian devil turns. Each dancer is engaging and fruitful right out of the gate.
A cloud begins to engulf the stage for Hey and unique arm movements behind her head are the only thing that can be seen. Her long arms and legs begin to flurry and she emerges like a Phoenix rising from the haze. Partner Aoi Ohno joins for a girl to girl partnering section – the two contrasting heighted dancers handled the difficult balances and floor work in this duet with ease.
The Davenport stage is incredibly small for concert dance and Annalise was able to make it feel expansive – an influx of solos and duets take over the stage in interesting entanglement. Her choreography is smooth through hard hitting shapes that are complex and potent. A duet between Hey and Motasem Amayri has their limbs point straight out then twist and lock in multiple which ways. I could watch it a hundred times and still twist my head figuring out how they got to that position in just one motion. Amaryi switches to partner Ohno, and they had a different aesthetic to their partnering with side to side waves of the arms and soft grasps. In one moment Ohno went from a battement to being flipped 180 and was on pointe in a penche but with her back facing the floor as Amayri held her ankle and opposite hamstring. I was again twisting my head trying to figure out how they got there.
The lighting was a knockout by Alexandra Christie. The proscenium glowed and the lighting reflected each change of music, emotion, and each twist of partner dynamics which added value to the audience following along. Interesting pairings between the dancers were fluid– short woman and tall man, tall woman and then short man, men and men, and women and women. It was a nice natural mash up as if it is of the ‘norm’. For ballet goers we know this is a rather new scene to be partnering non-traditional partners on pointe but they seemed as if they have been doing so for years effortlessly.
A stand out solo was Hey’s second solo section of the evening. Haze was already flooded the stage and she enters with an alien like travel step – a battement in second to passé with a graham contraction at the tail end of the simple yet interesting step. She easily went from high to low figures, into floor work, and then on to pointe again – showing a true range of motion.
The work was split into two halves with an intermission in between. Before the first act was over, the dancers begin to glow! Their costumes are lit up by a black light in a tasteful manner that enhanced the lighting and aesthetic of the work. The dancers contrasted from moving effortlessly into more of a grit attack. I understood the meaning of Two Steps Backward, when the dancers begin falling and taking floor work and popping back up with more attack, panache, and intent. The end of the first half ends in an arresting group section where the company of six land to the floor and body roll releasing their back through the floor for a wave like affect. Jeason Taylor ends the first section in a fleeting ‘bad boy of dance’ fashion with turns galore, impressive jumps into floorwork and interesting circular body movement. Through the haze you can see him grab the air, roll back on himself, pop a back flip in to a floor work section where he cambres his back to show his breathe. He is a stunner in this moment and during intermission the audience was feeling it too.
The second half opened in continuation of the first act’s ending with similiar music and style. A group section leaves Ohno standing on the shoulders of the dancers and falling into a drag split off stage. In one moment, Ohno and Patrick Piras held a second position plie and Ohno was above his head in the same vertically mirrored position. There was a music drop in the EDM beat and Ohno jumps above Piras’s head to suddenly drop out of nowhere all the way to the floor. Reminded me of my experience with Top Drop ride at Coney Island, it took my breathe away for a second in fear. This ballet on steroids is thrilling offering those up and downs throughout.
My favorite section has to be the red and glow-in-the-dark yellow duet between Ohno and Taylor. A slow change up pace between the very fast beat of the entire work as a whole – a section where they both face upstage in arabesque crossing legs and they turn into each other with their legs to lock facing the audience. In another arabesque they are grabbing each other’s ankles on the floor with one hand the other hand on the opposite person’s arabesque foot. They begin rotating in an upward spiral with space between them, resembling the Unisphere statue. The end with their heads dangling off the stage looking back at the audience, I felt as if they were asking us if we understood their story. Well, I did! I did! It felt as if they kept trying to move forward in their relationship – every set back led to a more bonded relationship.
The ending scene of the performance left the female dancers slowly emerging from the side of the stage through the haze, stepping in unison in a military like way – the male dancers came fleeting from the other side in front of them and then jumping in an arched back away from them. Eventually they make their way through the front lines. And Taylor’s ending solo comprising of unique body rolls, into impressive turns and heart throbbing jumps was the cherry on top to the dramatic ending. I personally wasn’t done, even as a 40 minute work.
Annalise creates exquisite, fresh, and society relevant works – her ballets are incredibly unique in concept and mesmerizingly performed. The dancers comprehension, familiarity, and sheer talent adds to the production quality. I believe this company is influential to the community and her growing audience, without an institutional company name behind her, besides her own, proves that.
For a small company their year-over-year growth is leaps and bounds from today’s institutions growth rate when they were of the same age. I can only imagine what work they will be doing 5 years from now with more well deserved support. Merde!
Author: James Martin