In classical ballet, women are nearly everything – the sylphs, the swans, the flowers and snowflakes – but rarely the choreographers. As they rush from rehearsal to rehearsal for swans and flowers’ sake, the men have time to noodle around in the studio, enlist in choreographic workshops and grow accomplished or at least ambitious, all without leaving the building. For the five male troupe heads at festival Ballet v6.0, that building has housed Pennsylvania and New York City Ballet, among other prestigious institutions.
The few women ballet choreographers do not generally emerge from the ranks but migrate from modern dance to second-tier companies before they ascend. As outsiders, they need to know how to get along – how to produce the product – which may go some way to explaining why the work of the chief woman in the festival, Jessica Lang, suffers from tameness and a reluctance to let its ideas rip.
The Juilliard graduate and former Twyla Tharp dancer certainly has the choreographic chops, with commissions from American Ballet Theatre and Birmingham Royal Ballet to show for it. A Solo in Nine Parts (created for Kansas City Ballet in 2010) tucked steps in and around the swift Vivaldi beats and exploited the fun and drama of entrances and exits, with the dancers massing and peeling away unexpectedly. However exhilarating, though, the ballet did not boast its own palette of joy: Nine Parts too closely resembled Paul Taylor in Baroque mode.
More irksome was the frenzied free association behind the 2011 i.n.k.: Shinichi Maruyama’s serene video of black ink globules floating across a white screen; the dancers’ shadowplay; the glug, glug of a slow drain; and Jakub Ciupinski’s gloomy soundtrack each had something different to do with water or black.
Lang might try limiting herself to a single idea and pushing it to the limit. So what if the dance topples over the edge – it would be worth the practice in extremity. And with the premiere Aria, a riff on opera heroines’ melodramatic excesses for the wonderfully intelligent and unaffected dancers of her recently formed troupe, Lang seems finally to know it. To “Son contenta di morire” (“I am happy to die”) from Handel’s Radamisto, Laura Mead emphatically crossed her wrists in the ballet sign for “To Death!” and enjoyed a corps of lover-stewards, who whirled her towards despair.