Dance is a hard sell in New Jersey, largely because of the proximity to New York, where world-class companies are always on stage somewhere. Garden State companies have to work very hard to attract an audience.
So surviving here takes determination and talent. And there are a few companies that have shown they have the determination and talent to make it in this competitive environment.
Two modern dance groups that are longtime survivors here, and a neoclassical ballet company whose artistic director has a long New Jersey history, performed last weekend in the beautiful Sitnik Theatre at Centenary College in Hackettstown. The event, called Dance Week, is the first to celebrate the theater’s identity as a significant dance venue. It also acknowledges the college’s newly-established dance major.
The event began with two performances of a show by Broadway dance legend Tommy Tune on March 24. Then, following week featuring a heady menu of classes and workshops put on by visiting artists, three of the best dance companies in the state performed over a four-day weekend, a veritable candy shop for aficionados.
First, on Thursday, came the Lustig Dance Theatre, the offspring of Graham Lustig, who was for many years the artistic director of the American Repertory Ballet in New Brunswick. He formed his own company in 2010, and they are an impressive group. Five men and five women, they have impressive educational credentials, both in classical ballet and modern dance.
Lustig is a choreographer whose work is very attuned to his music (and not all choreographers are). And, while the basic movement vocabulary of his work is ballet, what he does with it is different and often surprising. In “Appassionato,” for example, the first part, danced to Franz Liszt’s “Mephisto Waltz,” allows the gorgeously turned-out and balanced dancers to sabotage each other in devilish ways. Then in the second part, Kristin Scott and Niall Lessard, garbed in virginal white, present the harmonious tranquility that illustrate the “Benediction de Dieu dans la Solitude.”
The other two pieces the company offered were equally surprising and as different from one another as they could be. “Invisible Fields” was accompanied by a live musical ensemble, Trinity, a Celtic band from Highland Park, NJ. The dance, featuring the full company, was based on Irish and Scottish dance but taken by the English-born Lustig to places it hasn’t been before.
The third work was “Pulcinella,” an exquisite interpretation, to Stravinsky’s lyrically beautiful “Pulcinella Suite,” based on commedia dell’ arte, the street theater of the Italian Renaissance. The dancers acted out an iconic farcical comedy, on point and again, using the formal movement language of ballet, but in a unique way.
On Saturday evening, the Sitnik Theatre hosted the wonderful Nai-Ni Chen Dance Company, headquartered in Fort Lee. As a choreographer, Nai-Ni Chen begins at the intersection of modern dance and traditional Chinese movement. Her work is abstract and dramatic, with a liberal use of props—fans and bamboo rods, for example—and imaginative and effective lighting, by the talented Nick Kolin.
The dancers are a diverse group; home towns represented include Vineland, NJ; Oakland, CA; Kobe, Japan; Cuba; Liaoning, China; Moscow, Russia; and Dae Gu, Korea. Training ranges from traditional ethnic dance to modern and classical ballet. As with other companies, this one has a fair number of BFA degrees among the dancers, something we are seeing more and more frequently.
The program included several pieces inspired by natural phenomena, such as “Duet on the River of Dreams,” “Raindrops” and “Whirlwind.” Dancer Noibis Licea performed the solo dance, “Quest,” described as “a journey of exploring one’s identity in a vast and diverse world.”
Chen’s work is innovative and evocative, a journey into places in the mind and the imagination we don’t often go. The kind of beauty this company reveals to audiences is uncommon.
On Sunday, the Union-based Carolyn Dorfman Dance Company presented a program. It was at Centenary College, albeit in the much-smaller Little Theatre, that we first saw the Dorfman company perform, sometime in the 1980s. It was a pleasure to see the choreographer’s work performed on the beautiful Sitnik stage.
Dorfman is perhaps the most cerebral of choreographers. Like Chen, she has often made dances with strong reference to her ethnic and family history, as a Jew and the child of Holocaust survivors. Except insofar as everything any of us ever does reflects our histories, those references were not particularly in evidence in the Centenary program.
Love was definitely at the core of the dances. “Cercle d’Amour” was a gorgeous and joyful romp in which the dancers played with candy-red hula hoops. In one section, dancer Mica Bernas donned red point shoes and cavorted with a few of the boys. Athletic and energetic, it was an abstract exercise in having fun.
Bernas was also featured in an expressive solo piece, “Hourglass,” a dance of lamentation and pain and finding ultimate resolution. The mood made a radical turn-around with a duet, “Keystone,” featuring Jacqueline Dumas Albert and Louie Marin, and a startling musical score. Rufus Wainright’s version of “Hallelujah” morphed into Louis Armstrong singing “What A Wonderful World” and finally a bizarre version of “White Christmas” sung by Jamie Randolph.
Much as a keystone holds up an arch, the two dancers, as lovers, held each other up by the use of weight and counterweight, balance and counter-balance.
The final piece, “Narcoleptic Lovers,” was choreographed by guest choreographer Doug Elkins and featured a beautiful performance by the whole company, ending an extraordinary treat for dance lovers.
We hope this kind of program will be repeated on a regular basis.