At the Vail Festival, dance artists renew and expand

VAIL, Colorado – On paper, the Vail Dance Festival seems more repetitive than it is. Lil Buck, Herman Cornejo, Tiler Peck and more keep coming back here year after year – isn’t it just a club or a clique?

When in Vail, however, what you see is how these returning artists are spreading here – tackling new idioms, developing new partnerships, working on choreographic firsts – like nowhere else. You haven’t seen their full lineup if you’ve missed them here. And every year also brings new artists.

The festival itself, run by Damian Woetzel since 2007, has grown increasingly sophisticated, ambitious and ethnically diverse. The International Dance Evenings had too many sets of 32 whips (the most renowned piece of ballet virtuosity) each evening; this year there was none. New choreography has always been a factor; but now several choreographers work here, show public workshops of works in progress and even collaborate.

Who could have imagined 10 years ago two top choreographers doing and dancing a duet together here? It happened Friday, when Michelle Dorrance and Justin Peck joined forces for the world premiere of a tap dance duo, “They Try to Tell Us,” a perfect example of the sweet repartee that can turn the tap, with his ability to give and take a quick dialogue, in the midst of a tenderly elated feeling between two people.

The danger of such gala-style parties is that too much can be too small and too appealing to the public. So it was wonderful to see the entirety of “In Creases” by Mr. Peck, “Afternoon of a Faun” and “Suite of Dances” by Jerome Robbins and a 10 minute sequel to “Scenario” by Merce Cunningham.

The Cunninghams immediately created a world, as satisfying at different times to observe as a galaxy or a new species. Most of its 14 performers were ballet dancers new to Cunningham, but all showed the rich and rigorous imagination of the choreography. Melissa Toogood was exemplary; Jason Collins and Victor Lozano expressed something akin to ecstasy amid the challenges of the hardware; and Miriam Miller and Devon Teuscher were eye-catching. Outstanding, too, was Mr. Cornejo, the principal of the American Ballet Theater, an artist so strangely versatile that he deserves the word “genius” more than any other dancer today. And in “Suite of Dances” it was a cutting edge art dream.

Live music, often performed on stage, is a much more regular ingredient than it was in the early years of Mr. Woetzel’s directorship. Nothing in “They Try” was more enchanting than the singing of Kate Davis, a returning artist in recent years: the innocent and high firmness of her vocal lines enchanted.

Several famous scores have been rearranged, although this has not always been a success. Debussy’s “Prélude à l’Après-midi d’un Faune”, adapted for flute and piano, has lost its power. Still, it was wonderful to see Calvin Royal III of the American Ballet Theater dancing Robbins’ “Faun”. Its combination of elegance, grace and – above all – interiority has immersed you deeply in the world of “Fauna”.

Lil Buck, the world famous performer of Memphis jookin, whose vocabulary he has expanded, remains a phenomenal performer. But he’s also now a master of cuteness, and is likely to stay too the same: deploying, still musically, the same breathtaking array of physical stuff – the swaying upper body, the swift currents of slippery, pulsating footwork – as if they were afraid to be calmly objective or simple.

There were two world premieres: the solo “38109”, with music by himself and singer-songwriter Caroline Shaw, and “Ascending Bird,” a jookin-merging sextet with tap dancing, in which he and Ms. Dorrance performed. directed four other performers, including Ron Myles and Phyouture “Lil P”, both wonderfully individual jokers. Ms. Dorrance was in torrential form, an uninterrupted source of cascading rhythm: you could see the increased inspiration she brought to all of her colleagues.

Ms. Peck, one of the New York City Ballet’s greatest ballerinas, performed George Balanchine’s “Tschaikovsky Pas de Deux” on Friday. She was liquefied by bravery, playing gloriously with music, poise, and time; she also danced William Forysthe’s “Handel Duet”, a forgettable exercise in the pretty convention of ballet.

On Saturday, Ms. Peck stepped out of her comfort zone twice. The baroque grandeur of the minuet pas de deux from Balanchine’s “Chaconne” (a creation of Suzanne Farrell) is exactly the kind of role that Ms. Peck has yet to master – it usually goes to large, sculptural divas. It was good to see how much she had already won; it was a very intelligent dance against the tide. She also sang and moved in a large number (“The Music and the Mirror”) of “A Chorus Line”: her singing was indiscriminate, her dancing – in heels – a brilliant but synthetic display of the Broadway style – ballet.

His partner “Tschaikovsky Pas de Deux” was the sensational young Roman Mejia, a freshman member of the New York City Ballet. His jumps and turns are certainly exciting, but his knockout quality comes from the power and length of his action-packed phrasing. No matter how high, how fast, or how precise an individual step is, it is only a connecting piece of a larger thought. He also delivered a superlative sparkle (with Lauren Lovette of the City Ballet) in the pas de deux of “William Tell” by August Bournonville. He is 18 years old: another sure sign that the Vail Dance Festival is constantly renewing itself.


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Gerald R. Schneider

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