From left is Daniel Applebaum, Emilie Gerrity, Ashley Laracey and Aaron Sanz as they appear in Jerome Robbins' “The Goldberg Variations.” (Photo by Erin Baiano)
A Saturday matinee visit to Lincoln Center to see New York City Ballet has me thinking about endings – picture perfect ones that linger.
That was the case with both George Balanchine’s “Serenade” and Jerome Robbins’ “The Goldberg Variations,” which were paired on a “Masters at Work” program. The first has one of the most memorable finales in all of ballet – a standing ballerina held aloft slowly yielding to her fate in a deep backbend as the curtain descends. This beloved ending has been viewed as a religious experience, divinity in the flesh.
But it is “The Goldberg Variations,” a ballet that I frankly avoided for years because of its hefty length, an 1 hour and 24 minutes, that alerted me to how much those two works have in common.
It’s long because the Robbins ballet has a lot of music to cover — the popular and pleasant Johann Sebastian Bach’s piano variations, which on Saturday were beautifully performed by Susan Walters.
The piece is Robbins’ way of lifting the veil of time between court dances of the 16th and 17th century and contemporary ballet and modern dance. He starts it off with a couple (Miriam Miller and Preston Chamblee) in a sarabande, wearing elegant attire reminiscent of the dancing days at the palace. The dancers hop, circle and side skip to each other as the music rises, carrying them off.
After they depart, the dance turns modern with groups of men and women reflecting the music passages in ways that are sometimes playful, sometimes peaceful, sometimes passionate, but always unfolding in ways that are pleasing to the eye. (Each of these variations could easily stand alone.) Throughout, their movement emphasizes ballet’s courtly roots are ever present.
Then the piece has the dancers reverts back to the ruffled historic dress and the line through the centuries continues in the opposite direction.
There are 30 variations, and at times, the ballet does seem unending. Only a deep appreciation for the music can keep the mind keenly focused on every note.
But back to the ending. Like “Serenade,” it has a false finale. (In “Serenade,” on first viewing, most applaud at the end of the third movement but then the central woman, on Saturday it was Sara Mearns, falls to the floor and the fourth movement begins.)
In “Goldberg Variations,” it comes when the ensemble beautifully assembles itself into a wall. With some kneeling, some standing and some rising on others’ shoulders, they tightly gather and extend a hand in the direction of the pianist. And while they are posed there, the clapping begins. But then one sees Walters continue to move her fingers over the keyboard, a signal more is to come.
The group dissembles and the original couple returns, this time in modern dress for the final sarabande as the curtain comes down. In the future, I won't be avoiding "The Goldberg Variations."
Ellen Sinopoli Dance Company in their eye-popping costumes by Kim Vanyo worn at the Opalka Gallery.
Over the decades, I have concluded that the best Ellen Sinopoli Dance Company shows are not in your typical theater setting. Her meandering works are well-suited for out-of-ordinary locations — playgrounds, store fronts, city streets and art galleries.
Perhaps it is the size of her contemporary dance ensemble – five to six dancers who are well-served in an intimate setting. Regardless, her return to the Opalka Gallery at Russell Sage College on Friday night, where she was a regular but held at bay by the pandemic, was a welcome sight.
And is always the case, Sinopoli’s dances there were a duet — a choreographic conversation with an artist — this time around it was with Judith Braun and her graceful and psychedelic paintings.
The Braun’s works are large splashes on unframed canvases, mostly black and white designs that feature swirling and straight lines, eyes and words that make one stop and pause. Hanging from tall stanchions on dollies, these works of art became rolling dancers — joining the ensemble to augment Sinopoli’s smart-looking quintet.
For the evening, Sinopoli created four, untitled dances. The first to blues guitar from 1920s had a mischievous feel. The dancers’ feet and calves were the first to appear behind the paintings, moving them as if the paintings themselves had legs. The dancers were also dressed in neon unitards by Kim Vanyo that popped in contrast to the black and white backdrop of the paintings.
But the costume design also complemented to the work with its black accents that trimmed an open back and squiggled down one side. Their boldness also tapped into the hints of color — pink, lime and orange — that Braun occasionally added to her symmetrical works.
Now to the dances. The first was fun with Laura Teeter appearing to gossip with a giant head and Erin Dooley hiding her eyes from another. There was a bit of a cartoon feel, but also a grand Busby Berkeley style spectacular as the dancers moved the painting in and around each other in what became a kaleidoscope of moving images.
The ending was also memorable – the dancers and the paintings aligned on a diagonal — all taking their bow.
In the second work, to music by Wayne Shorter, the pieces were rolled off to the side and the dancers ate up the space with rollicking jumps, reels and falls. Here, Sara Senecal captured the imagination with her attack and zest.
Then the audience picked up their chairs to turn their point of view to the other room where Dooley performed a cat-like solo that was steeped in snaky movement and sudden stops, showing off her mettle as a dancer.
The evening ended with a group work that Sinopoli said was inspired by thoughts of the Brazilian rainforest. To music by Dino Saluzzi, it had an exotic feel with the four female dancers moved symbiotically in duos while Andre Robles filled up the room with his larger-than-life joy.
Here's to wishing the company’s next visit to the Opalka isn't another year away.