When the redoubtable Joe Landini, invites you, Young Unknown Choreographer, to create a full-length ballet and show it off at The Garage, home to cutting-edge Bay Area dance-makers, it takes a lot of nerve to pick Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons,” possibly the most overexposed, clichéd, rearranged piece of music in the Western canon.
The Vivaldi is a kind of pattern-based music. It almost reminds me a little of systems music, minimal music from the ’60s and ’70s … It’s material we know, it’s part of our musical landscape… [This recomposition] is my way of having a conversation with Vivaldi… I went through it, picking my favorite bits and turning those up and making new objects out of those… like a sculptor, having fantastic raw material and putting it together in a way which pleased me… The piece is pretty radical — I’ve probably thrown away three-quarters of the notes — but I’ve kept the gestures and the shapes and the textures and the dynamics. — Max Richter
And so Milissa Payne’s new suite of dances entitled Up in the Air appear to be her way of having a conversation with legendary, long dead choreographers — in particular Frederick Ashton, Anthony Tudor and Jerome Robbins — and with Max Richter. She freely reorders his fragments of music, envisions them as brooding solos, sensuous duets and ritualistic ensemble pieces, puts them on pointe or in soft ballet slippers or brightly colored socks, drives them down down down into the floor, or floats them up into the silvery grey clouds of the sublime backdrop painted by artist Seán Patrick McArdle.
She speaks the language of classical ballet with fluency and a modern accent. There is also an elegance, a very American chic. Much of her vocabulary is traditional but her sentence construction and punctuation is delightfully quirky and offbeat — the e.e. cummings of ballet — she throws in accents over sections of uninflected music, changes dynamics unexpectedly, and finishes phrases with startling, eloquent gestures, as when Megan Wright ends a mournful solo by brushing off her thigh before settling down to sleep. There is a spareness to Payne Bradley’s work unlike much of contemporary ballet, a sense that movement has been edited out, leaving contemplative spaces, whispered yearnings, sorrows hinted at, accusations withheld.
Her movement has a sculptural quality, with lyrical transitions into sharp lines, expressive upper bodies, the arms, head and shoulders radiating generosity, nobility and openness. The ensemble moves in complex, tight, architectural interweavings, they splinter off then regroup but mostly remain onstage, watching each other impassively (well, there was really nowhere else for them to go except out on the street or behind the backdrop, this being The Garage and not The Opera House).
(Milissa Payne Bradley rehearses her company. Photo: David DeSilva, courtesy The Milissa Payne Project.)
There is also plenty of humor and wit — as in the playful pas de trois set to the third movement of “Spring.” The trio of girls flit across the floor in light and airy classical piqués, then all of a sudden break into a series of rapid-fire step-ball-changes in the style of the Road Runner. In the whimsical third movement of “Autumn,” Vivian Aragon and Jackie Goneconti Gibbons affect a studied boredom as they flounce and strut and hip-check each other. Payne Bradley wisely lets the individual personality of each of her dancers shine through, and yet dancing in unison they are stunningly coherent.
(Jamielyn Duggan and Bryan Ketron in rehearsal for ‘Up in the Air.’
Photo: David DeSilva, courtesy the Milissa Payne Project.)
(Gabrielle Zucker in rehearsal for ‘Up in the Air’ (Photo: David DeSilva, courtesy The Milissa Payne Project.)
If you were among the legions who did not maneuver fast enough to get a ticket to this week’s premiere of Up in the Air, catch The Milissa Payne Project again at SPF6 August 14-18 at the ODC Theatre. They will be blessed with a larger stage — and, one hopes, a budget for costumes. The girls’ bare legs look sensational but the casual United-Colors-of-Benetton style of their shirts and of the men’s jeans tended to obscure the beautiful movement; a more sleek, elegant, otherworldly look seems called for.
The Milissa Payne Project will also be hosting an Open Rehearsal at the StageDor Studio in Sausalito on Monday April 29th during Bay Area Dance Week. Admission is free, as with all BADW events. Early sign up recommended as seating is limited.