Ballet West's New York engagement program is a brave and welcome choice. All recent - new works, not a hoary classic in sight, there's no guaranteed crowd pleasers, no safety net. My eyes were thankful for the opportunity to see vibrant new work without having to think of something original to say about over-exposed warhorse ballets. It’s understandable why many visiting companies program conservatively when they come to New York as it represents a considerable financial commitment along with real professional risk if the program is not well received critically. I can’t help but hope that other companies will take note and bring us their newer work in the future.

<i>Mercurial Landscapes</i>, J. Straughan and A Fry © Pete de la Rosa
Mercurial Landscapes, J. Straughan and A Fry
© Pete de la Rosa

Matthew Neenan’s The Sixth Beauty with music by Alberto Ginastera opened the show and the first impression was surprise at how tall this company is. It’s one thing to read about and quite another to experience it in the intimate Joyce Theater. There are a lot of very long legs but all fit in the relatively small stage comfortably. This is a problem with some visiting companies accustomed to larger stages. The Sixth Beauty began with what the program notes described as “dysfunctional and bombastic episodes” that came across more like melodramatic acting out with dancers making angry faces, pushing and shoving, for no particular reason. It needed more story to give it context and keep it from being meaningless. As the piece evolved “into more harmonious and inviting intimacy” the dancing relaxed and became more accessible. Christiana Bennett was a strong dancer in this ballet, as were Rex Tilton and Tyler Gum, but it was Beckanne Sisk who seized my attention. She is easily the best dancer in this company, she commands your attention. Those dagger-pointed feet, and supple legs with just the right amount of hyper-extension to create perfect lines pinpoint accuracy and dominating strength, that just won’t let you look away. Sisk lingered over balances and turns with mature musicality that was well beyond her years. She even delivered a perfect double gargouillade, a step seldom choreographed as it is so difficult to do well. The rest of the company was very good, no mistake, but Ballet West is blessed to have Beckanne Sisk.

Nicolo Fonte’s Presto followed after a brief pause and was notable with respect to the music and the costumes. Ezio Bosso’s Quartet No. 5: XI, is a resounding counter-argument to anyone who thinks that classical music is dead. This rich, vibrant, exciting string quartet makes you want to hear more of Bosso’s work. Fonte’s choreography is original, highly physical, and fun to watch. Arolyn Williams and Adrian Fry stood out here with their passionate movement. There’s no story to Presto but it isn’t missed as the feeling is more restrained and less histrionic than it was in the previous piece. I can’t be sure what costume David Heuvel was aiming for (except that he missed) but the silver lamé tops he designed for this piece were evocative of a misbegotten Eurovision Abba singalong contest.

Helen Pickett was commissioned to reinvent Nijinsky’s ballet, Jeux, using the same Debussy music. This is the story of a three way entanglement between two women and one man updated to the present, complete with obsessive texting which is funnier in concept than in its realization. The ménage à trois implied in Jeux was a truly scandalous subject then, when it was first presented by the Ballets Russes in 1913 but it’s old news now. The act of girls kissing each other doesn’t shock anymore. Emily Adams had moments of sly humor when rendering her character’s vindictive jealousy toward Adrian Fry and Katlyn Addison, but overall the interaction between the three read as forced and false rather than based on genuine feeling. They engage, disengage, fight and make up, cavort some more and generally try every possible combination that three people can come up with. A significant part of my resistance to this piece is that the music is very much a product of its time and doesn’t seem to lend itself to the modern reinvention that Pickett has attempted. It’s visually jarring and much of Pickett’s choreography was unmusical.

<i>The Lottery</i> Emily Adams and Christopher Ruud © Pete de la Rosa
The Lottery Emily Adams and Christopher Ruud
© Pete de la Rosa
The evening culminated with Val Caniparoli’s The Lottery , set to a score commissioned from composer Robert Moran. Practically everyone who ever went to junior high school knows Shirley Jackson’s classic short story about a small town’s dark annual ritual lottery drawing so the ending is not a surprise: someone is going to die. Caniparoli has cannily chosen to regain a measure of tension by making the drawing an actual lottery in that even the dancers don’t know who will be chosen as the scapegoat that is to be stoned to death. All of them must know the choreography of the victim and it’s one among many elements that makes this ballet a success. Moran’s musical score creates the right amount of tension with discordant notes played against the small town folksiness and it carries an overall sense of inevitability as it moves toward its dire conclusion. Sandra Woodall’s sett created a powerful environment, surrounding the action with a white picket fence that became ominously claustrophobic when its many gates were closed. Even the rocks which would later be used for stoning the lottery’s chosen victim had a look of weight and authenticity to them. Her costumes were richly rendered but not too time specific. It is just generally small town, semi-rural, perhaps in the forties or fifties. It’s far away, yet familiar. Most important, Caniparoli deftly choreographed the story with a mixture of ballet and modern dance steps that gave depth to the characters. Emily Adams as Mrs. Summers was moving in her fear and desire to end the lottery while Christopher Ruud, as her husband, was grating in his slavish devotion to the ritual. Alexander MacFarlan and Katie Critchlow rendered their stress and conflict exceptionally well as Mr. and Mrs. Hutchinson. On this night, Joshua Whitehead drew the dreaded black dot and beseeched the townspeople, saying, “It’s not fair!” It was an emotionally powerful moment as well, as we rarely hear dancers speak on stage. In every way that matters, The Lottery was a winner that should endure in the repertoire for years to come.

Ballet West is a rock solid dance company with a lot of talent and a bona fide star in Beckanne Sisk. In presenting this program of all new work, the company makes a declaration that it is looking forward to the future rather than relying on old repertory ballets to draw an audience. I can only hope that audiences will welcome this approach as it is so vital to the future of classical ballet.