There’s no easy way to say this but Devoted, which opened CCN Ballet de Lorraine’s show at the Joyce, could have been done better by the advanced pointe class at any of New York City’s better pre-professional dance studios. It’s difficult to understand why a company of modern dancers would try to mount a ballet with the women on pointe. I saw people in the audience laughing about it but I was not amused. This is not the first time I’ve seen women who are professional dancers in contemporary, modern companies stuck dancing in pointe shoes when they should not be. It does a terrible disservice to the women who are fine dancers in their own medium and makes it seem that classical ballet is just a choice, or an alternative fact, to modern dance. It is not. Classical ballet is extremely difficult and dancing on pointe is its ultimate expression. If you put on pointe shoes with the intention to perform, you had better come prepared. The women of Ballet de Lorraine deserve not to be exposed like this. To be fair, even if the women of New York City Ballet had danced this piece it would not have been much better. These are harsh words but I cannot look at something like Devoted and not express my displeasure.

Company members of CCN - Ballet de Lorraine in <i>Sounddance</i> by Merce Cunningham © Laurent Philuppe
Company members of CCN - Ballet de Lorraine in Sounddance by Merce Cunningham
© Laurent Philuppe

The pointe shoes thankfully put away, the company got back to being a contemporary dance troupe with Alban Richard’s HOK Solo Pour Ensemble. This piece, at least, I was able to dislike on its merits. It opened with a line of dancers doing something like synchronized swimming combined with aerobic fitness running. They first moved in unison with simple, almost mechanical motions. Then they split up with the left side moving, then the right side. This was followed by having the two on the end doing the sequence, then two by two going down the line, everyone doing it except for one dancer standing still, etc. After this they did a lot of running. The thing about a dance like this is that once you’ve gone through every combination and permutation of having dancers move in sequence, you’ve got to have something more to say and I didn’t see that here. It was at least good to see that the company is quite physically fit.

Merce Cunningham’s Sounddance from 1975 closed out the program and rescued the evening for me. This masterwork takes its name from a line in James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake: "In the buginning is the woid, in the muddle is the sounddance and thereinofter you're in the unbewised again." A single dancer emerges from the elaborate drapery at the rear of the stage and begins what is one of Cunningham’s best dances. As more dancers emerge from the rear of the stage, the action increases with pairs and trios forming in an exhilarating celebration of dance. The movement is non-stop and lots of fun to watch. All of this has to be coordinated by the dancers using eye contact and watching one another because there’s no actual music to count and the interaction is highly complex. Cunningham was a real pioneer in many respects but one of my favorite aspects of his work is that he placed so much faith in his dancers. He put them in charge of how they did many things on stage and the result is always interesting to watch. The soundscape is heavy, electronic music that veers between bird-like sounds and insect noise and it creates a nice atmosphere of tension. Ballet de Lorraine’s dancers took this piece and ran with it and in the process delivered a very good performance of this classic.

Touring is a risky proposition because it involves a substantial financial outlay and leaving a bad impression can set a company back for many years. My feeling is that Ballet de Lorraine did not choose its repertoire wisely and left an unfortunate impression that could have been avoided if they had made better choices. The ability of the dancers to rise to the occasion given superior material like Cunningham’s Sounddance demonstrated that they are capable of fine dancing but it was not sufficiently on display in this program. It is my sincerest hope that they will burn all the pointe shoes and stick to doing what they do best in the future.