Aiming to showcase “ballet for the 21st century”, a six-part program titled Ballet v6.0 has landed this August at New York’s preeminent dance venue, the Joyce Theatre. It has been said that one should not judge a book by its cover; conversely, I suppose, one should not judge a festival by one of its (six) performances. And yet, based on several short works presented this evening by Jessica Lang Dance, I could say that the future of this form is looking every bit as bleak as the current cinematic sci-fi blockbuster Elysium.

Jessica Lang Dance, From Foreign Lands and People © Takao Komaru
Jessica Lang Dance, From Foreign Lands and People
© Takao Komaru

Although the troupe founded by Jessica Lang is ostensibly a fledgling company – having had its debut in 2011 – Lang sharpened her choreographic teeth as a freelancer by setting some 75 different works on a multitude of companies around the country over the last thirteen years. That, in and of itself, I have to admit, seems like a formidable accomplishment. Furthermore, according to the press materials, she has been described as a “master of visual composition” and as having “established a reputation for concocting ingenious choreographic interactions between dancing bodies and the movements of striking set and costume pieces”. This also sounds like a good game – if only it could be construed as accurate.

In actuality, the pieces presented this evening offered a very different kind of a display, and offered very little – if anything – in the way of innovation, or advancement of the balletic form. Overall, they negotiated in dramaturgical and choreographic predictability. Three out of four pieces were set to classical music (Vivaldi, Handel, Schumann) and featured dancers engaged in a style I can best describe as “ballet lite” – an anorexic, low-energy sort of dancing that is a far cry from the rigor, bravura and the technical skill set of ballet’s classical origins. The dancers appeared tired and uninspired, not embodying their dancing for the most part, instead displaying emotions that were put on as masks, which read somewhere between interpretive dancing and melodrama.

Likewise, one half of the repertory presented was performed without significant design interventions – costumes, for the most part, were utterly utilitarian, and two out of four works were performed on a bare stage. The remaining two works did feature some form of a noticeable design intervention, but disappointingly so. The first of the two, titled I.N.K., was set to a backdrop of a video projection that covered the entire rear wall of the theatre. After the initial excitement of a new element being introduced passed, barely a few minutes into the piece, it became obvious that no change would ensue – the video was indeed used as a simple backdrop, and was only superficially integrated into the actual performance, with little to no interaction taking place. In this day and age, when projections have been used for many years by an ever-increasing number of stage directors and choreographers, video design has become a beast of a very different kind compared to what it used to be even just a decade ago. In the field populated by dance makers such as Angelin Preljocaj and Gideon Obarzanek (both veterans of the Joyce stage) who make use of performer-interactive video design with breathtakingly sophisticated results, a work like this feels achingly inadequate. (Not to mention predictable: in come some animated drops on the screen, cue in the water bubbling sounds...)

The second of the two “designed” works I’m referring to, From Foreign Lands and People, contained an element of set design, namely a series of monolithic slabs that the dancers incessantly moved around in different configurations (it reminded me of the table game Jenga, in which players pile up wooden blocks of various sizes) and played a sort of hide-and-seek in between. I had expected something a bit more imaginative.

Make no mistake: I am not arguing against the necessity of a festival that showcases the work of fledgling ballet (or, for that matter, any other art) companies. Let’s just be prudent about the nomenclature, please – if tonight’s works are labeled “version 6.0”, then I don’t know what version should be assigned to, say, Ballet Preljocaj, Chunky Move, or Nederlands Dans Theater – all of whom, ironically, have been presented on this very stage. Suffice it to say, their accomplishments set them a few light years apart from this.