The Lyon Opera Ballet’s repertory program for its appearance at the Joyce Theater was both crowd pleasing and challenging. It was contemporary, intriguing, and danced very well by a top notch group of dancers. Companies like this make me feel optimistic about the future of ballet. They do so many things well that you want other companies to take notice and use them as a template for how to nurture a classically rooted dance company that looks toward the future.

<i>Sunshine</i> © Michel Cavalca
Sunshine
© Michel Cavalca

Benjamin Millepied’s Sarabande opened the show with a cast of four strong men. The idea behind the piece is that it’s supposed to look spontaneous, as though the dancers are making it up on the spot, inspired by Bach’s music. It’s a very nice ballet but it doesn’t quite rise to that level. I’ll go ahead and quibble about the costumes. Trousers are not good for ballet because they obscure so much of what the legs are doing. Julian Nicosia’s strong dancing to the two flute pieces that began the ballet was fine. His deep pliés and excellent control served the choreography well. The third section changed over to the violin and we began to see how Millepied envisions men dancing together. It’s a little puzzling in that it seems alternately fun and antagonistic. Does he see men and their relationships that way? In the fourth section, Nicosia and Alexis Bourbeau danced a duo to the first partita’s Corrente that gave both of them a chance to shine. They mesh well together but it became clear that Bourbeau reached deeper into the music. It was in the fifth section, the Sarabande from the first violin partita, that the piece really took off. Adrien Delépine invested the Sarabande with a solemn intensity that revealed the underlying passion of Bach’s music. Bourbeau was even better with the Double. He spent a fair amount of time airborne and showed a real flair for phrasing. This is the way you want every dancer to think about music. Filling out every phrase and connecting it all together. It’s so much fun to see him in action.

Emanuel Gat’s Sunshine is a work that you could watch several times and come away with a different impression each time. There is so much going on that you need to see it several times to take it all in. The program notes quote Gat as saying, “I give the dancers various tasks, predefined according to certain rules, which they have to respect.” So there’s looseness to the structure but it’s most definitely not improvisation. The dancers grabbed it and ran with it. The dance was taut, intense and full of shifts. With groups of dancers spread out around the stage, you had to pick what you were going to watch. The occasional freezes came as relief as they gave time for the mind to process the action and try to catch up. It’s probably not everyone’s cup of tea but I enjoyed the challenge of trying to take in as much as possible and occasionally wished I had two heads. The accompanying recording is just that: it accompanies the dancing but exists apart. It could have been any recording which might have altered the experience but it was not integral to the work.

William Forsythe’s Steptext which closed the program was the first piece to enter the company’s repertoire and it’s one that suits them perfectly. Ashley Wright danced the female lead with brilliantly delineated clarity and powerful attack. She is just a lot of fun to watch, especially when she gives voice to her inner dominatrix. She looked like she really made the men afraid of her. The supporting men were a study in contrasts. Roylan Ramos is long of limb and lean, very expressive. Raúl Serrano Núňez is so strong classically with clean batterie. His entrechat six are a thing of beauty. Marco Merenda is compact and strong, a great partner. Every combination of dancers was explored and they all worked. Forsythe successfully takes apart the idea of the Balanchine modernist ballet in which the woman is central, supported by men who are not much more than moveable barres, and shows us that contemporary classical dance can be all things and that even the music itself can be dispensed with. Some of his later works don’t move me at all but this one is a keeper and it’s easy to see why Lyon Opera Ballet keeps it in the repertory.

Lyon Opera Ballet is a great contemporary company with a clear vision for the future. They provide a valuable voice to contrast with the story ballet companies and a place for new choreography to emerge.