BalletNext at NYLA: Lacking a Critical Eye

Michele Wiles and Company in The Pianist. Photo by Eduardo Patino

Michele Wiles has returned to the stage and to the artistic direction of BalletNext, following the birth of her first child in 2017. I attended the first evening of BalletNext’s spring season at New York Live Arts, eager to see some fresh contemporary ballet. However, it appears that the company’s most recent work is still in process.  

The first piece of the evening, “The Pianist”, featured Elliot Fig onstage along with a cast of five dancers. Unfortunately this juxtaposition had little effect, as the choreography by Wiles did not facilitate any meaningful connection between the dancers and the musician. The phrases and movement patterns were stale and altogether very upright. The dancers did not seem comfortable with the movement, nor did they present the kind of confident interpretation of the choreography that classical or contemporary ballet demands. Given BalletNext’s mission of focusing on the creative process through experimentation and creative problem solving, this dance was a disappointment. 

“Experience” was the most interesting work presented and choreographed by Wiles. In this duet,  the dancers donned soft slippers and in subdued lighting, played with a number of intriguing partnering phrases with varying layers of sexual undertones. While at times stiff and too classically placed, I was intrigued by a very raw kernel of internal, personal exploration.

The evening concluded with a third piece of choreography from Wiles, “Vibrer”.  There was a pleasant atmosphere to the work, with the six dancers donning costumes with a beautiful palette while dancing to a lively trumpet and piano duo. Yet, the piece was altogether lacking in meaningful expression. The choreography was a very safe and ornamental set of steps favoring extensions and jumps.  And once again, the shapes and movements that were outside of traditional ballet vocabulary felt unnatural and reserved.

Michele Wiles and Company in “Vibrer”. Photo by Eduardo Patino.

For a company that claims to be built on artistic collaboration and pushing ballet forward, the show felt like it was simply a star vehicle for Wiles, who founded it in 2011 after a fourteen-year career with American Ballet Theatre. The prosaic nature of the performance, with such dull, however new, choreography, showed the limits of one person making all the key artistic decisions for the company while still performing. The choreography did not serve to enliven the dancers and their technique but rather highlighted flaws and inexperience. The visible dissonance between Wiles’s execution of her choreography and that of the other dancers also resulted in a lack of cohesive energy, not to mention professionalism of presentation, and I was left to guess whether more collaboration, peer evaluation, or even more rehearsal might have helped. No matter, I couldn’t shake the feeling that this work was not ready for a paying audience or a reviewer.

Previous BalletNext seasons have featured collaborations with artists like Brian Reeder and Mauro Bigonzetti, as well as partnerships with flex dancer Jay Donn and former co-artistic director Charles Askegard. Every piece this season was choreographed by Wiles. Why was a diverse choreographic offering not a priority this time around? Perhaps it is time for Wiles to take a step back and once again bring some constructive voices into the mix so that BalletNext can live up to its name and raison d’etre.

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