The Feminine Language in Barak Ballet’s “New Repertoire”

Words by Lara Wilson | Images by Cheryl Mann

About a year ago, I stopped reading fiction written by men for awhile. What I saw in Andrea Schermoly’s Within Without, as part of Barak Ballet’s “New Repertoire” program at The Broad Stage, was akin to what I have been discovering in contemporary female writers’ works across the board: a language that is complex, subtle, often weird, and candid about women’s issues in a way that might fluster the F. Scott Fitzgeralds or Jonathan Franzens of the world. As companies and presenters recruit more women choreographers, they should be aware that dance — especially ballet, which cannot point to a single Graham-like matriarch — might start to change fundamentally in vocabulary and composition. A new swath of designers will design it differently.

A program note read: “It is a unique pain to want for a child that never comes.” The stark sentiment was outfitted appropriately with the pared-down styling of black tops and briefs for the women and black pants for the men (designed by Ruth Fentroy and Schermoly). I recognized in the colorful shape hanging from the grid at stage left an abstracted, minimalistic mobile, part of which resembled a hand or a foot, thanks to set designer Eric Ernest Johnson. The mournful quality of the music, a mix of classical and contemporary classical compositions, had a reason for being there. The dancers were portrayed honestly as humans in a way that I understand to be rare for ballet. At one point, lighting designer Nathan Scheuer cast a cool light over the entire audience, uniting us further with the sapiens onstage.

Schermoly’s movement felt nuanced, physically and emotionally, full of small, quick details that would benefit from additional rehearsal to get even clearer. In the opening section, the dancers’ grotesque, angular shapes were performed at a pace that was at first difficult to grasp; their backs undulated; a soloist struck her own thigh. Later, I swooned over a slow, contracted bear crawl en pointe that took Stephanie Kim from one corner of the stage from another. And I was caught delightfully off-guard when a sudden musical shift took two female dancers, instead of falling backwards into the wing, forwards in a traveling lift courtesy of their partners’ unexpected entrances. Through partnering, Schermoly experimented with a variety of systems to build tension and torque before ultimately letting it all go; her dancers were pendulums moving between effort and release. Coming from a woman addressing her own unrealized potential of motherhood, the men’s spread-out hands supporting the women at the front of the pubic bone from between the legs felt like a thoughtful aesthetic and narrative choice — consensual and vulnerable — rather than a Fosse-fied one, provocative for provocation’s sake. The final image, of soloist Julia Erickson being carried directly upstage with limbs flung forward, went at vacuum-speed, like a birth in reverse.

Choreographers Ma Cong (Carry Me Anew) and artistic director Melissa Barak (Pretty, Peculiar Things) provided the more upbeat, extroverted, and physically impressive works of the “New Repertoire,” but I wasn’t as drawn into their worlds, which felt aesthetically less cohesive and less grounded in meaning. I may be alone in this opinion: the audience gave their hearty approval of both. Carry Me Anew, filled with smoke and costumed in sporty striped tops, shorts, and ballet slippers, was explosive and entertaining, but perhaps too much so for The Broad’s rather intimate proscenium stage. Its finest component was Jeraldine Mendoza, a Joffrey dancer who electrified the room. In contrast, Pretty, Peculiar Things featured a perfectly synchronized ensemble that celebrated each cast member in turn. Barak’s dance was made of an intricate, precise vocabulary that was stunning to watch, and I appreciated the playful smiles that filtered through it.

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