Self-presented at Theatre of the Riverside Church, 91 Claremont Ave., NYC, Sept. 18-20.
Ballet choreographer Leigh Witchel is a Romantic artist at heart. He embraces the dreamy qualities of 19th-century Romanticism and likes to choreograph his ballets to luxurious music with dancers flitting through filmy drapes as if lost in memories of love and other-worldliness. Witchel becomes a more interesting choreographer, however, when he eschews the Romantic aesthetic and lets edgy modern or ancient music inspire the creation of his heavily Balanchine-influenced, neo-classical ballets.
The evening of four of Witchel's works, performed by his chamber company, Dance as Ever, at Theatre of the Riverside Church, featured the premiere of a nifty abstract quintet, "The New Rome." Choreographed to a commissioned score, a string quartet by Evren Celimli, played live, the ballet mixes familiar Balanchine movements with fresh, unexpected actions. Witchel's choreography, with its strict adherence to a small vocabulary of conventional ballet steps, can grow unengaging in its repetitiveness, but here, to Celimli's agitating music, Witchel grows bolder and tosses aside the balletic prettiness he so likes. At one point a dancer lifts another man's hands and elegantly places them, one at a time, on the shoulders of the ballerina; she shrugs them away like an annoying itch and walks nonchalantly offstage.
Witchel's program began with a dull quartet, "Rideau," and an even duller duet, "A Waltz Remembered." In these sentimental pieces, the dancers performed with a solemnity that, particularly as evinced by Mary Carpenter, made them look almost zombie-like. Witchel's approach to Romanticism, for all its visual loveliness, oddly, lacks passion.
Completing the evening was the premiere of "The Pause On the Way Down," a solo Witchel created for New York City Ballet principal dancer Alexandra Ansanelli. Displaying the characteristic speed and brilliant clarity of an NYCB dancer, Ansanelli's presence immediately shot us into the highest echelons of ballet technique. Though choreographically unmemorable, and danced in front of a sloppy set, the work grew quite moving, thanks to violinist Mat Maneri's live performance of Heinrich Biber's "Passacaglia in G Minor" that seemed to be screaming adoration for the dancer. Congratulations also to designer David Quinn, who costumed the entire evening exquisitely.