BalletNext needs a backup plan.
Here it is, just one week before this budding ballet ensemble is to open at the Joyce Theatre, and its central dancer and co-artistic director, Michele Wiles, tears her calf muscle. She’ll be out for months. But this is the ballet world. There is always the understudy, yes?
In this case, there isn’t. At least not for the company’s run-through at Kaatsbaan International Dance Center on Sunday afternoon. To make matters worse, the dancers who might have replaced Wiles — from the ranks of New York City Ballet — had a schedule change. Georgina Pazcoguin and Ana Sophia Scheller were called back to Lincoln Center.
But the Kaatsbaan show did go on, with a skeleton crew of dancers, including its co-artistic director and former New York City Ballet principal Charles Askegard, and serious alternations in the program.
Though not what one was expecting from BalletNext, the Kaatsbaan show was pleasant enough, but it did appear tossed together. Askegard, known for his cavalier roles, grabbed some tutus and taught New York City Ballet corps member Kaitlyn Gilliland the White Swan pas de deux from “Swan Lake” and Kristy Latham, who only appears with BalletNext, the Act III pas de deux from “The Sleeping Beauty.”
Certainly, these male lead steps are engrained in Askegard’s muscle memory. But the dancer, who retired from New York City Ballet more than a year ago, looked a little too fatherly to pull off the young prince in either ballet. While his leaps were low and not stretched out, he still was a wonderfully attentive and deft partner, tenderly guiding these young dancers through the paces of these classics.
Of the two, Gilliland was the better as she swooned and swooped through her delicate swan-state with convincing vulnerability. Latham looked horribly stiff, especially in Askegard’s hands.
BalletNext, with five world premieres planned for next week, does not stake its reputation on the classics. Rather, the company, which performs with live musical accompaniment, excellently led by cellist Elad Kabilio, is a contemporary one. They do dance some classics, but they are focused on neo-classics from Balanchine and new works by such choreographers as Mauro Bigonzetti and Margo Sappington.
Happily, they did offer a glimpse of their true intentions with Allison Cook-Beatty’s “Tintinabuli.” Set to minimalist music by Avro Part, this duet was a knockout. With Tiffany Mangulabnan and Lily Nicole Balogh, the dance built and unraveled in a shaft of light. Appearing opposite one another, Mangulabnan in a wide, motionless stance, they faced off. The long, lean Balogh flailed and flung herself around as if casting out a demon. She moved with speed and intensity that kept eyes glued on her.
Then the two switched. Mangulabnan, as if she absorbed Balogh’s pain, fought the unseen enemy with contortionist fury, which included throwing herself on the floor. They switched again and Balogh was able to win her battle against the force, exorcising her anxieties forever.
But BalletNext can’t do that. It’s got a show to produce — in the hypercritical heartland of ballet in America no less. They will pull it off, but next time BalletNext needs a sure-footed next step.