Nature gives, and nature can take. So I was reminded at a Kaatsbaan outdoor performance, the first live dance show I’d seen since March of 2020, due to the pandemic. The gifts were abundant: the ubiquitous woods suddenly in full, verdant foliage; the clouds massing and dissipating above the simple platform stage; the majestic backdrop of the Catskills beyond the Hudson River. But those same clouds began to drizzle, and threaten real rain, before moving away. Dorrance Dance, Mark Morris Dance Group, and American Ballet Theater (ABT) were able to carry on—between earth and sky—in their respective genres of working with, or defying, the laws of nature.
The Kaatsbaan Cultural Park has two outdoor stages set on 153 acres of rolling Hudson Valley hills. Once housing Eleanor Roosevelt’s horses, the complex comprises handsome 19th-century barns and outbuildings designed by Stanford White plus modern structures, including an opera-scale indoor stage. Now, dance artists gather to develop, create, and show work. Kaatsbaan stood as one of the few organizations to hold live shows in 2020—a benefit of presenting outdoors. Without missing a beat, the Spring 2021 festival built a robust slate. The season not only offered dance programs featuring major companies (albeit with chamber-scaled works), but also pop music performances (Patti Smith, Yo La Tengo) and talks with a culinary focus, a sign of the strong food scene in the valley. Indeed, it felt like a return to normal, a reminder that it’s possible to focus on things other than positivity rates and vaccination proofs.
Dorrance Dance’s Aaron Marcellus and Penelope Wendtlandt took positions behind mics on the apron of the stage for the premiere of it’s your choice. Sampled sung phrases (which they composed) layered to weave a lush chorus; text fragments hung in the air, such as “I keep waiting to feel good” and “It’s your choice.” The light rain mercifully halted after Michelle Dorrance and Byron Tittle entered. They tapped a vamping rhythm or traded phrases in a danced dialogue. The clouds parted momentarily and rays of sun lit the dancers. The work was necessarily brief (the whole program ran about an hour with no intermission) and, for Dorrance and her collaborators, felt more sketch-like than full-bodied. But the choreography showed her skill at building a work using the body’s tools, enhanced by technology.
Until I saw it again, I hadn’t realized how much I’d missed seeing Mark Morris’s work in person, and as always, with live music (Colin Fowler on keyboard). Laurel Lynch performed Three Preludes, set to Gershwin. Isaac Mizrahi’s striking black-and-white costume contrasted with the lush greenery, which nicely set off the crisp, articulated shapes of the choreography. Morris’s body of work runs the technical gamut, from quotidian to balletic. And while what is often described as pedestrian movement feels relatable, it takes a great deal of work and discipline to make each shape precise, every phrase economical. Part of the art is making it seem easy.
This held true in excerpts from Words—the title a witty subversion of Mendelssohn’s enthralling accompanying piano pieces, “Songs Without Words”—danced by Aaron Loux and Domingo Estrada, Jr. Movement and rhythmic details abound, tracing parallels with the fluency and delicacy of the piano lines—wrist circles, window washing gestures, syncopations, and lunges in which the men spiral their torsos around one another. A heron flew above the dancers, echoing their arms spread wide. Morris’s repertory chosen for Kaatsbaan resonated with the scale, setting, and atmosphere.
ABT presented two duets—one by Gemma Bond, A Time There Was, to Britten, and the trusty pas de deux from Don Quixote. Both showcased the dancers well enough (respectively, Katherine Williams/Blaine Hoven, and Christine Shevchenko/Joo Won Ahn), but the unforgiving, formal nature of ballet jostled against the natural setting. Bond’s duet, with expressionistic gestures and contemporized movements, felt artificial and forced, perhaps abetted by pointe shoes and the stiff, pieced satin costumes in shades of gray (designed by Sylvie Rood). The Don Quixote pas seemed an odd choice, although its ubiquity on gala programs and its bold, prowess-displaying steps make it a crowd favorite. ABT’s recorded music sounded particularly canned, especially after the live accompaniment of the first two companies. It felt like a missed chance to present a work that might include live piano or a chamber ensemble. Or perhaps something choreographed by Alexei Ratmansky, the company’s artist in residence, whose disarming wit and folkloric flair might have fit better in the bucolic context.
As a result of missing live dance for over a year, plus the natural setting, I thought about the inexorable growth of trees, which defy gravity and grow tall. And then about how Dorrance works with gravity to create music with dancers’ feet and bodies; how ABT’s classical ballet does everything to defy that pull using pointe shoes and flying leaps; and how Morris’s works strike a balance—allowing weight to sink into the ground, but also flying above it at times. In any case, what a pleasure to see live dance again, and especially amid the splendor of nature.