Last night RANY attended The Nouveau Classical Project,’s world premiere dance project entitled Potential Energies at BAM Fisher. The hybrid ensemble collaborated with TrioDance Collective to perform a “new modern ballet”. The 50-minute piece which is divided into three acts, each containing three movements, was conceived of and directed by NCP’s founder Sugar Vendil and choreographed by Barbie Diewald to music by composer Trevor Gureckis.

The “non-narrative exploration” (as described by Gureckis) of Potential Energies is largely inspired by the emerging adulthood of the Millennial Generation: what happens when they graduate from university and must face the real world? The pressure for success can be so overwhelming that sometimes dreams must be relinquished in order to survive. When faced with losing something after so much longing, hope and hard work, the piece asks: What is the potential of all the energy you spent, both emotionally and physically?

Dancers and musicians interface during Potential Energies. Photo credit: Emma Tammi and Henry Jacobson.

Similar to the Broadway sensation Rent, which captured the cultural zeitgeist of its era, Potential Energies showcases the arduous balancing act of today’s creative artists who volley between hope and survival. This tension is artfully portrayed by Vendil’s idea to add movement into the mix of her ensemble: by pairing each musician with a dancer, the performers face the challenge of transcending their conventional roles in order to represent two aspects of an individual personality.  While the musicians’ limited movements point to a persistent reality, the dancers’ unrestricted motions allude to a fantastical realm filled with lofty visions and creative passions. States Vendil, “To connect a tight thread between art forms is both a priority and a challenge. I have always enjoyed the natural choreography that musicians have while playing, therefore I thought about ways in which those movements might be integrated into a dance piece. While the idea isn’t new, I felt there was room for innovation, and this became the initial premise for Potential Energies.”

Throughout the performance, dancers and musicians interface, become entangled, and struggle for harmony. The opening scene reveals a stark spotlight on cellist Kivie Cahn-Lipman and dancer Allison Beler. Cahn-Lipman stands sturdily over his cello, methodically plucking one note with his fingers; Beler crouches at the base of the cello, eyes fixed upon its strings. Beler begins to play with Cahn-Lipman by wrapping herself around both musician and instrument, producing an unruly wake of creative dissonance. This raw friction notably peaks again during the second act when pianist Vendil endures visual and gestural interference from dancer Cara McGaughey. Like an impetuous child that demands undivided attention from their parent, McGaughey taunts Vendil by covering her eyes as she plays octaves in both hands.  The two performers quickly launch into a compelling tango with tension that includes failed attempts of unshackling Vendil from her piano bench and rookie puppeteer stunts that temporarily remove Vendil’s fingers from the piano keys while playing. Perhaps it is when the performers deliver synchronized hand gestures that pierce the air (an impressive feat to witness) that the audience is reminded that although the dancers and musicians struggle to exchange languages, they collectively are suffering from the same malaise.

The music of Potential Energies was dynamic yet focused. Each movement told a story, but was centered upon a singular point. This minimal structure is parallel to how scenes in a classical ballet unfold, which created a nice bridge between the two mediums. While dancers activated the floorspace with intricate and expansive phrases, the musicians stimulated the airwaves with stylistic vignettes and repetitive structures that make subtle allusions to the work of Philip Glass (who was in attendance) and Arnold Schoenberg. Melodic fragments made by pianos, strings and woodwinds seamlessly twisted and turned with the movements of the dancers, and also resounded deeply within the empty, in-between moments. The piece as a whole was ultimately energetic and full of potential, and I hope that last evening’s debut inspires other cities to host this ensemble’s nouveau spin on ballet.

Dancers performing while Sugar Vendil plays piano during Potential Energies. Photo credit: Emma Tammi and Henry Jacobson.

No dance performance is complete without a costume, which is where Atelier de Geste, a performance inspired studio and brand, enters the scene.  In order to match the tone of the performance, Founder and Director Beau Rhee selected a somber palette, comprised of blacks, charcoal grays and neutrals. The female cast members were outfitted in ADG’s signature Teatro Two-Tone tights (musicians in Calligraphy Ink Black and dancers in Carravaggio Chiaroscuro) and deconstructed ballet skirts which were fashioned out of leather and silk.

ABOUT The Nouveau Classical Project: NCP is a hybrid music ensemble and creative production hub that is putting “a new face on classical music” (NPR Deceptive Cadence) and “leading [the] unlikely intersection of classical music and fashion” (The New York Times). NCP began by collaborating with fashion designers to create music-inspired looks to be worn by musicians and has since expanded to pursuing imaginative projects that go beyond the traditional concert format.