Review: Ballet Vlaanderen Is a Company in Search of Itself

Review: Ballet Vlaanderen Is a Company in Search of Itself


What is Ballet Vlaanderen? Formed in 1969, the company was known until recently as the Royal Ballet of Flanders. During a contentious, drawn-out merger with Opera Vlaanderen a few years ago, it changed style and artistic director more than once. Since 2015, its leader has been Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui, a world-famous choreographer busy with his own company, Eastman, and many other projects. At Ballet Vlaanderen’s Joyce Theater debut on Tuesday, a clear sense of identity was missing.

The three choreographers represented on the program — Mr. Cherkaoui, Akram Khan and Crystal Pite — are all usual suspects of European contemporary dance, and not one of the works was new to New York. Still, novelty and originality aren’t the only ways a repertory company can distinguish itself. It can keep well-chosen classics and useful curios alive. But only if the execution is first-rate.

In this case it wasn’t. Take Mr. Khan’s “Kaash,” which hasn’t been seen in New York since its debut here (at the Joyce) in 2003. This was the piece that introduced America to this British-Bengali choreographer’s thrilling fusion of contemporary dance and classical Indian kathak. Because some of that thrill has been dampened by the bloat of Mr. Khan’s later productions, a reminder of his beginnings would have been welcome.

In Ballet Vlaanderen’s rendition, though, you see only the steps, not the spirit. The distinguishing feature of the original — an astonishing speed, not just in spins and scything arms, but also in ultraprecise, scorpion-strike stops — just isn’t there, and without it, the electricity of the dance sparks infrequently. Similarly, in the work’s signature image — dancers in a line, slashing their arms in relay to evoke the many limbs of the god Shiva — the timing is off, the god absent.

In Ms. Pite’s “Ten Duets on a Theme of Rescue,” what’s lacking is drama. Created in 2008 for New York’s own Europe-focused repertory company, the now-defunct Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet, the piece, like “Kaash,” is a work of early promise by a now-ubiquitous choreographer. Elements that would become trademarks are evident: rippling, buckling motion; the movable interrogation-type lighting; a clever, chain-reaction structure with dark implications.

But Ms. Pite’s work also has an attitude, a kind of overwrought, pleased-with-itself bleakness. In later pieces, that has hardened into schtick that I usually find cloying. But I missed it here. Without it, there’s no motivating tension to hold the dance together.

In Mr. Cherkaoui’s “Faun,” the fault isn’t in the dancing and direction. The sweet and skilled Philipe Lens and Nicola Wills make as much as possible out of this silly 2009 remake of Nijinsky’s “Afternoon of a Faun.” There’s a trace of “which part goes where?” sex comedy to the joint gymnastics and the noodling canoodling of this faun and nymph, but not nearly enough to offset the twee, faux-naïf tone and choreographic thinness. Of the many versions of “Faun” a company might dance, this is among the least distinguished, but that might just make it a distinguishing choice for Ballet Vlaanderen under Mr. Cherkaoui.

Ballet Vlaanderen

Through March 7 at the Joyce Theater, Manhattan; joyce.org.



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