CounterPointe examines what performing on pointe means now, more than a century after the ethereal, otherworldly depictions of the female form celebrated in archetypal ballets like Swan Lake and La Sylphide. The annual showcase, presented by Norte Maar for Collaborative Projects in the Arts in collaboration with the Brooklyn Ballet, wrapped its eighth iteration in downtown Brooklyn at the end of February, establishing that the classical form is pliable, as are enduring traditions within the ballet realm.
Female choreographers, all working on pointe, were paired with visual artists, all women as well, and given two months to create something new. In many of the works in CounterPointe8, the visual elements and the choreography paired memorably and substantively. In the other instances, the two media registered as formative and exploratory, their respective concepts not fully integrated. Given the condensed time frame and the fact that some of its artists have never worked across genres, CounterPointe implicitly prizes the open-ended and indeterminate. The showcase’s strength, particularly this season, is in its unpredictability, which creates a unique kind of expectancy for artists and attendees.
Julia Gleich, a co-producer of the series, has overseen CounterPointe showcases in London and New York and shared work at galleries, theatrical venues, and universities throughout the United States, the United Kingdom, and Asia. Here, Gleich’s Wake to Bare Rocks visually recalled Martha Graham’s Lamentation (1930), thanks to the fabric encasements created for the dancers by the mixed-media artist Mary Schwab. When beneath the fabric, Gleich’s dancers became reaching and amorphous forms. They intersected in various solo, duet, and ensemble combinations, moving between, around, and behind a spare wood set. By the end, all eight dancers had shed the fabric and comported themselves with rounded, almost hulking limbs, the atavistic shape indicating the completed arc of a lengthy and sequential transformation. (The work was inspired by Amanda Bell’s adapted translation of the Irish poet Gabriel Rosenstock’s Sasquatch sequence; in Bell’s rendering, titled the loneliness of the sasquatch, the subject is female.) The visual and choreographic elements dovetailed to express a common purpose, in which a gradual transformation and embrace of a new form was connected to a dark, enchanting, and mysterious visual space. It nodded to the mystical and intangible settings of classical ballet while also suggesting something rough and incongruous with that space of enchantment.
Deborah Kate Norris’s The Waulking Song, a suite of solos danced by Melissa Braithwaite and set to derivations and improvisations of Scottish walking songs played by the fiddler Anna Esselmont, was similarly cohesive. Both the dancer and the musician wore cream dresses made of a light canvas material, designed and painted by the London-based artist Anna Hymas. Traditional tartans, in various sizes and scales, intersected and joined each other on the garments. A long swath of the same painted fabric was preset downstage center, spread loosely, slightly bunched. It succeeded as a movable and fluid tether between dancer and music and, more broadly, between folk traditions, classical ballet, and contemporary performance.
In other selections, the connection between visual and choreographic elements felt less developed. Strategy Royale, choreographed by Mari Meade, began with the dancers half-obscured behind large banners designed by Margaret Lanzetta. Lanzetta selected textile patterns in shades of hot pink, silver, black, and white, invoking notions of plurality. The choreography emphasized a dynamic, versatile ensemble, which snapped in and out of meticulous unison. But while the collective sweep and flow of the dancers might have reflected the inclination to claim or “stand behind” markers of identity, the movement vocabulary, and the hot pink neckties and collared shirts the dancers wore, did not clearly support that exploration.
For Tempest Salvage, choreographed by Eryn Renee Young of xaoc Contemporary Ballet, the sculptor Niki Lederer, a Brooklyn Navy Yard Visiting Artist, created two long “vines” of found and painted post-consumer plastic, secured from the top of the stage and dangling to the floor, one bright yellow, the other a gradation of red and orange like a lobster shell. Dancers began dispersed through the space, recalling Balanchine’s penchant for evenness and geometry. The dance turned when the lights dimmed; the dancers hung their tutus on the sculpture, appearing center stage in flesh-tone, spaghetti-strap leotards as a corps with a common frontal gaze. Both the sculpture and the choreography had gravitas. However, the gesture of relinquishing classical ornamentation to make bare the body registered as a separate inquiry from the one made by the sculpture, which evoked a host of lateral, existential associations. There remains potential for greater exploration and integration.
Maiya Redding’s Share Me With Me, danced eloquently by Nikki d’Arnault, and JoVonna Parks’s Mechanism: I Thought I Knew That, which she herself danced, were intimate solos imbued with force and authenticity. Both reflected original and promising collaborations between choreographer and artist. Emmaline Payette, who has an academic background in environmental anthropology, installed reflective mirrors and oversize meditation stones made of discarded plastic bags to accompany Redding’s choreography. Clad in form-fitting red pants and a burgundy turtleneck, d’Arnault briefly watered a potted plant, and then movement rippled through her limbs and coursed through her body. She fell and softened, becoming loose, expressing sensuality and independence—ultimately, the classical form became something pliable, able to be relinquished and reclaimed, its forms spliced in a split second.
For Parks’s work, the painter and sculptor Maud Bryt installed a mobile sculpture of jagged, rectangular, and circular pieces in front of a vertical form, loosely suggestive of a sword and shield. Parks created “movement sentences” through improvisations that drew her into the body of the sculpture. Her method established a discrete physical vocabulary of movements and gestures, realized in precise alignment with the creation of the sculpture.
Ultimately, this year’s CounterPointe underscored pointe’s potential to morph into new vocabularies of physical expression, expressing the form’s implicit power in contexts that emphasized exploration over revival. The undertaking reimagined the relationship of the female dancer to her art. Rather than asking the classical tradition, as if from outside it, “what are you going to have me do?,” these women stood within the field, asking that question of themselves.