The pas de deux from George Balanchine’s Agon (1957) still startles with its transformation of the classical partnered dance. The two dancers maintain their courtly relationship (he offers, she accepts), but they are no longer characters (a man, a swan princess) acting out their love; they are ideas, compass points, architectural elements coming apart and combining, each time creating something new. Each configuration has a merciless and near-divine geometry: the man, kneeling, bridges his back towards the woman as she spans her legs perpendicular to him; he lies extended on the floor, holding her hand, while she stands above him in a vertical split. Each movement pushes to its outer limit of curve or linearity—the ballerina’s back bends until her head touches her foot, both dancers’ legs stretch into 180-degree leaps. Agon looks modern still, with its cold yet vivid world of design, thought, and desire.
This pas de deux, as performed by Kaitlyn Gilliland and Ask LaCour (both on loan from New York City Ballet; Gilliland is the daughter of Lise Houlton, MDT’s artistic director), is glorious to see. Unfortunately, it casts the rest of Minnesota Dance Theatre’s fall program in shadow. Even the Swan Lake pas de deux performed by the same two dancers can’t compete; the Lab’s modern set-up—performers level with and close to the audience—hinders Swan Lake’s blue-lit magic, but it only aids Agon.
The evening’s other three pieces (performed by MDT company dancers) are even less impressive beside Agon. Moments of sea-creature strangeness in Mathew Janczewski’s “Trebuchet,” a modern exploration set to grating nightclub sounds, don’t prevent the piece from feeling flat and a little forced, as if the dancers and the choreographer had two different understandings of momentum. After seeing the MDT dancers in nothing but leotards and trunks for their first two pieces, it was a relief to see Abdo Sayegh working a white suit at the beginning of Lynne Taylor-Corbett’s “Appearances”—but the joke was on me, as “Appearances” is mostly a vehicle for the women’s costumes, which showily switch from evening dresses to skirts to culottes to red majorette leotards.
Lise Houlton’s “Point of Departure,” which opens the evening, fared best. Houlton is not a full-time choreographer, which shows in the piece’s lack of a larger structure. Still, she has a dancer’s way with movement and a quirky musicality (she finds the jazz in Haydn) that make “Point of Departure” fun to watch. What makes the piece more enjoyable is that it’s clearly designed for MDT’s dancers, and it shows off their youth, strength, and energy. Maxamillian Neubauer bounds and spins his way through a solo; Melanie Verna and Sam Feipel wind sweetly through the complex involutions of a pas de deux.
But we know MDT’s dancers; it’s no news that they danced well. I was more curious to see the guest stars from NYCB. Ask LaCour is the epitome of a leading man: handsome and tall, with an open style and long, straight lines. A pas de deux does not offer a complete display of a man’s dancing, but LaCour made everything he did look easy. (And he gets extra credit for smoothly partnering a ballerina so tall that in attitude her foot grazes the back of his head.)
Kaitlyn Gilliland is not LaCour’s opposite number. Instead, she is something far stranger: not a princess who happens to be dancing, but a being made for dance. Her first big lift in the Swan Lake pas de deux, when her legs fly suddenly into a leap, lit up the stage; it was a promise fulfilled. Her balance in arabesque was a fairy tale. With her seven-mile legs and liquid feet, Gilliland wears the steps differently than most dancers, and with her form—impeccably thin, but given curvy voluptuousness by her hyper-extended joints—she has an otherworldly appeal. (George Balanchine would certainly have wanted to set a dance or two on her.) Dancers so tall and mobile often have trouble fully inhabiting their dancing—there’s so much to take on!—and Gilliland’s Odette suggests she could go farther. But her work in Agon is already stunning: diamond-hard yet waterfall-luxuriant. Don’t miss her while she’s in town.
Minnesota Dance Theatre’s Extreme Odyssey continues at The Lab through Oct. 19.