Assessment: The virtuoso Sara Mearns is considering other virtuosities

Sara Mearns is an all-around dancer. As the star of New York City Ballet, she dances on a thrilling scale, combining the drama of risk ...


Sara Mearns is an all-around dancer. As the star of New York City Ballet, she dances on a thrilling scale, combining the drama of risk and abandonment with the drama of glamor and emotion. But she realized that there are other kinds of virtuosity, and in recent years she explored them with the same impetuous energy.

She dabbled in a bit of Broadway and even hip-hop, but mostly gave herself a crash course in modern dance history—from Isadora Duncan to Martha Graham to Merce Cunningham to— over the postmoderns of the Judson Dance Theater to their present day. heirs. In the tradition of Mikhail Baryshnikov and Wendy Whelan, she applied her ballet focus to the question of what is beyond ballet and what she could be other than a great ballet dancer.

In “Piece of Work,” which debuted at the Joyce Theater on Tuesday, she continues her education. She brought in collaborators, mostly from outside the ballet, to do dances for her and join her on stage. In a fascinating, inspiring, frustrating and disappointing way, “Piece of Work” feels like a work in progress.

Throughout the program are voice-over bits in which Mearns effectively takes us into his personal project, discussing how the pandemic has set him back and changed him and alluding to burnout. “It doesn’t always have to be big,” she said, she learned. “You can just raise one arm.” And if her goal was to “try to get the audience to stand up,” she says, that’s not what she’s looking for here.

The title of the show comes from one of these monologues: A work is what it calls itself while laughing. This is the main tone of his voiceovers and his bows: endearingly humble. “I don’t know what I’m doing,” she says after seeing that she’s giving it her all. More than once, she tells us that the project does not only concern her, but her collaborators.

Probably the most prominent of these colleagues is Jodi Melnick, a postmodern dance veteran with a super-subtle style, an example of the less-is-more magic that Mearns seems to be looking for. It was a collaboration with Melnick a few years ago, that sent Mearns down the path to “Piece of Work,” which opens with “Opulence,” a duet Melnick did for the two of them.

Mearns comes out first, simply raises one arm and feels the air with her fingers. Sounds good, but then Melnick joins her and the duo takes on a teacher-student dynamic. They are side by side for the most part, moving independently or briefly in unison, but Mearns’ eyes continue to watch Melnick, searching for the secret, and ours too. Whether in tiny weight shifts or an arabesque in sneakers, Mearns can’t help but dance bigger. Tei Blow’s snap-crackle-pop sound design features snippets between takes of Brian Wilson and the Beach Boys experimenting with a proper soundtrack.

In “On the Margins,” a duet with young choreographer Vinson Fraley Jr., Mearns also continues to watch him. But what she is trying to learn is less clear. The two start and end close together, in a niche at the back of the stage, pawing the brick, but for most of the work they are separated by a line of light, pacing. This setup heightens the contrast – Fraley expressing a vague pain that is at least his own and Mearns looking a little lost, his head in his hands, doing ballet to feel better. When they mirror each other’s movements and end up touching each other, the work doesn’t get any clearer.

This head-to-hand gesture runs through “Piece of Work,” as does a theme of separate versus together, independence versus connection. These themes appear in the film “with care,” directed and choreographed by Austin Goodwin and shot, Mearns tells us, on the last day before New York City closed in March 2020. His voiceover recollection of that day and how it was hard for her to watch now is more moving than the film itself: some beautifully shot, can-we-be-together nestled with dancer Paul Zivkovich.

More compelling than this sentimentality is the theme of exploration, as felt in “JoycEvent,” a lackluster arrangement of Cunningham’s choreography by Rashaun Mitchell and Silas Riener. Here, Mearns surrounds herself with Cunningham debutants, although a few, like her, have participated in the Cunningham-for-outsiders 2019 “Night of 100 Solos” event. Jacquelin Harris of the Alvin Ailey Company was one of those numbers, and she’s wonderful here: precise, electric, another example alongside Mearns of trying something new and difficult and rising to the challenge.

The biggest challenge Mearns gets – and takes – on “Piece of Work” is “SSSARA,” a solo by uncompromising experimenter Beth Gill. Ryan Seaton’s score sounds like someone breaking in, and Mearns does just that, although she does very little. Often facing a back corner, she stands up and squats, ties her hair in a ponytail and braids it. It’s a bit perverse to see the tall ballerina doing this, but for her, channeling her dramatic powers into these thoughtful, thoughtful gestures feels like real growth.

It’s understandable that she wants to follow ‘SSSARA’ with ‘SPIR’, a conventional contemporary ballet duo by and with National Ballet of Canada star Guillaume Côté. Dancing apart from Côté and then together, Mearns doesn’t look to him for guidance, as it’s safe territory, a style that comes easy to him, and Côté doesn’t attract much attention as a generic handsome guy. .

“SPIR” is under Mearns’ accomplishments and aspirations, but you can see her applying some of Melnick’s lessons. “There’s something really beautiful about being honest,” she says in one of the monologues, and the beauty of “Piece of Work” is in its honesty. These are pieces of her at work, which grow instinctively big even as they get small.

Sara Mearns: “A work of art”

Until Sunday at the Joyce Theatre; joyce.org.

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