You don’t see a lot of dance performances with onstage musicians. You certainly don’t see many where the dancers incorporate the musicians into the dance. But that’s what happened Saturday when local string ensemble A Far Cry and local dance troupe Urbanity Dance collaborated on “Chemistry” at Jordan Hall.
The evening could as easily have been called “Chutzpah,” since it concluded with Stravinsky’s “Apollon Musagète,” the music to which George Balanchine set his great “Apollo.” And the first half of the program, “Dancing With Bach,” invited direct comparison with Paul Taylor and Mark Morris as well as Balanchine. But the choreography of Urbanity Dance founder Betsi Graves delivered, as did the performance of her dancers. And A Far Cry upheld the high musical standard the group has already set for itself.
For “Dancing With Bach,” Eric Nathan, a 2013 Rome Prize winner, orchestrated for string ensemble nine Bach keyboard pieces — mostly gavottes — to create an original Baroque dance suite. And the “Chemistry” was personal. In the opening Capriccio, from Partita No. 2, the members of A Far Cry stood and played from memory, and 12 Urbanity women circled them and drew them into the dance. When the Urbanity women lined up behind the violinists and violists, the musicians, still playing, fell back into their supporting hands.
Graves’s sense of humor was also evident in the Gavottes from English Suite No. 3, a ladies’ lunch for two where a second pair of women portrayed the chairs they sat on. The meal started acrimoniously, but after an intervention from the chairs, harmony was restored and the chairs high-fived. In the Gavottes from English Suite No. 6, one dancer wore a living skirt made up of the other 11. She shrugged the encumbrance off and kicked up her heels; then, embarrassed at her state of undress, she reassembled the skirt. You can detect the whimsy of Dutch choreographer Jirí Kylián in Graves’s work, but she gives subtle life to Bach’s canonic writing, and her theme of women’s unity and connection with the musicians climaxed in the final group hug.
“Apollon Musagète” was actually commissioned for a 1928 performance at the Library of Congress, with choreography by Adolph Bolm, who also danced the title role, so it’s not as if Balanchine had sole claim on the music. Moreover, whereas Balanchine eventually cut Stravinsky’s Prologue, with its key motifs, from his ballet, Graves set the entire 30-minute score. And though she paid homage to Balanchine at various points in her choreography, she mostly went her own way. She reimagined Apollo as a woman and the three Muses whom Apollo instructs — Calliope, Polyhymnia, and Terpsichore — as men.
Ayako Takahashi in the Apollo role carried the piece, spending a lot of time on the floor before rising and growing into her identity as a woman. What didn’t come across, at least on first viewing, was a sense of who the three men were, or how they could be distinguished from one another. In the concluding Apothéose, the ensemble of dancers crouched in a line and Takahashi walked across their backs before being lifted aloft; but then she disappeared into the crowd as dancers and musicians engaged in a multi-directional promenade. A Far Cry gave the score a firmness that I think the composer would have approved, nervously edgy for the most part, but sweet in the pas de deux and inscrutably serene in the Apothéose.