On a bright fall afternoon in a New York City Ballet rehearsal studio, choreographer Mauro Bigonzetti is working with a small group of dancers on his newest ballet. Called Oltremare (Italian for "Overseas") and premiering on January 23rd, it's the choreographer's third work for the Company since 2002 and also his third collaboration here with composer Bruno Moretti.
Trim and visibly a former ballet dancer, Mauro exudes energy in the studio. Choreographing a pas de deux for Maria Kowroski and Tyler Angle, his method is to show them the steps he wants by physically adjusting their bodies. He works instinctively, phrase by phrase, and very little is changed once it's set. But as the couple runs through a sequence where Maria balances on Tyler's knees, he makes a correction. "I like off-balance," he says. "Try more off-balance." Only when the result is more extreme and Maria jumps to the floor with a slightly insecure landing is he satisfied. The near loss of control was apparently what he wanted. Later, working on a saltarello (a lively Italian dance form) for two couples that Bruno has scored for accordion and violin, the choreographer is equally expressive about the mood he wants. When the youthful and infectiously rhythmic saltarello suddenly ends and the music quickly turns sad, he wants a transition: "In your bodies I need to feel something different‹your pain‹another dimension," he tells the dancers. The quartet of Tiler Peck and Jonathan Stafford, Megan LeCrone and Robert Fairchild quickly get it.
Bruno Moretti‹who began his career as Nino Rota's assistant but who has now established a brilliant reputation of his own with series of highly successful dramatic works‹sits cross-legged on the floor, his score open in front of him, cueing and fast-forwarding a CD of his music as the dancers rehearse. His bearing is at once businesslike, alert, good-natured, intelligent, and ironic.
Like Mauro's prior two ballets for NYCB‹Vespro in 2002 and In Vento in 2006‹ Oltremare is highly dramatic and uses the particular blend of classical and modern dance languages Mauro has developed. The choreographer's inspiration for this ballet comes from an unlikely source: the experiences of Europeans emigrating to the New World at the turn of the last century. At the beginning, the dancers represent passengers at the terminal about to depart; they then are at sea and the dances take place in that context.
"In those days when you left, it wasn't easy to come back, maybe you were going for ever and wouldn't see your home or family again," Mauro explains and goes on to say that the situation speaks to him personally. "My life is travel. Like these few weeks in New York, for instance, and then maybe a month in London or Italy or Germany. Leaving, there's always a feeling of excitement and hope but also of sadness, always a little feeling of loss, a feeling of nostalgia. The ballet is dedicated to the people who never get back." Watching the ballet develop, he appears to be capturing these emotions well: exuberance, excitement, sadness, loss.
Oltremare is also Mauro's most personal statement yet about those City Ballet dancers he has come to know well. Citing the example of Maria Kowroski, for whom he has made superb roles in all three works, he says, "The first two ballets were about the beautiful body. I got to know her and to explore what she could do." With Oltremare, however, Mauro takes a more intimate look at the dancers. "This ballet is more about the beautiful people underneath then about what they can do physically," he says. "It's about the persons, not so much the surface."
Meanwhile, for the City Ballet dancers involved, the commitment and engagement Mauro brings to them is fully reciprocated. Asked what it's been like to work with Bigonzetti, Maria sums it up well. "There's a sense of engagement," she says. "It's so important to have someone see what you're capable of. It's a different training than I'm used to, much more grounded. But he makes you dance from the tips of your fingers to the tips of your toes, and it makes you feel very free on the stage."
Michael Popkin writes about the arts and is a New York correspondent for DanceView magazine.