When dance takes some strange turns, literally

The Cirio Collective debuts at Vineyard Arts Project

The Cirio Collective rolled out its first-ever performance last Saturday night in Edgartown. — Photo courtesy of Vineyard Arts

It wasn’t enough for 24 year-old Jeffrey Cirio, principal dancer at the Boston Ballet, en route to his new role as soloist for the American Ballet Theatre, to simply dance. No, midway at this point of life that most of us consider our keg-parties-and-gap-years time, he also developed his own dance troupe of eight performers including himself, the Cirio Collective, which rolled out its first-ever performance last Saturday night in Edgartown.

The Cirio world premiere took place in the splendid hall of high white walls and bleached wood floors at the Vineyard Arts Project (VAP). A word about this dazzling new institution off Main Street as you roll into town, just a few driveways short of Cannon Ball Park: It was inaugurated in the early 2000s as a ballet residency. The campus now houses the performance hall and a three-story manor refurbished into reception areas, two kitchens, and 23 bedrooms to accommodate up to 40 artists. VAP is now a full-scale incubator for new work in dance and theater.

Founder Ashley Melone, 30, spends her off-season time tapping talent for the coming Vineyard summer. Her mainland “real life” in New York has given her the chance to cultivate such groups as the Public Theater, which tested the waters with it’s first performance by Universes at the end of June. VAP’s New Writers/New Plays program last Friday ushered in a new dark musical from PigPen Theatre Company, “The Hunter and the Bear,” a fable about a father who searches the forest for the monster who devoured his son (grim — or Grimm — as it sounds, this is a family-friendly production).

And before we delve more deeply into the Cirio evening, August will ring in a segment of James LaPine’s new Broadway-headed musical, “Flying Over Sunset,” featuring actress and singer Christine Ebersole.

So now to Cirio Collective.

It had to be explained to this reporter that young ballet choreographers, having grown up with rappers and hip-hop, are eager to bring a new vocabulary to the old, august style of dance. As far as I’m concerned, you can never have too many dancers en pointe, with long gauzy skirts floating far behind the figure spinning in fouetté turns — the ones wherein the leg juts out, whipping the ballerina around, and she performs as many of them as could cause audience members in the front row to faint. But, no, Cirio has something quite different and refreshing in mind.

Make no mistake, the exquisite training remains. For the Cirio corps, the ballet bones are in place, allowing greater range of movement, both modern and time-honored. Pirouettes appear in the space of a moment, like the wingspan of a dragonfly. Females are lifted by strapping young males and spun in the old elegant style of a riposte to gravity. There are still tours jeté and the occasional long arabesque extended skyward, as long as it is possible for a limb to point and stretch. But another language has taken over; the modern-day robotic twitch, the edgy arm gyrations, an allover sense of dystopia that experimental dance today so often entails.

In the first of three dances, “of Trial,” with lush string music by Max Richter and Yann Tiersen, two female dancers, Lia Cirio (Jeffrey’s sister), and Whitney Jensen appear bare-legged in rust-red leotards. Three males, Isaac Akiba, Altan Dugaraa (from Mongolia and, full disclosure, my friend who accompanied me to the performance fell head-over-heels in love with this strapping dancer), and Bradley Schlagheck — were arrayed in black pants and bare chests. The bare chests provided a lesson in the sheer tormenting workout of a dancer’s efforts. Normally a full costume absorbs the sweat, but with skin exposed, we see sheets of perspiration, and we might even feel inclined, at the end of the segment, to hose down the dancers.

In the interval between this segment and the next, Mr. Cirio explained that a black jacket worn by Mr. Dugaraa, then discarded, and finally worn again, was a metaphor for the artist’s insecurities; let go of before the dance, then put on again.

The second piece, “fremd,” with an insistent, electronic techno-beat drum and a poem read in German by Olaf Bender, was disturbing on some atavistic level. Nonetheless, the dancers were brilliant, as they’d been in the first piece. The boys wore black shorts and black shirts, the girls black onesies, again bare-legged. Here Mr. Cirio went on testing boundaries, the movements still more extreme and anti-ballet, abstract expressionism as dance.

Finally, in a piece called “World Premier (in progress),” with a cello concerto by Johannes Brahms, with an odd and interestingly mystical poem prerecorded by Paul Craig, the five dancers already seen were joined by Mr. Craig, Emily Mistretta, and Mr. Cirio himself who, assuredly, all of us had longed to watch in action.

Mr. Cirio introduced the piece: “It doesn’t really have an idea, and I wanted it that way.” That worked perfectly for the audience as we sat back to relish, not so much ballet in its old traditional form, but the pure joy of movement that comes from bodies so perfectly talented and trained, and inspired by the Brahms at the composer’s most luxe. The boys appeared bare-chested again and, as they took their final bow, we could rejoice in the hard work that accompanies their artistry.

It was an exciting night at the Vineyard Arts Project, and a reminder that the final show in August, again, “Flying Over Sunset,” should not be missed.

“Flying Over Sunset,” August 25–27, Vineyard Arts Project, Edgartown. There is currently an open call for auditions for an 8-10 year old boy who can act and sing in the musical being developed by Pulitzer Prize winning playwright James Lapine. The rehearsal period for the play is August 18 – August 27. All auditions, rehearsals and performances will be at VAP in Edgartown. If interested please email info@vineyardartsproject.org.

For more information on future performances, residencies, and programs for children including Rosie’s Theatre Kids and Musical Theatre Lab at VAP, go to vineyardartsproject.org, or find VAP on Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram.