Paige Cunningham Caldarella has ties to the dance legend with the same name, dancing for the Merce Cunningham Dance Company fresh out of Juilliard in the early 2000s. Cunningham’s influence on Caldarella’s movement is crystal clear: with crisp, unemotional passes of classical vocabulary with a bit of a twist. Her latest work, “Verge,” showing at Links Hall through Jan. 8, is a mirror image of Caldarella’s 2012 “Off Center,” which juxtaposed ballet with vogue. The 2012 cast consisted of three men (Damon Green, Philip Elson and J’Sun Howard) and one woman, Jess Duffy, while “Verge” features Green as the sole man amongst a cast of four (Duffy returns with Keesha Beckford and Chloe Grace Michels).
“Verge” isn’t about vogue in the same way that “Off Center” was, though its influence on Caldarella is evident throughout the work, particularly in the beginning. Entering the big space at Links Hall, patrons come in to a piece that has already started. The stoic Chloe Michels is posed on a raised platform upstage, with curtains drawn over all but her designated space. She poses at times and moves through a series of luxurious port de bras. A tag team ensues on this upper stage: Beckford cuts in for Michels, Duffy tags “out” Beckford, and the cycle repeats, each taking a few turns on the pedestal. It could be thought of as a modeling runway, though I preferred to think these were jewelry box ballerinas – the type that pop up and spin around when you open the lid. The women perform mostly the same movement, but each of them does it a little differently, treating the phrase like a cadenza and taking personal liberties, to great effect. They are soloists, not a corps de ballet, and that doesn't change for the duration of the night.
“Verge’s” other tie-in to vogue is Damon Green, the local voguing phenom who shows up with a bang by running full out and slip-n-sliding belly first on the upstage diagonal with one of the ballerinas, a grand and victorious flop from which we can’t help but laugh. He is dressed exactly the same as the women: in what looks like an early 90s bodysuit with the crotch snaps undone and black booty shorts. Each dons half of a black tutu, which puffs up in the back like a bustle. You see, “Verge” is more about ballet than vogue, testing the conventions of a form that is predominantly performed by short, rail thin, white people and often falls into tiresome heteronormative, stereotypically male or female archetypes.
Each of the cast members breaks this mold in one way or another, challenging the audience’s perception of who can or should do ballet. Moments in Act II, titled “and Labor” resonated more deeply, particularly when the four are bound together, pulling away in a danced tug of war but cheekily referencing Swan Lake’s cygnets. Ballet (capital B) is scattered throughout the work – a promenade in attitude here, a petite battement there – though the composition of the piece felt as if no one was allowed to do Ballet for too long. It’s enough, however, to prove that these are four highly trained dancers, worthy of the conversation at hand.
It’s a conversation I know all too well, as a former 5’9” bunhead. Anyone can do ballet, but as long as there’s “La Bayadere” there will be height and weight requirements in ballet companies. In a week that found 5’11” Sara Mulawski out of a job after Pennsylvania Ballet fired her for her height, there are as many opinions about race, gender, and body type in ballet as there are artistic directors.
The cast of “Verge” is a direct statement about the possibility of diversity in ballet, but I would argue that “Verge” isn’t ballet. Cunningham-Caldarella’s treatment of ballet is similar to that of Cunningham: ballet off its center, to use her words. We don’t call that ballet; we call it modern. It could be called contemporary ballet, although no one really knows what that is, or perhaps it’s contemporary dance (which suffers from its own identity crisis). Whatever it’s called, I guess my point is this: it is possible to engage with ballet vocabulary in new ways and have it become something fresh and new. Ballet isn’t dead; it’s having babies that are far more relevant to this generation of viewers. Whether or not those two words intersect doesn’t really matter, because there’s room for all of it.