The last afternoon I spent at New York Theater Ballet was for a rehearsal in February. Now I was back again, and it was surreal — not just because the space, a quaint studio-theater with airy ceilings and stained glass windows, has the quality of being in another century. It was more to do with the occasion, something that wouldn’t have seemed the least bit groundbreaking back then: an actual performance. Inside.
On Wednesday, the company hosted LIFT Lab Live, the first of two programs running through Nov. 14. The audience was limited to 10. (For context, the dancers added up to six, including the guest artist Miki Orihara.) This intimate chamber group, led by the artistic director and founder, Diana Byer, presented nine short works in a program that seemed to be more about nourishing the dancers and choreographers than offering inventive dance. Programs are tighter now out of necessity, but shouldn’t a series of short dances add up to something?
Live performance has become exceedingly rare, and you take what you can get. Watching dancers express themselves with their bodies is an act of faith on our part, too; it’s an exchange of energy. At the start of the program, Ms. Byer read a quote from Stella Adler: “Life beats down and crushes the soul and art reminds you that you have one.”
With the windows and doors flung open in the company’s second-floor space at St. Marks’s Church-in-the-Bowery, the sound of birds occasionally accompanied the musicians, Alice Hargrove on piano and Amy Kang on cello. The new rules of performance not only let the outside in but also enhanced the program, which began with Jean Volpe’s “Speranza” for Mónica Lima, whose filigree footwork filled the stage with a loveliness that matched her gentle look. Head to toe in pink — including her mask — she could have stepped out of a jewelry box.
But Ms. Lima, a highlight of the program, was a different dancer altogether in “A Study With Mónica,” a work by Melissa Toogood. A former member of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company, Ms. Toogood may be new to choreography, but she can clearly see the dancer standing in front of her. This time Ms. Lima, dancing to Busra Kayıkci’s shimmering piano piece “Dogum/Birth,” was not a ballerina in a box, but a modern woman.
Starting on her shins, she pressed her palms onto the floor, leaning back so they slid with her, brushing the tops of her foot and legs before moving onto her chest, neck and head as she rose. Throughout the piece, what stood out was her approach to performing, as her clear shapes mingled with balanced turns and jumps, Ms. Lima wasn’t presentational, and that was a relief.
Other selections washed over the stage in a more traditional way: The athletic duet “A Tango,” by Margo Sappington; the dreamy solo “Impromptu No. 1,” by Duncan Lyle for Amanda Treiber, decked out in black tulle and rhinestones; and the angsty male solos in “Distance” by Richard Alston. The choreography in “Distance” — it will be part of a longer ballet, planned for next spring — often felt like it was going around in circles. Reach and retreat; lower and rise.
Giulia Faria, a powerhouse of a dancer, tore through “The Sphinx,” an excerpt from José Limón’s “The Winged,” and Alexis Branagan did her breathless best to stay on top of “Tickling Titans (Part IV)” by Steven Melendez. Its hasty changes of directions and momentum could be distracting, yet when Mr. Melendez slowed things down, details afforded a closer look, like a tendu sequence in which Ms. Branagan, standing tall, brushed her stretched foot around her body like a clock.
Ms. Treiber returned for “Fall of the Leaf,” a solo by Gemma Bond to music by Imogen Holst that included, sigh, a bench. Ms. Treiber arched and stretched over it, employing a kind of fraught longing that didn’t add up to much; when she did dash away, she let the music overcome her, using her frayed fingers and elongated arms to mimic the plucking of the strings on Ms. Kang’s cello. The solo seemed as if it were meant to be raw, but it could have used more nerve.
The program included one outlier: Martha Clarke’s “Nocturne,” in which Ms. Orihara made her entrance by creeping out of a door at the back of the studio. Topless with her head tied in a wrap and her lower half in a white Romantic tulle skirt, she kept her breasts covered using her arms and the fabric — transforming herself from a hunched creature into a dying swan. Finally, she unraveled the ribbon wrapped around her neck and rose from the floor holding it in front of her like a liquid cane. Taking small, staggering steps, she made her way back to where she came.
Was it good weird? Not really. But you take what you get, and sometimes you just have to take the weird any way it comes.
LIFT Lab Live
Through Nov. 14 at St. Marks’s Church-in-the-Bowery, 131 East 10th Street (entrance on 11th Street), nytb.org.