New York Theater Ballet is a chamber troupe addicted to modernism, staging works by choreographers, past and present, who have extended and challenged the pure-dance aspects of dance theater. Because plenty of its works are by the dead — Vaslav Nijinsky, Frederick Ashton, Antony Tudor, Agnes de Mille, Merce Cunningham, Jerome Robbins, James Waring — it’s easy to think of it as a nostalgic troupe, picking up small-scale old pieces as an alternative to the ubiquitous Balanchine uptown.
Yet this isn’t nostalgia; it’s active curiosity. Theater Ballet likes its dances tough and lean, with very few wow endings or love stories. Its artistic director is a woman, and it has a good track record in commissioning new dances from other women choreographers. And it likes its music live.
The program it presented on Friday and Saturday, at Florence Gould Hall, exemplified this. On paper, three pieces by Jerome Robbins (usually Mr. Accessible) and a world premiere by Richard Alston (who, at 69, is Britain’s most senior acclaimed choreographer) may look undemanding. In performance, they proved dense, complex, uncompromising: dances about dance and dancing, laden with intricate choreographic detail with an emphasis on tight-knit musicality.
Mr. Alston’s creation, “The Seasons,” set to John Cage’s score of that name, is dedicated to the memory of the critic and scholar David Vaughan, who influenced Theater Ballet, and who died in October. Mr. Vaughan — whose credo was that the ABC’s of contemporary classicism were Ashton, Balanchine and Cunningham — was also among the first to give serious attention to choreography by Mr. Alston, who first dedicated a work to Mr. Vaughan in the 1970s and shared those dance beliefs. In a program note for “The Seasons,” Mr. Alston refers to the period of 1946 to ’47, during which Ashton made “Symphonic Variations” (largely based on the theme of the seasons); Balanchine made “The Four Temperaments”; and Cunningham, using Cage’s new score, made “The Seasons.” Cunningham’s work, though a success, did not survive after 1948; Mr. Alston took inspiration from this master’s later dances.