By SUSAN REITER
At first, Brian Reeder and Michele Wiles had no reason to suspect they'd be such close collaborators. When they were both dancing at American Ballet Theatre, they were certainly friends---they particularly bonded over Japanese films during a tour in Tokyo---but they rarely worked together in rehearsal. As a principal, Wiles performed the standard catalog of ballerina roles, while Reeder, a corps de ballet dancer with a flair for character parts, wasn't front and center.
But then, near the end of his tenure at ABT, Reeder found his voice as a choreographer of quirky, dramatically detailed works. Then Wiles became a co-founder of BalletNext, a plucky chamber troupe. Suddenly, it became easy for their aesthetic worlds to collide.
Now Wiles has turned to Reeder for a series of new ballets, and he has discovered that as a dancer, she is "an unexpected muse." The fruit of this thriving artistic partnership will be on display in a BalletNext program that plays through Saturday at New York Live Arts.
As is evidenced in the current program, both artists are pushing each other to break new ground. By committing so seriously to Reeder's work, for instance, Wiles seems to be altering her style as an artistic director. Since it was founded in 2011, BalletNext has ranged all over the choreographic map, but now the troupe is digging deeply with one artist. "I felt it was going to be much more focused," Wiles says of the collaboration. "Over these past two years, we have developed very interesting relationships, and I believe [Brian is] someone who's part of the core of creating BalletNext."
She appreciates Reeder's serious commitment to the classical vocabulary---all three works in the current program are danced in pointe shoes---as well as his unusually varied background with three major companies. In previous works, she notes, he's shown an endearing individuality and a willingness to explore unusual characters and scenarios through the classical vocabulary.
For his part, Reeder has responded to working with these particular artists. "I looked in my little purple notebook of ideas and started thinking about what would work for more of a chamber dance troupe and for Michele's specific dance abilities," he says. Wiles impressed him when he saw her take on roles in Antony Tudor's psychologically exploratory ballets at ABT. He---and many others---observed new shading in her performances, beyond her formidable technical strength. "It was interesting to watch her grow," he recalls. "She went beyond her technique and grew into more of an artist."
The current program asks the dancers to evoke a variety of moods in a wide range of styles. The melancholy Picnic, first unveiled in October 2012, is inspired by Peter Weir's 1975 film Picnic at Hanging Rock, about a group of young women who mysteriously disappear. "What I like about the film is its nebulous gray tone," Reeder says. "It's not meant to be an explicit narrative. I like that it's unresolved. I feel it's a piece about memory and loss." Picnic , though it explores the girls' relationships, leaves itself similarly open to interpretation.
For Different Homes, a new duet for Wiles and Jens Weber, Reeder has created a pas de deux in which the two dancers never hold hands. Choreographing to a Britten cello suite and intentionally denying himself many of the standard duet options, Reeder says, "I was trying to challenge myself not to go down the usual partnering road. Unlike Picnic, where I had a stylized vision and theme ---and a place and time---I went in and wanted to see what would happen, physically."
As they've rehearsed the program's world premiere - Surmisable Units, a work for six dancers to a Steve Reich score---Wiles and her fellow BalletNext dancers have paid close attention to the nuances and details that Reeder points out as they navigate through the intense pulsations of the music. Arm positions are meticulously sculpted, for instance, and a series of overlapping phrases for three women has been precisely arranged.
Reeder seems exhilarated by the challenge presented by the propulsive Reich music and by working with less of the specific scenario that usually marks his work. "It started to feel like a machine/conveyor belt to me. This music was pushing me with its constant meter. It was a good fit; it's what I was looking for, to have that extra drive."
Susan Reiter is a freelance arts journalist who contributes to the Los Angeles Times, Playbill, Dance Magazine and other publications
Photo of Michele Wiles and Jens Weber by Nisian Hughes