Strong Ensemble and Solo Efforts Anchor Louisville Ballet's Season Closer
Friday evening's opening performance of “Complementary Voices,” the culminating program of the 2013-2014 season, demonstrated the strength that has become the Louisville Ballet during Bruce Simpson's twelve-year tenure as Artistic Director. Currently a company of 24 dancers (plus trainees), the Louisville Ballet has acquired a cohesion and depth in recent years with the men's and women's corps being equally strong. At the same time, individual dancer's skills have been allowed to shine in solo roles. Both these attributes were on show during this program.“Complementary Voices” ran for three performances, Friday and Saturday, at the Kentucky Center’s Whitney Hall.Val Caniparoli has become a staple at the Louisville Ballet, which has performed several of his works in recent years. Friday saw the unveiling of Caniparoli's first world premiere (aside from his re-staging of “The Nutcracker) for the company, “Spaghetti Western.” From the opening tableau, visually, we're in the world of this movie genre, with the men wearing iconic dusters and hats slung low over the forehead (by costume designer Sandra Woodall). Todd Elmer's lighting in hues of yellow, orange and pink also transport us to that ambiguous American West/Mediterranean landscape of plains and sierras that Spaghetti Westerns inhabit. The piece is set to music by the emblematic Ennio Morricone (whose music was also used by Rob Morrow in this season's Choreographers Showcase). For this piece, selections were taken from both well-known and lesser-known spaghetti westerns.Conceived in ten vignettes, “Spaghetti Western” covers many of the tropes of the genre, but I was never sure if it was a parody or an homage. While the shooting death of Erica De La O, as she came between two men in one vignette, evoked pity and shock, the hanging death of one of the men in a different variation was met by uncertain titters from the audience. The repeated gestus of holstering and un-holstering the gun struck an uneasy balance between heightened realism (the action was larger than life) and child's play (the gun was represented by how the hand and fingers were held). Is Caniparoli commenting on the inherent violence of this genre or the fact that the movie violence is so over-the-top that it is frequently unrealistic?Setting dance to lyrics can be challenging and the vignette to "Lonesome Billy" (from “Guns Don't Argue”) alternated between concrete illustration and more abstract lyricism which, again, left me wondering whether we are commenting on the genre or fully embracing it, as I received both messages. The most successful blend of music and movement was the women's variation to “Hesitation Rag” (from “A Gun for Ringo”), which was charmingly executed.“Spaghetti Western” is too slender to have the weight of significance cited in the promotions for this evening's program, and it existed in such a different world from the other two that it felt much more a contrast than complementary. I would be interested in seeing this as a curtain raiser in a program including “Billy the Kid” (which I have seen the Louisville Ballet dance) and/or “Rodeo”, for example, in which audiences could experience how different generations of choreographers and dancers have created variations on an American myth.This was the first time for me to see Adam Hougland's “Fragile Stasis”, the centerpiece of the evening. It’s one of the six pieces he has created for the Louisville Ballet (2007 premiere) in his role as principal choreographer for the company. Anchored by a structure designed by Marion Williams that would feel at home in the 21C Museum Hotel a block away, this piece plays with our expectations from the first chords of music, when the audience sees a hand come up onto the lip of the stage from the orchestra pit, and all the dancers emerge from — and disappear into at the end — a nether region open to our interpretation.The ensemble of sixteen dancers worked as a tight-knit formation, apparently effortlessly rippling between sculpted poses and fluid tableaux as the liminality between movement and stillness, as well as the fragility of either state, is explored. De La O and Mark Krieger were featured in a duet which formed a stark counterpoint to the ebbing and flowing of the ensemble dancing.The evening began with the breathtakingly haunting and evocative “Tethered Pulse” choreographed by Ma Cong to music by Zoe Keating and Joan Jeanrenaud. Last season company member Brandon Ragland used Keating's “Exurgency” for his contribution to the Choreographers Showcase. Given her work within the dance world, maybe the Louisville Ballet will consider commissioning Keating to compose an original score for the company's next world premiere.Originally created for Tulsa Ballet, this piece exquisitely integrates the human form, chic costumes (un-credited from Tulsa), and some of the most exciting lighting (by designer Les Dickert) seen on the Louisville Ballet stage.Blending classical ballet, modern influences and Chinese performance motifs, “Tethered Pulse” is visually and emotionally compelling. The ensemble of twelve dancers embraces Ma Cong's elegant choreography, fluently executing his clean extended lines and intricately interlaced lifts and combinations. The six couples explore their individual relationships and the interrelationships between the couples. The most visually arresting variation is the one in which Kateryna Sellers and Benjamin Wetzel are tethered by a long ribbon and spool into and away from each other, connected umbilically, as it were, until in the final moment of the piece, from off stage, one end of the ribbon is released and it spools into free-fall. Kristopher Wojtera and De La O were also featured in a passionate pas de deux. I hope that we will see more of Ma Cong's choreography in the Louisville Ballet's repertoire.The beginning of the evening set the tone: Simpson stepped through the curtain to give his customary pre-show speech and before he could say much more than “good evening,” the Whitney Hall audience burst into a sustained round of applause and a standing ovation. This was to be an evening not just about these three ballets and choreographers, but also an occasion to celebrate the significance of Simpson's leadership, under which new choreography has been interwoven into the lifeblood of this company, a fact underscored by the presence of all three choreographers for this opening night. (Note: Simpson will retire in June.) The audience showed their full appreciation when each choreographer joined the dancers on stage after each of their ballets as well. I could have wished that the audience would have had one last time to express their esteem for Simpson during the final curtain call but, as he indicated at the beginning of the evening, the evening's dancing said everything about his time with the Louisville Ballet.