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Shifts and Changes in Louisville Ballet's Choreographers Showcase

2015-03-04 12.51.49
Sam English
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The Louisville Ballet's Choreographers Showcase has been in performance this week, despite the late-season snowfall that has once again paralyzed the city. There are two more performances (at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday) – and you should not miss them. Artistic director Robert Curran has curated an eclectic and fascinating mix of programming. A new development for the Louisville Ballet is the inclusion of a video dance installation. Additionally, a guest choreographer has been introduced into a program that has traditionally focused on company members as choreographers. Together with a new orientation of the bleachers in the Main Street studios, this year's Showcase almost counts as brand new programming.

Australian choreographer Daniel Riley, whose tenure at Bangarra Dance Theatre overlapped with Curran's, ended the evening with an elemental piece, “Sacred Shifts.” Drawing on the traditions of his indigenous heritage, Riley has created a hauntingly beautiful ritual in a physical vocabulary that asks the Louisville Ballet dancers to embrace an aesthetic much different from that of other choreographers with whom they've worked in recent years. Here we are connected to the earth, absent are breathtaking leaps and lifts—rather it is our connection to the earth and those who have gone before that contours the bodies both still and in movement.

Helen Daigle demonstrates a stunning versatility as a shamanistic figure—light years away from the elegant and ruthless stepmother in the recent “A Cinderella Story”—seen initially in sculpted chiaroscuro effect shaking and drumming her feet on the ground. This figure is both shaper and observer of the ritual, requiring attention as well as directing the action of the other participants/dancers (Taylor Cobb, Jessica Columbus, Erica De La O, Isabel Jadick, Justin Michael Hogan, Mark Krieger, and Kristopher Wotjera.)

'Sea Change'

The evening began with Sanjay Saverimuttu's “Sea Change." This is the third dance of his that I've seen in the annual showcase and his choreography and stage pictures continue to develop in sophistication. Set to music of Felix Lajko, which incorporates the influences of the various cultures that have been part of Hungary, the nine dancers interweave, connect and reconnect in different groupings, most effectively in three pairs—two male dancers, two female dancers, and a male and female dancer—exploring what Saverimuttu's program notes suggest is an outdated expectation of partnering in dance. There is a repeated phrase in which one dancer reaches out to touch the other, lightly, which causes the other to be "pushed" away. The beginning of this piece had a fierce attack with Natalia Ashikhimina, Lexa Daniels, Alexandra Hoffman, Marta Kelly, Annie Honebrink Krieger and Kateryna Sellars demonstrating strong, clean footwork. When all nine dancers were on stage (the women joined by Rob Morrow, Brandon Ragland and Douglas Ruiz) there were times when the stage picture was too busy for the studio, and I wanted to have more distance to be able to appreciate just how much was going on.

'Sonnets in Blue'

Roger Creel's “Sonnets in Blue” continues his apparent fascination with our history, having contributed a meditation on “Shiloh” to last year's showcase. Here he explores Appalachian music, Shakespeare's sonnets and dance. In these programs one wonders if the casting is as much about scheduling as it is about choreographer's preferences. Whichever is the case here, it was delightful to see Jordan Martin showcased in this piece, interacting with both actor and dancers. It was fascinating to see how Creel blended traditional social dance steps with ballet—there were times when this was reminiscent of sequences from “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers” (a decidedly upmarket version!) Hogan, Krieger, Ruiz, and Phillip Velinov brought an athleticism to Creel's choreography and the highly rhythmic banjo picking that infused the piece with energy and fun. Ragland and Martin, standing in for the various lovers in the spoken sonnets, were well-matched. This three-fold combination of music, spoken word and dance would benefit from more development, to discover even more deeply where are the parallels and echoes, the differences and juxtapositions.

'The Flying Dutchman'

The most ambitious piece of the evening, Benjamin Wetzel's “The Flying Dutchman” was ultimately the least successful in this space; with 14 dancers on stage, it was just too cramped for the stage pictures to be clear. Nonetheless Wetzel has created a piece that bears more exploration, most especially in the transitions between the very distinct, evocative music selections he's chosen to explore this myth. The semaphore-influenced gestures that begin and end the piece, in solo, and which are repeated by the whole company within the piece, convey a sense of fear and desperation when faced with an elemental force stronger than us. The company moves with rigor, at times, as one suggesting both a sea-tossed ship and the sea itself; and there are times when the choreography feels like a demonstration piece, putting a large group of dancers through their paces.

'Theads of the Human Cloth'

Elizabeth Smith's contribution this year is “Threads of the Human Cloth,” set to music by J. Tyler Bentley. The space is a subway station, created through a double bench and lighting. Dancers enter the stage from seats in the audience, an interesting convention that doesn't quite work. Costumed in contemporary clothing that one would see in any city, the dancers congregate in different groups and individually. Smith's choreography is an awkward mix of quotidian realism and more abstract emotional expression that never quite gels. She is most successful in suggesting the awkwardness with which strangers handle personal space. The most interesting sequence is Wotjera's impatient businessman who bursts into a danced inner monologue, which is effective because it is a captured moment in time while the others are frozen around him.

'Behind Open Doors'

“Behind Open Doors” is the most formal choreography of Ryan Stokes I've seen (and I have to wonder if it is in any way a response to or reflection on Justin Michael Hogan's “Behind Closed Doors” from last year). Clearly created for this specific configuration, Velinov moved a doorway into different positions on stage; this then became the focal point for various combinations of dancers, with repeated gestures of seeking, yearning, exploration of the possibility of this threshold. At times it appeared as if Velinov was observing iterations of himself trying to determine a path and, at the end, he did make a decision about the threshold. The duet between De La O and Wotjera had a lightness and ease about it—it felt like a love letter to a pair who have danced so many times together for Louisville audiences. Leigh Anne Albrechta's solo was strong. These dancers were joined by Ahsikhimina, Tiffany Bovard, Forehand, Krieger and Ruiz.

***

The video installation, described in the program was actually in the lobby. This led to an awkward clump during intermission as those who had read the program, once seated, gathered around the L-shaped counter at the rear of the lobby to watch "Seven-Nine-One." More prominent signage on arrival and, if possible, a less cramped placement of the screen would have meant more people could have enjoyed Shelby Shenkman's stop motion creation, set to Philip Glass' “Mad Rush.” Focusing on the feet of Alexandra Hoffman and Alex Kingma, Shenkman's knee-down perspective draws the viewers attention to the specificity and precision of, for example, moving into first position, easing into relevé, or the difference between walking into the frame in bare feet and arriving en pointe.

The first half of the evening was the more unified part of the program. In part this was a by-product of the dual-toned costume pieces in each of the three pieces before the intermission: “Sea Change,” “Behind Open Doors,” and “The Flying Dutchman.” In contrast, the second half of the evening had a definite arc juxtaposing the familiar with the unfamiliar, and also playing with the expectations of the audience by introducing both spoken word and ceremonial artwork. Overall the evening explored ideas of place and space, our relationships to these core elements of who we are, and our relationships to each other.

The new arrangement of the bleachers, providing a tennis-court like performance space in the middle of the studio was mostly effective. It was clear that several choreographers staged their pieces to take advantage of this specific configuration; it would be interesting to see how “Behind Open Doors,” in particular, would have to adjust in a traditional proscenium setting. A drawback of the way the studio was set up was the position of the three speakers, all located on the east side of the space, leading to an unbalanced aural experience for the audience. None of the evening's company choreographers danced in other pieces. While I'm sure that made the rehearsal process much more manageable for all, it was disappointing that four of the company's male dancers were not on stage; especially as there were several times when other dancers had to make very quick costume changes between consecutive dances.

Well placed at the culmination of the evening, Riley's “Sacred Shifts” begs the question as to whether this is the beginning of a long-term relationship with the Louisville Ballet, as with choreographers Adam Hougland and Val Caniparoli, or whether there was a serendipity in him already being in this country and thus being available. More detailed program notes or an explanation from Robert Curran before or after the program about Riley's inclusion, the introduction of a new media piece, and why these particular dances were selected as part of this year's Choreographers Showcase would provide a valuable context for the committed ballet aficionados who people the Main Street studios for these performances. The studio performances are "up close and personal," and receiving some "inside" information is just added value for these loyal supporters.

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