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Review: Louisville Ballet's 'A New World'

Brendan McCarthy

The 2014-2015 season of the Louisville Ballet came to a close this weekend with Artistic Director Robert Curran's “A New World” program, the first mainstage performance fully programmed by Curran in his first season with the company.

Curran's new worlds include Louisville premieres, work from Australian choreographer Lucas Jervies, collaborations with Louisville-based artists, introducing new designers and composers to Louisville audiences, the then-new work of Balanchine in America and Lifar in France – a layered evening of balletic tradition and innovation.

Serge Lifar's 1943 “Suite en Blanc” was the curtain raiser. And what a curtain raiser it is. The opening tableau is breathtaking in its complex rhythms of levels, groupings and color; the latter a stark contrast between the mostly-white costumes and the solid black environment. Deploying the full company of artists and trainees, bolstered with four guest dancers, the stage of the Brown Theatre was a perfect frame for this piece. “Suite en Blanc”, set to Édouard Lalo's ballet suite from “Namouna”, is eight variations and a company finale. A Louisville premiere, and rarely performed in this country, this piece feels both historic – closer to the style of Diaghilev's productions than to the mid-twentieth century 'modern' choreography that is on the horizon – and also tantalizingly pre-modern in Lifar's approach to lifts, asymmetry, balance and more.

Lifar's choreography is sculptural in quality, with étude flowing into pose into lift. This quality was beautifully realized in Pas de Deux between Natalia Ashikhimina and Mark Krieger, in which the precision of each moment and movement, echoed between the two dancers, with deceptive simplicity, was a highlight of a piece with many highlights. Ashikhimina also danced La Cigarette on opening night, a brief, quirky variation in which classical technique is juxtaposed with steps and attitudes that suggest a commentary on that technique. Other opening night solos included Erin Langstrom's Serenade, Kristopher Wotjera dancing Mazurka and Flute danced by Erica De La O. The corps de ballet is frequently utilized to create a frame for the eight variations, an exercise in stillness – beautiful in itself and also a means to highlight each variation.

The middle piece of the evening was George Balanchine's 1957 “Square Dance”. The last time Balanchine's choreography was seen on the Louisville stage was the 60th Anniversary Celebration (2012) when the company danced “Theme and Variation”. This weekend's piece, staged by Elyse Borne for the Balanchine Trust, seemed more accessible for both dancers and audience than was the earlier performance. In an evening of premieres, it would have been helpful to note whether this too was a first for Louisville audiences or if previously performed. What was new was the scenic element commissioned from Louisville artist Letitia Quesenberry (and approved by the Balanchine Trust). This may be the first time that a local artist, from a genre not typically associated with theatrical design, has contributed to a production design for the ballet. Quesenberry's backdrop of two neutral yet dense squares, connected by a lighting installation which echoed the waist bands in the costumes, became a compelling focal point for the dancers' sequences. The elegant costume design, evocative of the original, is by Reid Bartelme and Harriet Jung.

Blending Traditions

“Square Dance” blends the traditions of American social dance and classical ballet (somewhat of a theme, given Roger Creel's “Sonnets in Blue” for last month's Choreographer's Showcase) set to classical music of Antonio Vivaldi and Arcangelo Corelli. Kateryna Sellars and Brandon Ragland danced the primary couple, on opening night, supported by six couples (different casting over the three performances). Balanchine and Lifar worked together and at times there is a clear line of influence between these two pieces, a reminder of the rich tradition of the personal passing on of choreography and interpretation from generation to generation. At times the dancers did not have quite the crispness necessary to sharpen and clarify the intricate foot and arm work that is a signature of Balanchine's ensemble work.

The somewhat under-promoted world premiere of Lucas Jervies' “What Light Is To Our Eyes”, set to the brand-new Classical Symphony No. 1 by Sebastian Chang, which itself received its world premiere in February with the Louisville Orchestra, was the final piece of the evening. Jervies and Curran are colleagues, having formed dance theatre JACK productions in Australia five years ago. Jervies is the second Australian choreographer whom Curran has introduced to Louisville audiences, and we can hope this connection between two new worlds can only strengthen and grow.

Jervies breaks several balletic conventions even before the ballet begins, as the dancers recreate their warm ups during intermission on a completely bare stage. An ominous rumble – possibly an explosion – offers a liminality between intermission and performance, as a sole dancer on stage acknowledges the reappearance of the conductor, and “What Light Is To Our Eyes” begins/continues. The completely bare stage is an interesting convention; audiences are well aware of the light stands stage right as well as the overhead lighting, and it's interesting to see the dancers 'off' stage; and yet the walls of the Brown stage are hardly an 'empty space' and there were times when the messiness of a working theatre distracted from the compelling dynamics of the dance.

An ensemble of ten dancers in rainbow-hued tights filled the stage with complex sculpted tableaux that flowed into intricate partnerings and pairings. The ambiguity inherent in the title of this piece is explored on stage – are these dancers finding themselves in themselves and each other; are they seeking light in which to find themselves; is their presence within light shedding light on who they are; when do we need light, or shadow; the variations are almost infinite and this infinity is explored through dance and through light and color. The first noticeable shift in lighting was as Chang's music shifted from orchestral to solo piano and the side light bloomed, throwing the dancers' torsos into strong chiaroscuro; the final lighting sequence provided an increasingly powerfully-bright light that suffused the bare stage and, in the final seconds, also included the auditorium lights which clearly off set some audience members used to the comfort of a darkened vantage point – a final fillip to the piece's title.

A Connection Between Choreography

As in many programs in recent years, the dancers seemed most at home in the more contemporary piece. There was a sense of ease and freedom in the Jervies piece that was less evident in the first two ballets, in which, at times, it felt like they were working hard rather than that effort being invisible to audiences. And yet, they also presented a strong sense of the connectivity between all the choreography of the evening, which has become a hallmark of this company's aesthetic over the years.

This is the second program this season that we have been treated to live music – beyond the now-traditional live orchestra for “The Nutcracker” – and if this is a new tradition it is one for which we should all be grateful! The musicians were under the baton of Tara Simoncic as usual. The opening phrases of Lalo's suite were uncomfortably tentative and somewhat muddy. During “Square Dance” there was an overly-long break between movements, accompanied by rustling of paper as if the right page of the score was being sought. At times it felt like the tempo for the first two pieces was slower than usual – which may have been a director choice, rather than conductor choice.

A scheduling downside to live music is that this is also, unfortunately, the second time in which the Ballet's performance schedule has conflicted with another Orchestra commitment. We can hope as more partnerships evolve that there are fewer programming overlaps (this weekend is also the final weekend of the Humana Festival of New American Plays at Actors Theatre of Louisville) so that the loyal arts patrons of multiple Louisville arts organizations can spread out both their attendance and their ticket purchases over more weekends.

As this season comes to a close, the Louisville Ballet is already looking towards next season, and there are some interesting announcements: another collaboration with the Louisville Orchestra including a piece composed by Teddy Abrams, the return of choreographer Adam Hougland, and a revisioning of Diaghilev's “Petrouchka”; an all Balanchine program to end the season; the delightful “Coppélia” choreographed by Curran; and, of course, the perennial “Nutcracker” and the ever-intriguing Studio programs: Choreographers Showcase and Studio Connections. Here's to Robert Curran's second Louisville season!

 Kathie E.B. Ellis reviews ballet for 89.3 WFPL News.

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