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New Music, Dance Pairings An Exciting Twist For Louisville Ballet's 'Showcase'

Sam English

The Louisville Ballet studio bleachers were packed last week as audiences came to see not only new choreography but to hear live music composed by area musicians for the new works.

Focusing on only four longer works — three by company members and one by a guest artist — the final performance on Saturday had a sense of an intentional program of one-act ballets as opposed to an evening of shorts.

The highlight of the evening was the collaboration between commissioned choreographer Andrea Schermoly and composer/percussionist Tim Barnes, which began part two. Barnes also programs Dreamland on Market Street, where he has made a commitment to dance and performance artists, as well as to music of all genres. Schermoly comes to Louisville with an impressive resume that includes companies in South Africa and England, as well as in this country, and has garnered awards for her choreography over the past few years.

“Fractured” features an ensemble of 10 dancers and four musicians. The piece began with Helen Daigle and composer Barnes on stage as he drew an area with a long stick that progressively proscribed the psychological arena of Daigle’s existence. Even within the necessary limitations of a studio performance, this work integrated musicians, dancers, lighting, and costuming the most holistically. The audience was enveloped in the disturbing dissonance — aural and visual — of  "afflictions of the mind," according to Schermoly’s choreographer’s statement.

The ensemble is fierce and embodies mental perturbation eerily. The electronic sound bed accompanied, at times, with the rhythmic pounding of eight sticks is a perfect counterpoint to the aggression and angst embodied in the choreography. Schermoly plays with the ideas of each of us fracturing ourselves, of projecting our anxiety on others, and allowing others to define our battles.

The final moment is chilling: As the ensemble continues to roil, Daigle is stopped by Phillip Velinov calmly arresting her movement by touching her forehead then casually walking away from her.

After the intensity of “Fractured,” Eduard Forehand’s “A Well Worn Path” with music by Kyle James Hauser was a necessary release, a whimsical study of the too-well known juxtaposed with the possibility of the unexplored. The six variations which Hauser played on banjo and then guitar brought the audience into a more familiar aural world. The ensemble set the tone for the predictability of quotidian existence. Then the unexpected: a moment of disconnect and possibly rejection, and Ryan Stokes is isolated and stripped of his sameness. And then a moment of complicity with the audience: Maybe this isn’t so bad, back to predictability. This experience is repeated in the fourth variation, with Erica De La O breaking the mold.

Stokes and De La O come together, and after some witty resistance from De La O, the fifth variation is a duet with fascinating lifts and partner work. Predictability sneaks back in the final variation, with another moment of surprise at the very end as Sanjay Saverimuttu breaks ranks to slide across the stage as lights fade. This is the first piece I’ve seen that Forehand has choreographed; its lighthearted approach to an idea that can paralyze some people in the real world was a charming evening ender.

The first half of the evening was dedicated to the work of two company members who frequently contribute to the Choreographers’ Showcase: Ashley Thursby and Brandon Ragland. Thursby was paired with classical composer Daniel Gilliam, whose name and voice will be familiar to listeners of  WFPL's sister station WUOL Classical 90.5. Ben Sollee returns to the Louisville Ballet with his collaboration with Ragland. (Earlier he composed for Mikelle Bruzina’s 2009 “Sansei.”)

The curtain raiser “Collective Perception” by Thursby was set on 11 dancers to Gilliam’s piano accompaniment, played by company pianist Javier Candejas. This is the second ensemble piece of Thursby’s I’ve seen, and she continues to handle large groups of dancers with growing assurance. Two pairs of dancers (Natalia Ashikhmina, Roger Creel, Mark Krieger, Christy Corbitt Miller) frequently were mirrored on each side of the stage, highlighting key figures that would otherwise have been lost to one part of the audience or the other.

Thursby’s choreographer’s statement said this piece is inspired by the data that the median of women’s annual wages is 78 percent of that of men’s earnings. This idea was not always clear to me through the intricate groupings of the nine women and two men dancers. What was the role of the men in this scenario? Oblivious? In one repeated sequence, Creel placed a ribbon-as-blindfold on his eyes. Supporters of women? One movement ended with Creel and Krieger lifting Ashikhmina in one smooth, soaring rise above them. Complicity? A repeated figure involved Krieger and two female dancers intertwined with a circular ribbon that they wove through and around them in a continuous loop.

At times, Gilliam’s music suggested the tinkling of glass — a hope that the glass ceiling can be broken, perhaps. Although in a nod to the real world, that sequence was nowhere close to the resolution of the piece.

Ragland is the company member whose choreography is most familiar to Louisville Ballet audiences.

“Against the Groove” — with music composed and played by Ben Sollee — was for 10 dancers. Ragland’s work continues to develop in sophistication, and his choreography for his ensemble was assured, precise and rigorous. Ragland’s choreographer’s statement lays out an exploration of masculinity within society’s expectations and constructs.

Within an ensemble dominated by women and featuring only two men, this idea becomes highly textured. Costuming was unisex and, together with several choreographic sequences, suggestive of a militaristic training exercise — perhaps the societal institution that is assumed to be the most masculine.

The female dancers were featured as much as, if not more than, the male dancers in multiple strenuous sequences, belying any controversy over whether men and women can, or should, undertake the same physical — and by extension, psychological or emotional — endeavors. At times, the men’s choreography became much more lyrical than the women’s. It was another lens into the roles that society expects of both men and women.

The evening’s choreography could have been titled Ballet’s New Athleticism. All of the choreographers’ work was highly rigorous, demanding a kinetic energy and dynamism that is much more self-evident to audiences than in more traditional ballet — where the rigor is present but camouflaged with more formal moves and costuming. The dancers embraced their colleagues’ demands, and it was wonderful to see the warm and generous smiles and applause, along with heaving chests, they accorded their choreographer at the end of each piece.

This development of the Choreographers’ Showcase to include not only live music but music composed for these new works is exciting. But the ballet would have done well to provide more information about the process the creators took to arrive at these works.

An earlier version of this story misidentified Ryan Stokes in "A Well Worn Path." 


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