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Review: Mixed Program Opens Louisville Ballet’s 65th Season

Sam English

The Louisville Ballet is one of the oldest ballet companies in the country, and this year it's celebrating its 65th anniversary with a year-long celebration.

The programming kicked off this weekend with “Stars and Stripes," which included the works of American-adopted Balanchine, modern dance icon Twyla Tharp and a world premiere of a work by artistic and executive director Robert Curran.

Curran’s “How They Fade” bridged the other two works, taking the second part of the evening.

His choreography is boldly athletic and lyrical in equal measure, showcasing the nine dancers in an aesthetic and vocabulary with which they are all familiar. Curran introduced YASSOU vocalist Lilie Bytheway-Hall onto the stage with the dancers, integrating Bytheway-Hall as both observer and participant, at times appearing to double with Brandon Ragland’s similar function. YASSOU colleagues joined the Louisville Orchestra in the pit, performing their haunting original composition for Curran’s premiere.

Continuing Curran’s commitment to cross-genre collaborations, Louisville-based Letitia Quesenberry returns to Louisville Ballet as scenic designer (her debut was for Balanchine’s “Square Dance” in the 2013-14 season,) collaborating with media designer Amelia Sweeney.

Curran has talked about nostalgia as a central motif in “How They Fade,” and Quesenberry and Sweeney’s backdrop subtly suggests how old film fades and spots as time passes, and this deterioration often overtakes the original, blurring our memories in a tangible way. Less effective is the use of not one, but three, lightweight fabric screens in succession that frame then fall, from just inside the proscenium, during the final pas de deux of Ragland and Leigh Anne Albrechta.

Joining Ragland and Albrechta in this piece are Roger Creel, Helen Daigle, Justin Michael Hogan, Emily Reinking O’Dell, Kateryna Sellars, Ryan Stokes and Benjamin Wetzel. Trad A Burns returns to the company as lighting designer.

“How They Fade” is a fascinating, kinesthetic exploration of memory and relationships, a work that we can hope will become part of Louisville Ballet’s regular repertoire, allowing the dancers even more fully to engage with Curran’s choreography over time.

'Theme and Variations'

Balanchine’s “Theme and Variations” began the evening, and as the curtain rose on the iconic tableau, set against a star drop with three oversize chandeliers above, I was reminded of the sculpted opening tableau of Serge Lifar’s “Suite en Blanc,” which opened the first program that Curran selected for Louisville Ballet.

Of course, we've seen Louisville Ballet perform “Theme and Variations” before — at the gala for the 60th Anniversary.

Set to Tchaikovsky’s Suite No. 3 for Orchestra, in 12 movements, Balanchine’s choreography is an homage to Russian classical ballet, at the same extending the form of that style. It is an exhibition of precise, sharp, classical technique which, in some movements, appeared to be very hard work for some of the ensemble.

It is, of course, hard work, but the audience should be less aware of that effort. Natalia Ashikhmina and Mark Krieger, in the central pas de deux, gave us some of that effortlessness with an ease to their partnering that lifted their variation delightfully.

While the commitment to live music for much of Louisville Ballet’s programming is a very welcome fillip for dancer and audience alike, their playing for “Theme and Variations," under the baton of Tara Simoncic this weekend, was not as sharp as the choreography merits. At times, the tempo dragged down the efforts of the dancers.

Tharp's Choreography Shines

Twyla Tharp’s choreography is rarely seen on Louisville’s stages, so to see the 1986 “In The Upper Room” with Jennifer Tipton’s original lighting recreated at the Whitney this weekend was indeed a treat.

This piece is emblematic of Tharp’s fusion of many dance forms and movement aesthetics. Set to a commission by Philip Glass, the work is in nine movements in which various combinations of dancers plunge, dart, weave and feint through fog, shadows and sharply delineated spaces of light.

A special callout to Helen Daigle and Kateryna Sellers, who anchored six of the nine movements with apparent insouciance, as their movement iterated the repetitive underlying rhythm of Glass’ cadences. The articulated curtain call gave the audience an opportunity to recognize each combination of performers from each movement.

Four new dancers have joined the company this season, two promoted from the corps of trainees, bringing the ensemble now to 26 dancers (plus the 22-strong class of trainees, several of whom were onstage this weekend).

The capacity to field almost 50 performers onstage bodes well for the three large-scale story ballets on this season’s schedule: the annual “The Nutcracker,” Curran’s revisioning of “Swan Lake” and Alun Jones’ return with his staging of “The Sleeping Beauty” — a season-long celebration of Tchaikovsky.

Collectively, the three ballets on this season-opener program put the core of the Louisville Ballet through its paces. Each work in its own way is deeply demanding on the technique and stamina of the dancers, several of whom were featured in all three works.

This is a company that sparkles in contemporary work; it appears to be embedded in their DNA. There’s a joie de vivre that emanates from the performers as they wrestle (sometimes literally) with complex formations, and create lifts and partnering combinations that transcend the traditional.

Curran’s and Tharp’s choreography put the best that the company has to offer on show as they launched another significant milestone in the Louisville Ballet’s journey.