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Louisville Ballet's Interpretation Of Stravinsky Is Disturbing, Evocative, Powerful

Erica Peterson

With the opening of the Louisville Ballet’s current mainstage season on Friday night, Louisville’s fall arts season is now truly in full swing.

Producing Artistic and Executive Director Robert Curran has paired together two ballets set to music by Stravinsky.

First on the program is Balanchine’s Rubies, one of three suites in his Jewels full-length ballet. Jewels celebrates its 50th anniversary this year and Louisville Ballet joins New York City Ballet, the Royal Ballet and other companies worldwide producing this gem of Balanchine’s quintessential modern American choreography.

Balancing the program is a revisioning of another Stravinsky ballet, The Firebird, with Australian choreographer Lucas Jervies. And what a reconception this is. Only those with intimate knowledge of the original could quibble at his connection with the music, as he plumbs the emotional breadth of Stravinsky’s score.

As has become traditional with productions of Jewels, the costuming reflects the original 1967 designs of Barbara Karinska, with Louisville Ballet using costumes from Cincinnati Ballet. The lush, deep red of the costumes, offset with sparkling costume jewelry, together with a clean, cool back drop (lighting by Trad A Burns) and a bare stage floor, earned the round of applause as the curtain went up on the opening tableau.

Choreographed for a Principal Lady and Gentleman (Erica De La O and Benjamin Wetzel), a Second Lady (Natalia Ashikhmina), eight ladies and four gentlemen, Rubies is a delightful series of divertissements that take a bow musically and choreographically to jazz. Linked together, as jewels are in various settings, this is a vehicle to showcase both the corps and principals.

De La O and Wetzel were on excellent form, almost flirting with the jazzy aspects of the choreography. Ashikhmina had a rough opening, slipping twice on the high gloss Marley floor, to the consternation of the audience. Both corps of women and men handled the intricate choreographic patterns well, as Louisville Ballet dancers continue to deepen their personal connections to Balanchine’s aesthetic and technique.

Collaborating with Australian scenic and costume designer Elizabeth Gadsby and working with lighting designer Burns for the first time, Jervies creates a disturbing, powerful, evocation of human displacement, and the toll that it takes personally and collectively.

Another absolutely bare stage: the Whitney stripped to its most basic, accented with a steep, triangular wedge, angled from the back right of the stage in the direction of the left-hand corner opposite.

And over the top at the beginning — and several times more — came first one female figure, then more, both men and women and, finally, the children. Moving in concert, but each absolutely isolated. And yet, group instinct also created fascinating patterns of pausing, grouping, stalling, circling, as the whole group inexorably moved forward.

Gadsby’s stark landscape stands in for both natural and man-made examples of hostile environments, her costuming emphasizing the ordinariness of those who are displaced — jeans, sneakers, a couple of brightly colored kids’ tops, but overwhelmingly neutral. The swirling and surging mass of bodies at times reminded me of Breughel’s people-full vistas, at times of those images that appear neutral but as you zoom in, the conglomerate of photos reveal individual images within the larger image.

The two pas de deux offer heartbreaking glimpses into what survival can mean to each of us. Partnered again, De La O and Wetzel agonizingly experience the sexual violence that can be part of equally violent dislocation. Meanwhile, Leigh Anne Albrechta (the apparent ‘leader’ of this collective of people) and Brandon Ragland experience the desperate need for close human connection in the midst of despair. In colorful counterpoint, the nine children (students of the Ballet School) remind us that any location and any object can be made for play — the resilience of generations of children in refugee camps.

Taking a cue from a recent controversial installation by Ai Weiwei, Jervies creates an extended sequence in which the dancers work with large swathes of metallic fabric, the rustles and swishes counterpointing the music both awkwardly and aggressively.

The final moments juxtapose a glimpse of hope as each dancer suddenly finds the energy to run, (to something better?) while De La O, at center, continues to express the agony of displacement.

New to the Louisville Ballet was conductor Nathan Fifield whose crisp and subtle conducting showcased the musicians providing the instrumental spine of the evening.

The final two performances of Stravinsky! are Saturday at 2:00 and 8:00pm.

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