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Review: Louisville Ballet's 'Choreographer's Showcase' Mixes Dance, Spoken Word

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For this year’s Choreographers Showcase, the Louisville Ballet has taken last year’s inclusion of spoken word in the program up a notch by intentionally partnering with area poets. The seven works that emerged — created by pairing the poets with seven company choreographers — all shared a common thread of exploring and interpreting society. The ones that were most successful were those that most specifically integrated word and movement.

In his curtain speech, Producing and Artistic Director Robert Curran further articulated the contemporary thrust of the evening: work that responds to the many ‘ism’s, systemic and personal, that we face in today’s world.

The most overtly political of the works was choreographer Helen Daigle’s “Perspective,” set to poet Steve Cambron’s “Don’t Mess With My Sky.” Dancers Justin Michael Hogan and Rob Morrow embraced the sharp, aggressive choreography of their respective, polar opposite, perspectives. In the third movement, dancer Emily Reinking O’Dell offered the hope of coming together through more lyrical moves. The final moment was of affirmation as the two men came together to lift O’Dell up, looking up to the sky, whose shade of blue was at the metaphorical root of the men’s differences.

Brandon Ragland has choreographed many pieces for the company and for the showcase he was explosively paired with poet Hannah Drake and three powerful poems in “A Time…A Place.”

The final poem exemplified the unseen and dysfunctional barriers that stand in the way of women, people of color and many others to being in a particular place. Drake’s presence on stage along with dancers Benjamin Wetzel, Natalia Ashikmina and Christy Corbett exemplified this reality and her powerful delivery of her work brought the audience to a spontaneous standing ovation. The first piece was about the death of a black mother’s son, and Ragland’s choreography brought out the unimaginable anguish of losing a child to violence.

Ashley Thursby is also a frequent choreographer in these programs. This time she is paired with poet-actress Teresa Willis and her spoken word piece “Discount Narcissus.” Mark Krieger danced Narcissus, Kristopher Wotjera was the reflection, and Willis performed Echo; all three shared the spoken word on stage.

Thursby continues to grow as a choreographer, here creating some dynamic partnering between Narcissus and his reflection, an example being a complex lift by Krieger, as Wotjera maneuvered from above him to the ground, a sophisticated interpretation of reflection. This work could only become stronger with more development.

The costumes for these three were not as effective as in other pieces, neither the fabric nor the colors supported the traditional ideal of Narcissus, and Echo’s painted face was just distracting.

“Frames” by guest choreographer Jeannde Ford and Artistic Director Robert Curran paired with the poem “What is Age?” by Jonnie Bonnet and some intricate video of the choreography presented us with the most sophisticated production values of the evening.

Ford grew up in a home of dancers in California and was introduced to both ballet and some of the early greats of American modern dance in the last century. These influences show through in moments of her choreography. She also explores gesture (such as American Sign Language and mudras — symbolic hand gestures found in Hinduism and Buddhism) which are clearly integral to her work, but are frustratingly elusive for audience members who can identify what they are but can’t interpret them specifically.

Nonetheless this is a compelling exploration of ageism. Ford and Curran are joined in performance by Lexa Daniels, representing three of our seven ages, younger, middle, and older, and the choreography interweaves these three ages with grace and beauty — a feat in a genre in which “old” is often a dancer’s 30’s. Curran’s partnering gave us a glimpse of what he was lauded for during his dancing career.

“Lines” was choreographed by Leigh Anne Albrechta set to the spoken word of James Lindsey. The musical prologue (to music by Jim Perkins) brought dancers Roger Creel, Sanjay Saverimuttu and Philip Velinov into an almost-factory line, with tight, angular explorations of line throughout the body. Lindsey’s words and presence in the rest of the piece opened it up to a deeper exploration of the kinds of lines that society and individuals choose and/or impose on us all.

Shelby Shenkman as choreographer and poet Kiki Petrosino contributed “Clock/Wise,” ably danced by Annie Honnebrink and Sanjay Saverimuttu. The first movement was most successful, the charm and joy of the two dancers was reflected in audience smiles. The second movement was much more dramatic and seemed to be more about the relationship between the two dancers rather than the more universal questions raised in the Artists’ Statement in the program.

“Mirror Me,” choreographed by Amanda Carrick, with poetry by Joanna Englert, and set to an amalgam of Impressionist music, was least successful owing to the imbalance of the previously-recorded poetry and music.  It was never clear whether the choreography was responding to the poetry. Erica De La O, Kateryna Sellars and Ryan Stokes brought their usual clarity and elegance to their dancing.

The 2018 Choreographers Showcase continues Curran’s practice of partnering with area artists across many genres and curating intriguing partnerships between them.