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REVIEW: Louisville Ballet's Ambitious 'Mozart' Bill Raises The Bar

Robert Curran's ស្នាមប្រឡាក់
Sam English
Robert Curran's ស្នាមប្រឡាក់

The Louisville Ballet continues its Season of Romance with an ambitious bill at the Brown Theatre this weekend. Continuing the company’s commitment to including a different Balanchine ballet each season, “Divertimento #15” opened the evening. The balance of the evening was dedicated to two world premieres: "ស្នាមប្រឡាក់" choreographed by Robert Curran in collaboration with installation and performance artist Vinhay Keo, and “Force Flux” choreographed by company member Brandon Ragland.

Balanchine gives us five movements in “Divertimento #15” set to the Mozart divertimento he believed was the finest of its form. Each time the Louisville Ballet embraces a Balanchine ballet, the work is more precise, and that is true this season. The five female principals were in fine form; Ashley Thursby positively glowed in her solos, and Erica De La O sparkled in one of the most musically-articulated solos; Leigh Anne Albrechta, Natalia Ashikhmina and Kateryna Sellers rounded out this group. Rob Morrow, Brandon Ragland, and Kristopher Wojtera were the three male principals; each partnered the five women in a variety of pairings throughout the piece.

There is no credit for costuming in the program. Sharing of production elements is a practical collaboration among many ballet companies, and it would have been good to know where they came from. The Bourbon Baroque ensemble, which accompanied each of the ballets, was under the baton of Tara Simoncic. At times the violins sounded thin in this piece, and some of the tempi felt a trifle sludgy.

Producing and Artistic Director Robert Curran’s ballet takes its title from a Cambodian word in Khmer for which the ballet is not providing a translation:

This work occupies the heart of the evening. As the grand drape rose, we were presented with a somber stillness that was broken only by the mostly unison gestural movement of the closely-clumped ten-member ensemble. Garbed in costumes influenced by traditional Cambodian clothing, designed by Vinhay Keo and Alexandra Ludwig, the ensemble incrementally covered the stage space in absolute silence.

Keo himself was stationed downstage left, absolutely motionless, in a costume that suggested a character in traditional Cambodian dance or, maybe, a household god. As the rich notes of Mozart’s Sinfonia Concertante filled the Brown, the dancers, singly and in pairs, stepped to this form and disrobed. Now in flesh-colored leotards and shorts, the somber solidarity dissipated into the vulnerability of one human in relationship to another. The plangent notes of the viola (Cynthia Black soloist) swirled into the air that was filled with autumnal leaves falling to the stage floor – the immutable sadness of the pain that ultimately happen in relationships.

A striking leitmotif in this ballet was the repeated posture of one partner holding his or her partner close to them, obliterating the vision of that partner with their hand over their eyes — how often are we blinded to the shortcomings (real and imagined, physical and emotional) of our current partner regardless of the hurt that comes to us? The cultural overtones of the partnering of Mark Krieger and Luke Yee are also painful, and uncomfortable to view. Krieger repeatedly embraces and then drops Yee to the ground — a  tangible representation of the imposition of western culture, in this case that of France, in their colonies.

In the final moment, with the ensemble once again in a still phalanx, Keo moves. And, as the curtain falls in silence, begins the climb up the hitherto unused wall that runs from the rear to the front of the left side of the stage.

In the intermission that follows, the stage hands’ biggest task was to clear the plethora of leaves that filled the stage floor. Kudos to this crew for this mammoth task to make the stage safe for the dancers in the final ballet of the evening.

Ragland’s choreography brought a lightness and lissomness to the evening in “Force Flux,” and provided a welcome respite from the emotive intensity of the previous ballet. Set to Piano Concerto #13, with the excellent John Austin Clark on fortepiano, the company exploded with joy and energy in this piece. The structure of the ballet holds echoes of Balanchine’s patterns and those of classical ballet’s divertissements, and it is also indefinably contemporary.

There are moments in which the cascading fortepiano notes seem to chase the dancer’s intricate steps — but no, it is the steps that are chasing the notes. The fun and complex interplay of choreography and music feels both organic and intentional. Ragland repeatedly employs a “wave” effect as a particular attitude ripples throughout the stage, in a multiplicity of patterns among the large corps of dancers. Ragland finds non-traditional ways of partnering; an otherwise typical divertissement between female and male dancer is deconstructed so that De La O is actually partnered with multiple male dancers, as they cross into the pas de deux sequentially. This choice both lifts up the centrality of the female in classical ballet, while showcasing the importance, and individuality, of the male partner. Varying and pushing the expectations of the traditional keeps an apparently-crystallized art form alive and vibrant.

Ragland’s collaborators included local lighting designer Jesse AlFord, familiar to many small theatre companies, whose evocative lighting in both this and Curran’s piece enhanced the emotional qualities of each ballet. Scenic design partners were architects Ross Primmer and Roberto de Leon. The multiple LED lights that were suspended over the stage was a fascinating conceit that, from where I sat, was sometimes effective. The changing colors, presumably orchestrated in consultation with AlFord, definitely enhanced the choreography. The rising and falling of the light ladders was less effective in the balcony, as some heads and hands got “caught” between the rungs, which would not have been the case from the orchestra seats (where designers frequently sit when finalizing productions.)

Collectively these ballets keep the Louisville Ballet’s ever-rising bar at a high standard. The company’s growing familiarity with Balanchine continues to enhance their technical facility. The increasing number of new ballets in the repertoire challenges dancers, and choreographers, to embrace new and challenging themes and forms that keep ballet relevant in the 21st century. Both Curran and Keo’s Cambodian work and “Force Flux” deserve future productions, whether here in Louisville or with other ballet companies across the country.

The final performances of Louisville Ballet's "Mozart" are Saturday, October 13 at 2:00 p.m. and 8:00 p.m. in the Brown Theatre.