Grand Synthesis. Photo: Luke Isley
On May 18, at the Rose Wagner Performing Arts Center, Ballet West opened Innovations, the final installment of its 2011/2012 season. The show was a mixed lot, offering something to delight and dismay almost anyone. This was no surprise, considering Ballet West’s effort to reach greater audiences, both locally and internationally. This effort has led to a feature spot on cable television. Breaking Pointe, a BBC documentary/reality-TV show, will be aired this summer on the CW network. The series will expose the off-stage ordeals dancers endure to remain in peak performing condition. The drive toward popular recognition is reflected in Ballet West’s renewed commitment to its skills, and also in its choice of program. Innovations showcases the work of five current choreographers, and maps an array of aesthetic terrains Ballet West may explore more completely in the future.
Michael Bearden’s Descent, was the most elaborate of the evening. A veritable ballet unto itself, Descent is a revised and expanded iteration of a piece, which debuted in 2010. The work opens with a ballroom scene, which seemingly lifted from Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace. However, Descent offers not serious literary themes, which might themselves feel quaint, so much as quasi-cinematic melodrama. A panoply of late-late-Romantic conventions parade on stage: ingenuous debutante, domineering parents, forbidden love, jealous rival, Russian saber and German luger, daring escape. The music of Dmitri Shostakovich was well selected, and provided needed balance to the flat emotionalism of the narrative. Inevitably, however, the intense seriousness of key symphonic masterpieces was bound to overwhelm the less brilliantly crafted narrative.
The dance becomes far more interesting, when the Czarist Russian society suddenly, indeed inexplicably, ceded to Red Army maneuvers. Military drilling allowed the performers, in particular Keui-Hsien Chu, to display considerable artistic and athletic ability, liberating them from the predictability of waltz. However, plot developments soon led to more melodrama and operatic death. One might want to say ‘finally’ here, but Descent, in another improbable collision of times, places and genres, pursued its reckless itinerary with a sudden leap into the world of Michael Jackson’s Thriller. Audiences since the plays of Berthold Brecht have become familiar with various narrative discontinuities and juxtapositions, but those in Descent didn’t serve to rouse attention and provoke critical thinking about the nature and role of art in modern technological society (as Brecht achieved in The Flight of Lindberg or The Life of Galileo). Rather, they seemed mere reflections of the artist’s urge to indulge all whims and fantasies. Descent is ballet escaping to the movies, ballet devoid of any reflection of what it might mean still to practice dance in the age of digital animation.
Aidan DeYoung’s Eevoudig, by contrast, immediately offers far less to discuss, but far more to enjoy. Taking a decided turn away from melodrama, or any narrative at all, this dance instead affirmed its identity as dance, per se. The upright carriage of the dancers announced the work as still ballet, however classical form was frequently modified to make way for other modes, such as swing and hip-hop. A sense of urgency pervaded the entire number, deviating considerably from the grace and apparent ease expected from most ballet. Especially effective were moments of ensemble dancing, as were passages lacking audible music. These reminded the audience that the musicality of dance proceeds from the dance itself and not from the score. This crucial but often overlooked difference separates ballet from something such as disco dancing.
With You, by Easton Smith, returned to the world of melodrama. Here, the narrative, to the dance’s benefit, was less obvious. Particularly enjoyable was the trio of male dancers, which offered a respite from traditional partnering. Vague political messages encumbered With You, but no so as to defeat the power of the actual choreography or its execution. War-era costumes and lindy-hop moves rescued the piece from its heavy, but indefinite, politics by bringing forward the contradictions of the era.
Greatly enjoyable was Emily Adams’s Forces at Play. In keeping with its title, this piece was a ballet scherzo, a musical interlude between weightier forms. Such lightness, however, in no way detracted from artistic quality. Indeed, its greatest virtues was the lack of pretension. Whereas classical music might have imposed an unearned air of gravity, here the choreographer wisely chose Robert Schumann’s youthful and ludic Kinderszenen as a vehicle through which to study the joys and apprehensions of juvenescence. The trio of female dancers (Christiana Bennet, Beckanne Sisk and Jacqueline Straughan), clad simply in leotards and lace frocks, eschewed sweeping gestures, grand leaps and serial pirouettes of the sort that thrill audiences, replacing them with gentler (but equally graceful) partnered aerial tumbles. The result was a genuine musicality, subtler and harder to detect than virtuosity, but able to deliver more lasting aesthetic satisfaction. The on-stage presence of pianist Isabella Perazzo Campos (highly competent but unobtrusive) leant to the piece a quasi-pedagogical air, as if all action were taking place in a dance studio, supported of a live accompanist.
The final piece of the night, Susan Shield’s Grand Synthesis, was a tour-de-force which could not fail to impress anyone. It featured a huge cast, bright lights and costumes, urgent neo-baroque music, and perpetual-motion choreography. All this captured and held the viewer’s attention, as did the compelling use of pointe shoes within a piece so conspicuously non-traditional. Also impressive was the foregrounding of ensemble dancing over solos. The manic energy of Grand Synthesis, to its benefit, was occasionally interrupted by moments of almost complete stasis. Here, foundational poses came to share equal status with more lively movements. For all the immediate appeal of saturated colors and kinetic energy, these risked pushing too far into the realm of arena extravaganza. Still, if Grand Synthesis bordered on mere entertainment, the piece was undeniably hugely entertaining, and certainly a delightful and highly memorable note on which to end Ballet West’s season.
Innovations is scheduled for May 18, 19, 23-26. Ballet West will launch its 2012/2013 season with a performance of The Lottery, an adaptation of the famous story by Shirley Jackson. Season tickets begin at $48.