Ballet Across America III
North Carolina Dance Theatre’s “Rhapsodic Dances”, Austin Ballet’s “Hush”, Dance Theatre of Harlem’s “Return”
The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts
June 7, 2013
by George Jackson
copyright 2013 by George Jackson
The third and last new bill of Kennedy Center’s American ballet marathon dispensed with standard repertory. Teamed up were three companies all doing custom made choreography. Each piece danced gave its cast advantages as well as handicaps. Also this program opened up again two old conundrums – whether everything done in toe shoes and tights is ballet and whether there’s a difference between merely moving and really dancing. Customers debated these questions and more during intermissions and following the final curtain, before the talk-back panel with the companies’ directors. Certain is that Kennedy Center’s audience for this series isn’t passive. Quite a few patrons Friday night seemed to have attended the two previous installments of Ballet Across America III earlier in the week. If only all performances had as alert and lively a public!
Five pairs of dancers, each couple dressed in a distinctive color, do ballet combinations and partnering in “Rhapsodic”. Remarkably uniform in appearance, they don’t have the air of courtiers entertaining in a divertissement, nor the temperaments of individuals interlocking in a symphonic ballet, nor even the diligence of dancers learning technique and style in a classroom etude. There was about them the impersonality of robots, mannequins pre-programmed to display their considerable skills. Many passages in this ballet are in unison, actually so many that I suspect Janes’ computer lacks a scramble button. The efficiency with which the movement parallels the music is remarkable and yet the end result isn’t development, richness, growth. The choreography’s scope remains much the same throughout the work.
There is one attempt to spice the proceedings, an odd striptease. The woman wearing crimson, Jamie Dee, advances forward unexpectedly, conspiratorially and removes her tutu’s gauzy skirt. This stimulates her partner, Nasech Culpepper, to ardor. He doesn’t want her to put it on again for a while. (At the end of this childish section, when Culpepper no longer objects, Dee had trouble buttoning the thing back in place.) For the ballet’s final section, all the women (Anna Gerberich, Sarah Hayes Watson, Emily Ramirez, Christina LaForgia plus Dee) are costumed neoclassically without a tutu skirt. Their short leotards sport just flaps. Despite this update, they and their male partners (F.P.L. Walker II, David Morse, Gregory Taylor, Jordan Leeper plus Culpepper) still have mannequin manners.
Ballet Austin’s “Hush” seemed an antidote to North Carolina’s “Rhapsodic”, at least at first. That the music , Philip Glass’s “Tirol Concerto”, featured more sensible and subtle piano cascades than had the Rachmaninoff was a relief. The choreography, by Austin’s director Stephen Mills, featured four couples (Rebecca Johnson, Christopher Swaim; Oren Porterfield, Michael Burfield; Ashley Lynn Gilfix, Orlando Julius Canova; Chelsea Marie Renner, James Fuller). Seldom, though, did more than one or two of the pairs take the stage at the same time. Mills knew how to separate them, interweave them and give them fleet impulses to accommodate those of the music. The dancers’ humanity made an impact despite the speed and urgency of entrances and exits. After a while, though, the Glass score keeps going in much the same manner in which it began. So do the comings and goings of Mills’ cast. Too often are spread-legged women slid along on the tips of their toe shoes. Needed was a Diaghilev demanding to be astonished! Is it possible for Mills the director to assume Diaghilev’s role for Mills the choreographer?
Dance burst out strong, clear and repeatedly in the last work on this program, “Return”. It was Dance Theatre of Harlem’s doing, abetted by its in-house choreographer Robert Garland. The piece is a five part suite to pop songs delivered (on recordings) by James Brown and Aretha Franklin. The dozen dancers involved walked, strutted, stalked and delivered rhythmic flashes fast as lightning. Someone sitting near me wondered out loud whether those vibrant pulses astonishing us were ballet. Of course they were! Though the bodies on stage weren’t uniform in shape, they were stretched and pliant. The women were on pointe as a matter of course. Ballet has traditionally incorporated other forms of dance, movement and behavior. Garland’s other just isn’t Petipa’s.
Would that Garland had explored blues moods more deeply, but he never forgot the difference between mere movement and dance in making the piece or setting it on his soloists - Ashley Murphy, Da’von Doane, Stephanie Rae Williams, Anthony Savoy , Samuel Wilson, Dustin James, Chrystyn Fentroy and Francis Lawrence. That Harlem’s director, Virginia Johnson, chose “Return” for showing off her company also bodes well for the group’s future.
Playing for the program’s first two pieces was the Kennedy Center’s Opera House Orchestra with Grant Cooper as conductor. Pianists were Arkadiy Figlin for the Rachmaninoff and Lisa Emenheiser for the Glass. Suzanne Carbonneau moderated the post-performance discussion with company directors Johnson, Bonnefoux and Mills.
North Carolina Dance Theatre in Sasha Janes' "Rhapsodic Dances." Photo by Jeff Cravotta
Ballet Austin in "Hush."
Dance Theatre of Harlem.