Spellbound Contemporary Ballet Opens First U.S. Tour with a Program Showing Brilliance but Lacking in Variety

Spellbound Contemporary Ballet dancer. Photo by Marco Bravi.

Reviewed by Steve Sucato

The old adage about too much of a good thing being undesirable was evident in the program Italy’s Spellbound Contemporary Ballet presented to open their first “official” U.S. tour at Cleveland’s Ohio Theatre at PlayhouseSquare Center.

Without equivocation the 9-member troupe from Rome was breathtaking in artistic director/choreographer Mauro Astolfi’s exquisite contemporary ballet choreography for each of the works on the program. The problem was the one note program itself whose dark atmosphere and repetitive nature bred viewer fatigue.

The program, presented by DANCECleveland, opened with Astolfi’s “Lost for Words – Studio 1” (2011), the first section of a three-part ballet set to music by composer Heinrich Ignaz Franz Biber.

On a bare stage bathed in a blanket of somber light six dancers arranged in a horizontal line advanced tentatively from the rear of the stage forward toward the audience glaring outward as if leery of what lay before them.

Four of the six dancers then exited the stage leaving behind a pair of shirtless male dancers in black pants to light into an aggressive and powerful pas de deux full of torquing body positions and grappling movements danced to a rambling spoken word recording about a man who had lost interest in life.

The remainder of the ballet saw its six dancers bending, twisting, stretching, crawling upon and draping themselves over one another. Astolfi’s sharp, abstract contemporary ballet choreography – devoid of leaps and jumps – had the dancers often entering the predominantly horizontal movement phrases, leading with their arms before spilling into rapid and expansive rifts of movement that, indicative of the troupe’s name, was spellbinding.

Owing to Mr. Astolfi’s early training with Merce Cunningham, the work blended segments of dancing in which a la Cunningham, all the dancers simultaneously performed individual solo phrases that stretched across the breadth of the stage, with multiple groupings of dancers who were cat-like in their dancing and partnering of each other.

Spellbound Contemporary Ballet dancers. Photo courtesy of Spellbound Contemporary Ballet.

Apart from a dancer costume change, Astolfi’s “Downshifting” (2009) could have been a continuation of “Lost for Words”. Marco Policastro’s lighting design for the ballet was once again somber and Astolfi’s choreography once again beautifully haunting.

Set to a moody and eclectic soundtrack that included music by Johann Sebastian Bach and Nils Frahm, the full company of nine dancers showed off their world-class ballet technique in slightly more open choreography. They still mined the partnering work seen in “Lost for Words” but also engaged in more floor work and unison dancing. And whether mopping the stage floor with backs or in upright positions gliding from one brilliant movement phrase to another, the effect was hypnotic.

Spellbound Contemporary Ballet dancer. Photo by Marco Bravi.

The program concluded with “Lost for Words – Studio II” (2012), continuing where the program began only this time using Spellbound’s full complement of dancers. Set to music by Ben Frost and others, “Studio II” offered up a few diversions from the mesmeric tone established in the program’s first two ballets. Those included a riveting men’s trio danced along a bright white “x” that illuminated the floor, and a section danced to the sound of howling wolves where male-female couples pushed and shoved at one another.

Ultimately though, Spellbound’s program lacked variety and was at times repetitious. This is a company demanding of attention; one of elegance and refinement and deserving of more than the single thematic note this program offered up. Let’s hope on their next U.S. tour more attention will be paid to programming, letting this magnificent company shine in all respects.

Copyright Steve Sucato

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