Grand Rapids Ballet’s ‘MoveMedia’ a Gem

Grand Rapids Ballet dancers in Annabelle Lopez Ochoa's "Memorias Del Dorado" . Photo by Chris Clark.
Grand Rapids Ballet dancers in Annabelle Lopez Ochoa’s “Memorias Del Dorado”. Photo by Chris Clark.

Grand Rapids Ballet Company – MoveMedia Program 1
Peter Martin Wege Theatre
Grand Rapids, MI
March 28-30, 2014

Reviewed by Steve Sucato

It’s a unique experience for a dance writer to witness the blossoming of a dance troupe; to see its dancers and repertory evolve over time to higher levels of artistic excellence. That is what has unfolded at Grand Rapids Ballet Company since the arrival of former Pacific Northwest Ballet star Patricia Barker as artistic director in 2010. Since I began reviewing the company in 2011, I have seen the company transform from a fine regional ballet company into one now well-suited for the national stage. The company’s latest program MoveMedia at its own Peter Martin Wege Theatre reinforced that view. For it, Barker solicited choreographers from around the globe to submit proposals to create works on GRBC.  She chose two; Spanish choreographer Pedro Lozano Gomez and Chicago’s Robyn Mineko Williams whose works joined ones by company dancer Yuba Oba, choreographer Mario Radacovsky and artist-in-residence Annabelle Lopez Ochoa.

The program led off with the world-premiere of Gomez’s “Juana”.  Set to music by Olafur Arnalds, John Hopkins and Dustin O’Halloran, the contemporary dance work was said to be inspired by the changing relationship between Gomez and his siblings with their mother in the final chapter of her life.

From a darkened stage a whispered voice issued “Time to relax, let go, unwind”.  It was followed by soft piano music as a dozen of Grand Rapids’ dancers began a series of slow movements, some dancing with their arms wrapped around their backs as if to indicate a loss of use.  The work had a cinematic feel to it.  Gomez’s movement language for the dancers mixed styles including ballet and hip hop that dancer DJ Strong embodied in a section of the work in which he transitioned from fluid arabesques and turns to wriggling like a car lot inflatable wind dancer.

Simple movement phrases and poses were delivered with dramatic effect such as a scene where a half dozen female dancers en pointe delicately drifted across the stage in bourrée gazing downward before snapping their heads up in unison to glare out into the audience.

Grand Rapids Ballet dancers Cassidy Isaacson and Nicholas Schultz in Pedro Lozano Gomez's "Juana".  Photo by Chris Clark.
Grand Rapids Ballet dancers Cassidy Isaacson and Nicholas Schultz in Pedro Lozano Gomez’s “Juana”. Photo by Chris Clark.

As the work progressed, a sense of melancholy increased. Stage fog began to cloud the dancers causing them to appear like apparitions. The work’s finest moment came in a poignant pas de deux between dancers Nicholas Schultz and Cassidy Isaacson in which Isaacson, representing Gomez’s mother, with arms pinned behind her, intertwined with Schultz moving and turning into and around him before being lifted in the air with legs darting heavenward. The moving work ended with a hopeful Isaacson leading the other dancers, arm-in-arm, forward toward the audience.

Next fledgling choreographer Oba presented her duet “Her Secret”. The work,  set to music by Michigan composer Bill Ryan, appeared to explore the relationship between a mother and daughter. Oba, a lively and talented dancer, showed promise in some of her choreographic choices for the duet but it was apparent  the work was not quite up to the level of the others on the program and might have been better suited on a program with other emerging choreographers.

The inspiration for Radacovsky’s 2012 ballet for GRBC Black Swan /White Swan, the pas de deux  “Meet the Swan”, set to music by Tchaikovsky and danced by husband and wife pair Lauren McQueen Schultz and Nicholas Schultz, was playfully delightful. The jazzy, heartfelt pas had McQueen Schultz in bare feet tantalizingly teasing her husband and being lifted upside down while bicycling her legs. The pair was magical in Radacovsky’s quirky and inventive choreography.

Grand Rapids Ballet dancer Laura McQueen Schultz in Robyn Mineko Williams' "One Take". Photo by Chris Clark.
Grand Rapids Ballet dancer Laura McQueen Schultz in Robyn Mineko Williams’ “One Take”. Photo by Chris Clark.

The world premiere of Mineko Williams’ “One Take” proved to be MoveMedia’s gem. Danced to a soundscape of old-timey music by Jay T. Williams and Fockstrot, “One Take”, like “Juana”, also had a cinematic feel but this time reminiscent of the quiet, tender moments found in the silent films of Charlie Chaplin.

The dance-theater work for four performers (2 male, 2 female) reflected on the passage of time. It began with Steven Houser and a hunched, elderly looking Nicholas Schultz facing each other and mimicking each other’s motions as if Houser were looking in a mirror at his future self.  The work then shifted to showing two couples Houser with Isaacson and Schultz with McQueen Schultz. The two couples, one in early 20th century period garb moved through Mineko Williams’ gestural contemporary movement language as if at play. Fast paced, sometimes stuttering movement cast large shadows on a screen behind the dancers. The couples represented a romantic relationship’s youth and the youth felt inside even when the relationship was decades old.

Most captivating was a quiet and emotional pas de deux set to Debussy’s haunting “Clair de Lune” danced superbly by the Schultz’s, and the work’s marriage of black & white movie atmosphere enhanced by Matthew Taylor’s mood lighting along with the blending of film projector sounds and projections of a blank film strip with its flecks of dust and hair serving as a backdrop for the dancers; later giving way to scattered images of the dancer’s smiling faces in the studio during the creation of the work.

“One Take” was a smart and sophisticated work whose simple elegance and ease belied its genius.  As the work’s title suggests, our lives and all that encompasses them play out like a movie shot in one take. The work reminds us that youth and the relationships we have forged in our lives are to be cherished, for when they pass they are never to be seen again.

Grand Rapids Ballet dancers in Annabelle Lopez Ochoa's "Memorias Del Dorado" . Photo by Chris Clark.
Grand Rapids Ballet dancers in Annabelle Lopez Ochoa’s “Memorias Del Dorado” . Photo by Chris Clark.

The program closed with an excerpted version of Lopez Ochoa’s 2011 work “Memorias Del Dorado” originally created for Columbia’s IncoBallet.  The expansive contemporary ballet work danced to music by Bach, Richter and others, reflected on Columbia’s history as a nation early on shaped by invading Spanish conquistadors who came to plunder the country’s gold but stayed to find gold in the relationships they formed with the indigenous women.

The stylized ballet alternated between scenes depicting a joyous sense of modern Columbia and the rampaging era of the conquistadors. For the latter Lopez Ochoa costumed GRBC’s female dancers in gold with pre-Columbian art images embossed on their leotards to represent the gold the conquistadors sought.  In those scenes GRBC’s men in the ballet danced with aggression, leaping, turning and scooping up the women in runs across the stage; lured on by looks of enticement from some of them. Lopez Ochoa’s choreography for the ballet was well-structured, precise and infused with poses and movement taken from the aforementioned pre-Columbian art images.

Lopez Ochoa is a world-class choreographer and GRBC’s dancers proved up to the challenge of “Memorias Del Dorado” performing it marvelously.

Program II of MoveMedia with works by Lopez Ochoa, Hannah Sullivan, Kirk Peterson and DJ Strong runs April 25-27 at Peter Martin Wege Theatre in Grand Rapids. For more information and tickets visit


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