In return to Northeast Ohio, Aspen Santa Fe Ballet wows with ‘Return to a Strange Land’

The company in Jorma Elo's "Over Glow". Photo by Sharen Bradford.
The company in Jorma Elo’s “Over Glow”. Photo by Sharen Bradford.

Special to The Plain Dealer

AKRON, Ohio — DANCECleveland, in conjunction with The University of Akron’s EJ Thomas Hall, kicked off its 2014-2015 with the return of Aspen Santa Fe Ballet, Sunday.

The 11-member touring company, last seen in the region in 2010, brought with it to the former home of the Ohio Ballet — another troupe known for its touring popularity — a program of three contemporary dance works including the Jiri Kylian masterwork “Return to a Strange Land”.

Things got off to a rousing start with Boston Ballet resident choreographer Jorma Elo’s latest work for ASFB, “Over Glow” (2011). Set to music by Beethoven and Mendelssohn, the piece bathed in a yellow-green hue began with a solo by a shirtless male dancer moving in tightly controlled choreography that seemed contrary in energy to the booming and sweeping classical music accompanying him.

Several other dancers then trickled onto the stage following suit, dancing self-absorbed solos filled with rippling arm movements, sharp hands gestures, wiggling torsos and high leg kicks. The abstract and quirky choreography interjected with moments of humor and consternation had its six dancers pausing at times to linger in stillness before resuming their dance riffs.

A talented choreographer whose work tends to either alienate or delight audiences, Elo embraces playful oddity in his choreographic movements and gestures, turning them into a collective thing of beauty.

The mood in “Over Glow” mood turned solemn midway through the piece as the dancers paired off into three male-female couples and moved through an array of gesture-infused phrases and partnered lifts. The work’s most intriguing moments occurred when a male dancer intensely held his flat palm inches from his female partner’s face, who the recoiled in fear as if being smothered.

Shuffling her feet backwards and gripping his arm, she arched slowly backward and slumped to the floor lifeless. A heady moment in an otherwise light-hearted work, the scene was followed with more humor as a different male dancer meandered onto the stage to the prostrate dancer and nudged at her limp body with his head like a dog trying to wake its master.

Jiri Kylian's "Return to a Strange Land". Photo courtesy of the company.
Jiri Kylian’s “Return to a Strange Land”. Photo courtesy of the company.

Elo’s unusual and interesting piece was followed by Kylian’s 1975 contemporary ballet marvel “Return to a Strange Land.” Dense with intertwining partnered moves and set to a lulling piano score by Janacek, the beautifully danced work mesmerized.

A trio of dancers (two males, one female) opened the piece, holding hands and weaving in and around each other in clever patterns. In the second of the work’s four parts, dancers Samantha Klanac Campanile and Joseph Watson engaged in a soft and lovely pas de deux built on choreography that seemed to pull the dancers upward.

Campanile, on pointe, was swept into leaps and soaring lifts by Watson and spun on one knee in a unique pirouette variation. The remainder of the expertly-crafted work continued the brilliance of the first two sections with more inventive choreography and partnering combinations, making it the highlight of the program.

The troupe’s deft and inspired dancing continued in the final work on the entertaining program, “Square None” (2012), by up and coming choreographer Norbert De La Cruz III. The Princess Grace Foundation Award-winner’s first work for the company blended nicely constructed movement phrases with lighting designer Seah Johnson’s dark and atmospheric lighting scheme featuring a grid of lighted squares.

Dancer Seia Rassenti in Norbert De La Cruz lll's "Square None".  Photo by Rosalie O'Connor.
Dancer Seia Rassenti in Norbert De La Cruz lll’s “Square None”. Photo by Rosalie O’Connor.

Like the program’s opening work, “Square None” began with its seven dancers moving in self-contained solos within individual lighted squares on the stage, each solo a spurt of energy ending in an elegant pose. Cone-like streams of light from overhead creating the squares along with stage fog and a wide-ranging musical score (Aphex Twin to Handel) gave the work a pulsing and dreamy feel.

Using the familiar contemporary dance movement language in vogue nowadays, Cruz created an enticing piece that fit well on ASFB’s dancers and pointed to a bright choreographic future for the recent Juilliard School graduate.

This review originally appeared in The Plain Dealer October 6, 2014. Copyright Steve Sucato.

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