BalletMet – American Masters
May 2 & 3, 2015
Reviewed by Steve Sucato
In his first full season as artistic director of Ohio’s BalletMet Columbus, Edwaard Liang orchestrated a landmark collaboration with Opera Columbus and the Columbus Symphony Orchestra and Chorus in the wildly successful production Twisted, and treated audiences to 11 world premieres from choreographers such as Val Caniparoli, Ma Cong and Gustavo Ramirez Sansano. In the process, he transformed the 26-member troupe from a good contemporary ballet company into a great one.
That evolution was apparent this past May at Columbus’ Ohio Theatre, where Liang assembled a stylistically diverse and engaging program entitled American Masters to close the company’s 37th season. The bill featured world premieres by Liang himself, who was born in Taiwan but raised in California, and Canadians James Kudelka and David Nixon, along with the company premiere of the Jerome Robbins masterwork Fancy Free. The “American” in the program’s title refers not only to Robbins, but also to the American composers featured — Michael Torke, Aaron Copland, Caroline Shaw and Leonard Bernstein.
The program opened with a bang with Liang’s The Art of War, set to a driving score by Torke. In a nod to Jirí Kylián’s Petite Mort, two dancers pulled a large billowy sheet of fabric from the front of the stage to the rear, obscuring the entrance of BalletMet’s dozen dancers. The magical reveal delighted the audience who let out a collective gasp.
A star-field backdrop twinkled as the dancers moved through Liang’s crisp contemporary choreography. A shirtless Adam Still, with a bodybuilder physique, set an aggressive tone, powering through a solo dense with bravura jumps and turns.
Local audiences have had a heavy dose of Liang’s ballets since his arrival in 2013, including his popular Wünderland, but The Art of War proved his finest yet. Liang cast the ballet with many of the company’s best dancers and as a group they shone in his sharp and sophisticated choreography, said to be inspired by the art of calligraphy. It was the ballet’s pas de deux, however, that really impressed. The first, danced by Adrienne Benz and Gabriel Gaffney Smith, was an exquisite procession of lifts. The most stunning featured a move where he pulled her by her feet between his legs into a tabletop position behind him at his waist. A second pas de deux was danced by Caitlin Valentine-Ellis and David Ward, who ripped through precision turns and lifts that balanced grace with movement attack.
Thinking of You by Nixon (a former BalletMet artistic director and current director of England’s Northern Ballet) was a loving tribute to retiring dancer Jimmy Orrante. The popular Orrante spent 19 years with BalletMet as a leading dancer and more recently as its de facto resident choreographer. For much of the neoclassical ballet, set to Copland’s Symphony No. 3, Orrante played the role of onlooker. He sat on the stage floor watching his fellow dancers, was held aloft by them in an iron-cross lift, and stood staring contemplatively down into his open palm as if seeing something there, perhaps images from his dance career.
At the end, he stared into his palm again, then, as he moved offstage, swept his arm away as if discarding something he no longer needed. When Orrante did dance, he was smooth and commanding, as in a breezy pas de deux with Emily Gotschall. Also of note were the adroit performances of fellow retiring dancers Courtney Muscroft and Jackson Prescott Sarver in a buoyant pas de deux.
The program’s second half opened with Kudelka’s Real Life. Like a Picasso cubist painting among Monets and Rembrandts, Real Life was an aesthetic jolt. Danced to Shaw’s 2013 Pulitzer Prize-winning Partita for 8 Voices, Kudelka’s choreography had the feel of a mechanized square dance. The eight dancers in unitards deftly promenaded through a tricky series of alternating handshake holds, snaking around one another in delicious patterns. The dancing not only fit Shaw’s layered avant-garde vocal music perfectly, but gave one the sense of glimpsing how the universe works in dance form. Like his The Man in Black, created for BalletMet in 2010, Kudelka developed a unique movement language based on familiar movement that he took to new and ingenious places.
Rounding out American Masters was the Columbus premiere of Robbins’ Fancy Free (1944). Set to an iconic Bernstein score, the classic Broadway-esque tale of three sailors on shore leave trying to impress three local dames is the perfect marriage of 1940s’ era chauvinistic humour with masterfully crafted choreography. Each of the two seven-member casts I saw brought their own personalities to the roles, especially the trio of sailors. The cast of Smith, Still and Ward had a jaunty skillfulness, while Martin Roosaare, Michael Sayre and Sarver displayed clever acting skills that gave their characters added depth. Fancy Free, like the rest of the program, was sheer delight.
This review first appeared in the 2015 Fall issue of Dance International magazine. Copyright Steve Sucato.