Reviewed by Steve Sucato
Perhaps the best and most revealing showcase of Grand Rapids Ballet’s dancers’ talent and versatility, the company’s annual MOVEMEDIA contemporary dance series added yet another successful chapter March 10-12 at the company’s Peter Martin Wege Theatre in Grand Rapids.
In this latest iteration, MOVEMEDIA: World Premieres, artistic director Patricia Barker called on two of the series’ most celebrated choreographers, former Hubbard Street Dance Chicago dancers Robyn Mineko Williams and Penny Saunders as well as MOVEMEDIA first-timers Robert Dekkers and Vanessa Thiessen to create new works.
Opening the performance on March 11 was Dekkers and Thiessen’s ballet “Dear Light Along the Way to Nothingness.” Titled after a line from James Merrill’s poem Log, the ballet for 21 dancers was set to Caroline Shaw’s unconventional 2013 Pulitzer Prize-winning composition, “Partita for Eight Voices.” The 26-minute ballet had an intriguingly bizarre sci-fi feel to it driven home by costume designer Christian Squires’ scaly sea creature meets Medieval-period garb. The dancers in the ballet vacillated from YouTube “mannequin challenge” stillness as a collective, to individual dancers or pairs of dancers, tossing off hyper-convulsive fits of movement.
A bit more show than go, Dekkers and Thiessen’s choreography for the ballet appeared to rely more on quirkiness over substantive dancing. That being said, the piece at times took over your interest like whatever force caused dancers to suddenly shake violently or twitch a leg uncontrollably and then dissipate. There was something to these characters/creatures and to this fantastical world, however intangible it was to discern. Standout performers included: Grace Haskins, Cassidy Isaacson, Nicholas Schultz, Matthew Wenckowski and Caroline Wiley who each danced with a level of energy, commitment and fervor that accounted for much of the ballet’s appeal.
Next, Williams’ “Gleam,” set to music by Chopin and others recalled the dreamlike atmosphere of her 2013 work for the company “One Take.” A contemporary ballet for three male/female couples seemingly at different stages of the same romantic relationship, “Gleam” showcased Williams’ preferred choreographic movement style in which the dancers moved as if poured onto the stage; merging together, then apart, like flowing streams of liquid.
On a dimly lit stage to the sounds of rain, company trainee Adriana Wagenveld and partner Nicholas Schultz began a push-pull pas de deux along a band of white light. One dancer’s touch of a limb the other into motion as they gazed intently at one another conjuring up a sense of the beginning, “feeling out” stage of a romantic relationship. Soon Wagenveld and Schultz were replaced by dancers Cassidy Isaacson and company rising star Matthew Wenckowski in a more aggressive take on Williams’ sophisticated choreography perhaps suggesting the occasional turmoil that often comes in a relationship. The dramatic work concluded with a longer transition to a third couple as dancer Isaac Aoki’s entrance onstage overlapped Wenckowski’s exit. The two men danced to a scratchy recording of late 19th century Italian superstar tenor Enrico Caruso singing “Mi Par D’udir Ancora” from Georges Bizet’s opera I Pescatori Di Perle. Then veteran company star Yuka Oba joined Aoki onstage as composer Michael Galasso’s haunting “Angkor Wat Theme Finale” from the 2001 film In the Mood for Love began. The pair was perhaps representative of a mature relationship, one that has lasted a lifetime. The dancers gave in fully to Williams’ heartfelt choreography that at work’s end left Oba standing alone struck by the apparent loss of Aoki.
With “Gleam,” Williams created a surreal, dreamlike world of memory where characters appeared only in close-up and around them, like our own distant recollections, lay darkness and the fuzzy edges of details all but forgotten.
Having seen Williams’ works on other dance companies, it is clear she gets the best out of GRB’s dancers and vice versa. The same holds true for Saunders who produced another gem in “In Frame” to close the program.
Set to Max Richter’s reworked version of Antonio Vivaldi’s “The Four Seasons” and using projected images of ink and watercolor paintings by artist (and Hubbard Street Dance Chicago dancer) Alice Klock, Saunders, along with lighting designer Matthew Taylor and digital designers Sam Begich and Michael Auer, created a the look and feel to the work of an interactive art gallery where the artwork, as well as those viewing it, were alive with motion.
Said by Saunders to be about “the universal realities of love, life and death, creation and destruction, to the beauty and vulnerability of the creative process,” the work blended contemplative moments of reflection with rapid-fire bursts of movement. Those coupled with the aforementioned atmospheric lighting and projections, cultivated a look and mood to the work that proved mesmerizing. Nowhere was this more pronounced than in a quiet solo by Wiley in the work’s “Autumn” section. Crouched in a deep knee bend over a floor projection of one of Klock’s paintings, Wiley appeared to gather to her unseen elements from her surroundings and ball them up with her hands. A second year company member, Wiley, like Wenckowski, impressed throughout the program.
Grand Rapids Ballet will next present the world-premiere of Brian Enos’ Alice in Wonderland with designs world-renowned visual artist Luis Grané. April 28-30 & May 5-7, 2017 at GRB’s Peter Martin Wege Theatre, 341 Ellsworth SW, downtown Grand Rapids, MI. Tickets are $44 and can be purchased by calling (616) 454–4771 ext. 10 or at grballet.com.
Copyright Steve Sucato – 2017. Steve Sucato is a former dancer turned arts writer/critic. He is Chairman Emeritus of the Dance Critics Association and Associate Editor of ExploreDance.com.