Prejudices, Curiosities and Sexual Power Explored in Cincinnati Ballet’s Latest ‘Kaplan New Works Series’ Production [REVIEW]

Melissa Gelfin De-Poli, Christina LaForgia Morse & Sirui Liu in “Pursuit”. Photo by Hiromi Platt.

Cincinnati Ballet
The Kaplan New Works Series
Digital Stage Production
February 25-28 & March 5-7, 2021

Reviewed by Steve Sucato

Like the classic late 1970’s Heinz Ketchup commercials featuring Carly Simon’s song “Anticipation,” dance fans, because of the global pandemic, have been anxiously anticipating new programming from their favorite dance artists. For fans of Victoria Morgan’s Cincinnati Ballet, that new programming came in the form of this past weekend’s opening of the company’s shortened 2020-21 season. A virtual version of the company’s popular The Kaplan New Works Series was offered up with five world premiere works to help satiate audience’s appetite for new content. The free digital stage production filmed at the Aronoff Center’s Jarson-Kaplan Theater in Cincinnati began with company corps de ballet dancer/choreographer Taylor Carrasco’s “Regards”.

Taylor Carrasco and Daniel Baldwin in “Regards”. Photo by Hiromi Platt.

Three men and two women costumed a la the 1950/60s (along with COVID face masks) stood in individual spotlights at the front of the stage taking turns reacting in movement to audio clips about love and marriage from classic Broadway/Hollywood musicals including Oklahoma! and Gigi. As the contemporary dance work progressed, we are made aware of from within the group of a budding courtship between two of the male characters portrayed by Daniel Baldwin and Carrasco. A sullen Baldwin is cheered up by Carrasco and the others in a sweeping group dance to Elaine Stritch’s bossa nova rendition of 1939’s “Are You Having Any Fun?”. During it, the dancers moved through an animated conversation in dance that was full of little hops, sweeps of the floor with their bodies, and circling runs. By the song’s end the two were left alone on the stage and had begun a pas de deux of longing and emotional understanding. As the romantic bond between the two solidified, the others in the cast returned to the stage and Carrasco, much to the dismay of Baldwin, sought to keep their relationship a secret from the others, owing to the taboo of gay relationships in times past. Carrasco’s public denial and Baldwin’s hurt feelings then led to a pained and remorseful solo by Carrasco to Frank Sinatra singing a live version of the song “Send in the Clowns”. No reconciliation was made. In the end, “Regards” proved a heartfelt look at two lives hampered by unjust societal norms about love that sadly continue to be perpetuated by many today.

Next came the world premiere of former San Francisco Ballet soloist Dana Genshaft’s “Wunderkammer” (German for “a place where a collection of curiosities and rarities is exhibited”) set to original music and arrangement by Kamran Adib along with music by Galamatius and Nils Frahm.

Marcus Romeo & Bella Ureta in “Wunderkammer”. Photo by Hiromi Platt.

On a darkened stage, company first soloist Minori Sakita with her back to the camera, began the work walking slowly along a square of light to the rear of the stage. Costumed in a pork pie hat, long overcoat and mask, she moved to the sounds of tubular bells and roaring ocean waves while stripping off her coat as she went (the hat followed later). The garment was whisked away by unseen attached wire as the soundscape switched to underwater effects and a trio of dancers in zebra striped leotards emerged onstage from the darkness.

As with Carrasco’s “Regards”, Genshaft described her work as being a “piece is about acceptance of the things that are unknown, strange, or don’t fit into society.” Taking more of a fantastical approach, “Wunderkammer” had its cast of dancers frolicking about the stage like elegant wild animals. Genshaft’s contemporary ballet choreography had the dancers stretching into elongated body positions, twisting, turning, and slinking about the stage. Delivered as a movement stream of consciousness, “Wunderkammer” had the effect of feeling like you slipped into a relaxing cat nap.

A highlight of the production, company principal dancer Melissa Gelfin De-Poli set the tone for her work, “Ain’t I A Woman”, from its outset courtesy of a voiceover of a woman quoting author James Baldwin: “We can disagree and still love each other unless your disagreement is rooted in my oppression, denial of my humanity and right to exist.” The work shot using multiple camera angles was danced to Sergei Rachmaninoff’s “Piano Concerto No. 2 in C Minor, Op.18”, famously used by singer Eric Carmen in his 1975 hit “All By Myself”.   

Melissa Gelfin De-Poli & Luca De-Poli with Maizyalet Velázquez in “Ain’t I a Woman”. Photo by Hiromi Platt.

Six dancers including Gelfin De Poli, all in black and performing in masks and socks, turned the choreographer’s wonderfully crafted contemporary dance movement into visual delight. The dancers slid, kicked up their legs, crawled and spun their way about the stage evoking beauty, struggle, and drama to emotionally penetrating effect.  

Matthew Griffin in “Balance”. Photo by Hiromi Platt.

For choreographer Helen Pickett’s new work “Balance” created over Zoom, she settled on it being a solo for dancer Matthew Griffin set to music by Philip Glass. As the stage lights came up, we found Griffin seated in an armchair, elbows on knees and staring out into space. He then slid down off the chair onto a circular rug imprinted with an image of the earth. From an overhead camera we then saw him lying on his back sharply waving one hand, then the other at the wrist in time with Glass’ music and then running through a sequence of exercise-like movement. As Griffin rose from the rug, his now balletic movements took on an improvisational feel in which one could imagine him having created in the moment in response to Glass’ undulating and driving music. A work about the balancing our individual inner lives and our lives in the global community, “Balance” ultimately offered up an invigorating and freeing solo that seemed to leave both worlds behind for a brief moment.

David Morse, Joshua Stayton & Luca De-Poli in “Pursuit”. Photo by Hiromi Platt.

Sexual power was the subject of Cincinnati Ballet resident choreographer Jennifer Archibald’s latest ballet for the company, “Pursuit” that closed the program. Set to an eclectic soundtrack by Peter Gundry, Keith Kenniff and others, the ballet depicted the power and money 19th century madams wielded that afforded them to move beyond matters of the bedroom.

A trio of women in black corset dresses on pointe were joined by three shirtless men in gray tuxedo pants executing stylized contemporary ballet movement a la choreographer Dwight Rhoden. The women partnered by the men, leaned into off-center bends dropped into plié squats, and were lifted in the air in a dance of seduction and control. Non-narrative, “Pursuit” used its choreographic pressing of the flesh to exercise an equal mesmerizing and seductive control over the audience.

Remaining showings of Cincinnati Ballet’s The Kaplan New Works Series Digital Stage Production are available for FREE Friday, March 5 – Sunday, March 7 at cballet.org.

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.