BalletMet’s Return to Live Performance Unlocks Some Killer Works and Performances [REVIEW]

Caitlin Valentine & Miguel Anaya in “Verbena”. Photo by Jennifer Zmuda.

BalletMet
Unlocked
Program A – May 16, 2021
Program B – May 8, 2021
Columbus, OH

Reviewed by Steve Sucato

BalletMet made its long-awaited return to live performance with Unlocked at the company’s Performance Space located adjacent to their main studio facility in Columbus. In May, the company launched performances of Unlocked’s two hourlong and varied repertory programs for select audiences made up of financial donors and season ticket holders. Starting this Friday, June 4 – Sunday, June 27, the company will perform public performances of both Unlocked programs.

With COVID-19 safety protocols still being adhered to, BalletMet can only make available 33 tickets per show in its Performance Space. For those fortunate enough to snag tickets to an Unlocked performance, they will see a varied collection of all-new dance works in an intimate setting with the feel of a VIP private showing.

Unlocked’s two programs will rotate casts throughout its June run and offer up many delights as well as a few surprises including BalletMet company member Leiland Charles’s must-see ballet “Figurines” which closes Program B.

Sunday, May 16’s performance of Program A opened with company dancer Karen Wing’s first group ballet for the company, “Verbena”. The 19-minute piece says Wing, takes its inspiration from two selections of Spanish guitar music by Thibaut Garcia included in the ballet’s soundtrack. “I envisioned the dancers as deconstructed flowers.” It began with three women and two men in long red skirts and wearing COVID protective face masks flowing through lively choreography that had a comforting ease to it. A trio of men then picked up a large swath of red fabric from the rear of the stage and used it to wrap around themselves in various configurations to connect their bodies together. Soon dancer Grace-Anne Powers joined the men and the dance transitioned into a heartfelt pas de deux with partner, and real-life husband, Austin Powers. The pair breezed through sweeping movement with high leg lifts across the stage.

As the contemporary ballet work with folkloric dance influences progressed, the dancers brought on circular pieces of fabric and engaged in circular patterns of motion. In the ballet’s third section, dancers Miguel Anaya and Caitlin Valentine smoothly performed a pas de deux that had them barely touching one another but connecting to each other via delicate hand and arm gestures.

BalletMet dancers in “Verbena”. Photo by Jennifer Zmuda.

A fledgling choreographer, Wing’s “Verbena” belied that fact. Solidly constructed with engaging movement patterns and high-level dancing, the ballet was a winner by anyone’s standards and received a standing ovation at its end.

The remainder of Program A was filled out with three new ballets by company artistic director Edwaard Liang. With Unlocked, the internationally acclaimed choreographer appeared to use the program to stretch his creative wings experimenting with movement styles and motifs not usually seen in his ballets.

First up was “Solace”, a work that appears on both Unlocked programs. Set to music by Oliver Davis, the contemporary dance work featured two company dancers in similar solos inspired by their individual experiences this past year dealing with the pandemic and growing societal issues. Each solo was danced to a different piece of music with a third section where the two dancers come together revealing “the shadow self”, says the program notes.

Alvin Tovstogray in “Solace”. Photo by Jennifer Zmuda.

Program A’s showing of the work was performed by new company dancers Zachary Guthier, formerly of Nevada Ballet Theatre, and Alvin Tovstogray, formerly of Oklahoma City Ballet. With “Solace”, Liang employed a highly gestural movement style noticeably different from the lush ballet movement he is best known for. Like the effect air currents have on one’s hand and arm when sticking them out the window of a fast-moving car, the men rolled through undulating and meandering hand and arm gestures that had audience eyes riding up, down, and around with those movements. Throughout the solos, the dancers dipped and ducked in loose torso movement in which they twisted and turned their bodies onto and up from the stage floor. While Guthier and Tovstogray performed marvelously, I found Program B’s cast of Lisset Santander and David Ward contained a connection between the two dancers that made the work feel more engaging.  

Next, Liang returned to the rich balletic movement that is a hallmark of his signature choreographic style in “Piano Concerto”. Danced to heartfelt music by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, the Balanchine-like neo-classical pas de deux, which also appears on both programs, was awash in grace and beauty designed to melt hearts. Both Program A’s pairing of the Powers and Program B’s Carly Wheaton and Sean Rollofson, performed the technically challenging pas de deux with passion.

Grace-Anne Powers & Austin Powers in “Piano Concerto”. Photo by Jennifer Zmuda.
Zachary Guthier & Francesca Dugarte in “L’Arlésienne (A Soldier’s Tale)”. Photo by Jennifer Zmuda.

Closing out Program A was Liang’s “L’Arlésienne (A Soldier’s Tale)” to music by Georges Bizet. Liang’s lone experiment that somewhat failed, the miniature story ballet told of an eager soldier’s (Guthier) encounter with a woman (Francesca Dugarte) on the eve of his going off to war. Brought together by a trio of fates, the main couple spent their time on a carpet to one side of the stage while the three fates mostly occupied the stage’s other side. While the performances of the dancers were solid, Liang’s narrative-directed choreography proved a bit simplistic and the ballet itself, a bit lackluster. Perhaps its most troublesome area was a lack of smooth integration of the fates characters who became a distraction to viewers in becoming more invested in the main characters and their story.  

The two memorable works unique to Program B on May 8 easily made a case for audiences to see both of Unlocked’s performance offerings.

Former longtime BalletMet company dancer/composer Gabriel Gaffney Smith offered up Unlocked’s most stylistically different dance work with his quirky, “What Is Your Neighbor Doing?”.  Performed to a soundtrack of his own making with a recorded contribution from poet Harry Baker reciting his poem Maybe, the contemporary dance-theater work began with four dancers filing out onto the stage each with two chairs in tow. Once placed, the dancers left to retrieve more chairs and other props. From a rolling clothes rack of various garments, Santander chose and put on a red top and plaid jacket and returned to sit with the others in an imaginary office setting frantically typing away on imaginary keyboards. A non-conformist fashion-wise, the others in the pretend office including the supervisor begin to laugh and taunt Santander’s character.

BalletMet dancers in “What Is Your Neighbor Doing?”. Photo by Jennifer Zmuda.

A rather obvious statement on bullying, the dance work’s first half spoon feeds the audience its message with little substantive dancing to go with it. That changed later in the work when Santander’s character was befriended by another dancer. From that point on Smith’s choreography achieved a level of creativity and sophistication that along with his wonderfully atmospheric music, and Baker’s poem’s encouraging message of self-love, made “What Is Your Neighbor Doing?” a satisfying dance work.

Unlocked’s unquestioned gem however, was Charles’s “Figurines”. Also channeling his inner-Balanchine, along with imagery from famous sculptures and figurines, Charles crafted a bit of neo-classical genius that was intoxicating on every level.

Danced to excerpts from Franz Joseph Haydn’s “Piano Concerto #11 in D-Major”, a cast of four women and two men including Charles, bounded through deliriously fun choreography that was familiar and unique. It was as if Charles culled together a collection of dance and art images and integrated them all in new way that further magnified their impact.

BalletMet dancers in “Figurines”. Photo by Jennifer Zmuda.
BalletMet dancers in “Figurines”. Photo by Jennifer Zmuda.

From the ballet’s opening images of three women on pointe in white dresses, each in spotlighted squares, to the cast mirroring each other’s vibrant dancing, whirling about the stage throwing out bold arm movements that popped like bursts of color from a Van Gogh painting, everything about this ballet felt right.  

With killer performances by its six dancers in inspired choreography, “Figurines” gave notice to the larger ballet world that Mr. Charles as choreographer has arrived.

BalletMet’s Unlocked runs Friday, June 4 – Sunday, June 27 at BalletMet’s Performance Space, 322 Mount Vernon, Columbus, Ohio. Limited Seating. Tickets are $100 each and must be purchased in pairs. For tickets and show dates and times visit balletmet.org or call (614) 229-4860.

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.