Dance and Visual Art Combine Superbly in Grand Rapids Ballet’s Season Opener [REVIEW]

Grand Rapids Ballet
Off the Canvas
Digital Stage Production
October 17-31, 2021

By Steve Sucato

The opening production in Grand Rapids Ballet’s 2021-2022 virtual season, Off the Canvas, was a filmed version of the triple bill presented live by the company, October 15-17 & 22 at their Peter Martin Wege Theatre. In partnership with SALT Creative Production Studio, the productions featuring the works of three contemporaries of GRB artistic director James Sofranko, each took inspiration from the world of visual arts.  

First up was the production’s namesake ballet Off the Canvas, by Polish choreographer Katarzyna Skarpetowska, the lone new-to-GRB audiences work on the program. Originally created on Philadelphia’s BalletX in 2019, Skarpetowska used artist Cy Twombly’s “Bacchus” series paintings as a jumping off point for her contemporary dance work. Danced to music by Adrian Lim-Klumpes and composer Antonio Vivaldi, Skarpetowska’s choreography for the ballet’s five women and five men, was patterned after the looping brush strokes and squiggles in Twombly’s paintings that look a bit like enlarged versions of the scribblings one makes when checking to see if a pen still has ink.  

The ballet opened on its 5 women on pointe and costumed in red and white shorts and tops with red brush strokes a la Twombly’s paintings, who bounded about a low-lit stage space to foreboding music by Lim-Klumpes. They then moved in and out of looping patterns, circular clusters and brief tableaus.

The ballet’s stage lighting, music, and mood then brightened up with the arrival of its 5 men. Shirtless, barefoot and in brushstroke accented red and white pants, they took the stage to Vivaldi’s “Cello Concerto in A minor” in upbeat runs as a group, bending and stretching their bodies in more geometric patterns. The women then joined the men to form male/female couples that set off in little gallops, hops and into lines, circling patterns, turns and spins in a mix of Paul Taylor-like modern dance and contemporary ballet movement.

GRB dancers in Katarzyna Skarpetowska’s “Off the Canvas”. Photo by Scott Rasmussen.

Filmed from an elevated camera angle to show a white rectangular space on the stage that was the center of the dancing action, as well as showing the dancers in close-up at times, the work alternated between darker scenes with music by Lim-Klumpes or lighter scenes using Vivaldi’s music. The most engaging of those was a trio that began with dancers James Cunningham and Nathan Young who lifted Gretchen Steimle up, down, and around them. Steimle was then replaced by Yuka Oba-Muschiana for more of the same partnered lifts with the two men. The men then gave way to Zachary Manske and Josue Justiz who took over partnering Oba-Muschiana, and finally Yuko Horisawa completed things by replacing Oba-Muschiana in the trio.  The rise and fall choreography for the dancers throughout played out like the brush strokes of Twombly’s paintings in the wonderfully crafted and performed trio sequence.

Also of note, were a mischievously playful and gymnastic men’s quintet and a dance section that took on a balletic courtliness in its approach and beauty that was led off by Matthew Wenckowski’s rapid-fire pirouettes and turns.  

In the end, Off the Canvas, like Twombly’s “Bacchus” series paintings, was a bold statement in mood, color and movement.

A reprise of GRB resident choreographer Penny Saunders’s In-Frame followed. Created for the company in 2017, the ballet for 8 dancers was themed around the creative process cycle as related to the cycle of the seasons. It was set to composer Max Richter’s recomposition of Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons. And re-enforcing the thematic imagery were the projected images of original artwork by Alice Klock, who Saunders danced with as former members of Hubbard Street Dance Chicago.

Dancers Yuka Oba-Muschiana and Steven Houser in Penny Saunders’s “In-Frame”. Photo by Scott Rasmussen.

The ballet began with Oba-Muschiana seated on a bench looking upward at a projection of Klock’s paintings, beginning with a green spirally and leafy image. The “Winter” section of the score then was heard, heralding the rest of the cast who darted and dashed across the stage. The work’s men were costumed in gray pants, shirts and black socks, and the women were barefoot and wearing gray dresses with differently colored pants underneath.  

That scene then transitioned into a pas de deux between dancers Emily Reed and Isaac Aoki to the music for “Spring”. The two performed on another white rectangle area of an otherwise black stage floor. In it, Reed was repeatedly lifted by Aoki and then pulled along while seated across the stage floor.

The ballet then moved between pas de deux sections to the music representing the other seasons, and scenes in which all the dancers representing each season came together in active choreography that formed clusters of dancers and then came apart into sections of all male or all female dancers.

Reflecting the tone of the music, one could almost imagine the dancers surrounded in summer sunlight with birds chirping, staring at starlight on winter night or as leaves or snowflakes themselves being blown in swirls about the stage. Like the previous Off the Canvas, Saunders’s ballet was a thing of beauty and emotion and performed marvelously by GRB’s dancers.

The program concluded with choreographer Adam Hougland’s signature work, Cold Virtues (2003).

Likened to Pierre Choderlos de Laclos’s Les Liaisons dangereuses (Dangerous Liaisons) only set in a Depression-era speakeasy, Cold Virtues had the same theme of individuals finding amusement at the expense of other’s feelings and dignity as in Dangerous Liaisons. Here, a heartless and calculating couple portrayed Alexandra Meister-Upleger and James Cunningham use their sexual allure to manipulate, seduce and ultimately break-up a pair of lovers, portrayed by Emily Reed and Steven Houser.  

James Cunningham and Alexandra Meister-Upleger in Adam Hougland’s “Cold Virtues” Photo by Kevin Huver.

From the opening scene of Meister-Upleger and Cunningham’s tantalizingly sinister slow walk out of darkness from the rear of the stage forward — hands at hips and repeatedly unfurling their fingers from balled up fists — the pair oozed malicious intent.

Performed to music by composer Philip Glass, Hougland’s choreography for the contemporary ballet’s 14 dancers was dense with hand and arm gestures, some crisscrossing the dancers’ bodies, along with unison group dances that built drama and tension.

Stalked by Meister-Upleger and Cunningham, Reed and Houser at first refused but eventually succumbed to Meister-Upleger and Cunningham’s seductive advances played out in a series of well-crafted and adroitly danced pas de deux.

As a woman in the depression era, Reed was ostracized for her weakness and behavior by the others including Houser and Cunningham, where the two me suffered no repercussions.

By ballet’s end however, Reed exposed Meister-Upleger’s malice and rallied the others to place blame on her. In the final scene, Meister-Upleger wilted under the others’ scorn and crumpled to the stage floor as Reed walked by her casting disdain.

A strong start to a new season of dance, Off the Canvas was “off the hook” fabulous.

Next up: Grand Rapids Ballet performs its critically-acclaimed The Nutcracker production with Grand Rapids Symphony, December 10-12 and 17-19 at DeVos Performance Hall. Information and tickets at grballet.com.

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.

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