Ballet West program forges human connections during a time of distance

Sat Nov 07, 2020 at 11:28 am
By Kate Mattingly
Victoria Vassos and Hadriel Diniz in Ballet West’s world premiere of Nicolo Fonte’s Faraway Close. Photo: Luke Isley

Watching Ballet West’s opening program of their fall season Friday night at the Janet Quinney Lawson Capitol Theatre was both eerie and invigorating. Social distancing restrictions meant that only 20% of the seats could be sold. dancers wore masks throughout the performance, and only cohabitating couples danced together. 

Two of the three pieces on the program were world premieres, and both ballets eloquently reflected the isolation and resiliency we have all seen and felt during this global pandemic. The program closed with a classic piece, Twyla Tharp’s Nine Sinatra Songs, made in 1982. Together the three pieces showcased different facets of relationships and attraction, with the opening piece a stellar testament to the strength of ballet in the 21st century.

Tides, a world premiere choreographed by Jennifer Archibald for the Ballet West dancers, begins with principal Emily Adams alone on the stage as music by Masha Vahdat fills the theater. Vahdat and her sister Marjan are vocalists inspired by traditional music of Persia/Iran. Their plaintive singing of Masha’s music—backed by the Kronos Quartet—suggests moments of transition or being placeless. “Placeless” also refers to a 13th century Rumi poem that includes the line, “My place is placelessness. My trace is tracelessness.”

Adams eloquently embodies this music, and her movements suggest exploration and experimentation, as if she’s testing how far her limbs can reach. She’s both courageous and majestic, and when she exits, couples enter the stage in dramatic lifts, with the men carrying the women above their heads. Duets are followed by a group section, with dancers at a safe distance from one another. Archibald’s choreography showcases the athleticism of the company as men dive into handstands that gently melt their bodies to the floor.

Katlyn Addison, Chelsea Keefer and Kristina Weimer are a formidable trio—forthright and self-reliant, their chests lifted as they bourrée across the stage. Arm gestures speak in a percussive language of bent elbows and splayed fingers, and when the three women join the men, the group unison generates a sense of equanimity and power. Men and women perform the same steps with comparable force and fierceness.

Archibald’s choreography is intricate and complex with beautifully shifting group formations. At one point four women form a square that offers a frame for a couple dancing centerstage. Throughout the piece, the musical landscape shifts from the Vahdat sisters to Istvan Sky’s distinctive singing of “Impossible Shamanic Voice” and Anilah’s “Medicine Chant.” Dancers interact with the score through rippling and flickering steps, as if the music propels their torsos into liquid-like waves. (One is reminded of Cornel West’s comment that dancing is “kinetic orality,” “bodily stylizations,” and asserting your “somebodiness” in a world where you need to prove your worth.)

Tides closes with Chase O’Connell and Beckanne Sisk in a seamlessly flowing duet as waves are heard in the sound score. The stage darkens as they continue to spin, suggesting that this moment of change will continue to ebb and flow. Just as Archibald’s musical selections draw from artists interested in the healing vibrations of sound, there is a cathartic sense of hope and perseverance in the choreography. Costumes by David Heuvel present the women in blue leotards and the men bare-chested in blue pants that evoked ocean colors. Tides is a ballet that captures the vicissitudes of our present moment as well as a timeless quality, providing an updating of ballet’s vocabulary and a densely rich articulation of what dancing can do.

Faraway Close, choreographed by Nicolo Fonte, shares a different facet of this time of isolation and quarantine. Set to music by Harry Escott and Max Richter, this ballet is another world premiere created during the pandemic. 

Most of the cast remains separate from one another, and a raised platform placed upstage provides a kind of pedestal where dancers sometimes appear. Its design recalls George Balanchine’s set for Apollo in 1928, but instead of a ballet about birth and transformation, Faraway Close emphasizes solitariness. 

Against this landscape of solos, two duets stand out: one by Lucas Horns and Joshua Shutkind, the other by Victoria Vassos and Hadriel Diniz. It is refreshing to see two men partnering one another with the thoughtfulness and complexity that is usually reserved for male-female couples: Horns and Shutkind share weight, lift one another, and evoke a sense of trust and care. Vassos and Diniz are also stellar as they partner one another, intertwining their bodies like puzzle pieces. Another standout performer is Jake Preece who merges expressivity and clarity in captivating ways.

Costumes from the Ballet West shop dressed the women in shimmery slips while the men wore different shades of pants and tops. The ordinariness of the designs emphasized the humanity of the performers: they are people like us grappling with difficult times. Faraway Close ends with the cast on stage, distanced from one another, facing the audience and gradually lifting their left arms and then lowering their hands to their chests. The gesture conveys reflection and acceptance, as well as a sense of gratitude many of us feel being able to finally watch a live dance performance during this pandemic.

Nine Sinatra Songs is a crowd-pleasing ballet, performed around the world, and one of Twyla Tharp’s most popular and enduring works. In the last five years it has been danced by Miami City Ballet, Oklahoma City Ballet, Ballet Idaho, Ballet de Lorraine, Washington Ballet, and St. Louis Ballet.

Ballet West performs Tharp’s stylized ballroom dancing with a great mix of elegance and joy, but the ballet itself feels dated, especially alongside the new work by Archibald. The ballet consists of male-female duets presenting different aspects of relationships, from the maturity of “Softly as I leave you” danced beautifully by Emily Adams and Beau Pearson, to the comic dissonance of “Somethin’ Stupid” vibrantly performed by Lillian Casscells and Beau Chesivoir.

After a while, the partnering becomes repetitive and predictable. If the ballet caused a stir in 1982 with its merger of ballroom and ballet, and costumes by Oscar de la Renta, it is now almost 40 years old and contemporary choreographers are making more timely productions that speak to different identities and kinds of partnerships. Of course there’s box office security in presenting a ballet by a well-known name like Tharp, especially one with music by Frank Sinatra, because familiarity can be comforting.

But it is the pieces by Archibald and Fonte that linger in the memory—talented choreographers making new works that bring out the dancers’ individuality, that show how ballet resonates with our current times, and that make live performances a source of inspiration and rejuvenation.

Ballet West’s program will be repeated through November 15. All patrons are required to wear masks in the lobby and throughout the performance.  

One Response to “Ballet West program forges human connections during a time of distance”

  1. Posted Nov 09, 2020 at 3:29 pm by karen

    kate mattingly’s writing always brings performance to life. Her honesty and social and historical references give the reader a springboard for thoughtful contemplation on the value of performance in our social dialogue. terrific piece.

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