A spectrum of styles takes flight in Ballet West’s Choreographic Festival

Thu May 13, 2021 at 8:29 am
By Kate Mattingly
Allison DeBona and Rex Tilton in “Eden” at Ballet West’s Choreographic Festival. Photo: Beau Pearson

For its fourth annual Choreographic Festival, Ballet West invited current and former dancers to take on roles as creators as well as interpreters. The results, unveiled Wednesday night at the Rose Wagner Performing Arts Center, were stunning. The program illuminated the company’s range and sophistication, with movement vocabularies that were inventive, poetic, and intricate. 

A choreographer’s job requires a mix of artist, teacher, and coach: someone who can amplify dancers’ skills and expand their capacities. When choreographers know a dancer well, they shine light on nuances and potential. It’s likely that the camaraderie among these choreographers and dancers contributed to the program’s brilliance. As different as each piece is, the five world premieres share a theme of highlighting dancers’ expressive skills and technical prowess.  

The festival opened with Matthew Neenan’s “The Solo Year,”  the only item not choreographed by a Ballet West artist. Set to music by Pietro Antonio Locatelli, this piece showcases the eight dancers’ classicism and elegance. Red and gold costumes, designed by Mark Zappone, add to the regal atmosphere. Women wear leotards with red sashes that extend from their backs almost to the ground, like wisps of a gown. Chelsea Keefer was captivating in her opening solo and, in a duet with Jordan Veit, both dancers seemed to relish the challenge of Neenan’s expansive partnering and phrasing.

As a choreographer, Neenan has tremendous range. His ballets defy easy classification, although each work draws out the best of the performers. For “The Solo Year” he accesses Ballet West’s poise and relatability. His choreography is interspersed with an occasional shoulder shrug, heel thump, and torso ripple, making “The Solo Year” both beautiful and idiosyncratic. An unexpected gobo of a rose appears towards the end of the ballet on the stage’s scrim. 

“Resist Much, Obey Little,” by Trevor Naumann, a former demi-soloist with Ballet West, provided striking contrast to Neenan’s formal and classical images. Naumann’s choreography is discordant and jarring, and resonates with the music engineered, performed and composed by Boaz Roberts. Dressed in layers of tops, loose-fitting pants, and skirts (costume design by Jason Hadley), dancers appear to be activated and driven by Naumann’s distinct vocabulary. Their movements suggest currents of electricity coursing through their bodies with lighting by Julie Ballard creating a murky and mysterious setting. “Resist Much, Obey Little” ends with the cast of nine seated on the floor, clustered in a line. Naumann’s choreography is unique and invigorating: it’s exciting to see how Ballet West’s dancers embrace the darker, more rebellious facets of human expression.

This year’s Festival marks the last performance of principal artist Katherine Lawrence, who joined Ballet West in 2004, and her solo, “With Assurance (For Katherine),” presents a collaborative choreographic undertaking. Four current company dancers contributed to its creation: Emily Adams, Katlyn Addison, Adrian Fry, and Rex Tilton. It’s wonderful to see Lawrence savor the complexities of this sprightly dancing. Set to the music “Milestones” by Nicholas Maughan, “With Assurance (For Katherine)” is a testament to Lawrence’s scintillating stage presence and quicksilver footwork, wonderfully crafted by her colleagues. 

“Eden,” a duet choreographed by Addison, reveals the impressive range of this principal dancer’s skills as a choreographer. Markedly different from the group work by Addison that appeared in the 2019 Festival, “Eden” is a pas de deux for two distinguished principal dancers, Allison DeBona and Tilton. Set to “Lyric for Strings” by George Walker, “Eden” makes visible the poignance of Walker’s music. Each step performed by DeBona and Tilton is spare and affecting. There is a starkness in this choreography that contrasts with more ebullient and dramatic pieces by Addison. 

DeBona and Tilton add a beautiful sense of maturity and investment, imbuing seemingly simple gestures with meaning. In one unforgettable moment, DeBona balances in an arabesque and reaches her arm behind her to clasp Tilton’s hand. It’s a subtle and stunning image of commitment and support. 

The Ballet West company in “The Thing with Feathers.” Photo: Beau Pearson

Closing the program was “The Thing with Feathers,” a first-time collaboration between Ballet West and the Sundance Institute. This ballet, choreographed by principal dancer Emily Adams, features music by Katy Jarzebowski, an alumna of Sundance’s Film Music Program. Revealing another facet of Ballet West’s range, this piece combines characters and allegory with an acoustic landscape that suggests a fantastical world. In a video about their collaboration, Jarzebowski says she composed in Logic Pro, shared the music with Adams, and then musicians, including violinist Isabella Reyes, recorded the score.  

Principal dancers Beckanne Sisk and Chase O’Connell are terrific as the lead couple who seem to possess a magnetic attraction to one another. Six dancers play characters who inhabit the surreal environs. At first, Dominic Ballard, Hadriel Diniz, Tyler Gum, Olivia Gusti, Vinicius Lima, and Victoria Vassos seem to keep Sisk trapped in their world, but she escapes to meet O’Connell. The ballet ends with Sisk lifted in the air by O’Connell as they spin together, perhaps rising above acrimony and disputes. 

In a program note, artistic director Adam Skulte writes that the ballet’s title traces its source to a poem by Emily Dickinson, “’Hope’ is the thing with feathers.” It’s a fitting message for a program that closes a challenging season. Dickinson’s poem likens hope to a bird that lives within each of us, an indefatigable source of inspiration and motivation. 

Ballet West’s Choreographic Festival through Saturday at the Rose Wagner Performing Arts Center. All patrons will be required to wear masks in the lobby and throughout the performance. balletwest.org

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