Ballet West, Harlem Dance Theater team up for bracing variety in Choreographic Fest V

Thu May 12, 2022 at 1:44 pm
By Audrey Lockie
Emily Adams and Hadriel Diniz in “Galantheae” at Ballet West’s Choreographic Fest. Photo: Beau Pearson

Ballet West’s Choreographic Fest returns for its fifth year and first collaborative effort since 2019, when the Covid-19 pandemic halted the festival.

Joined by the Dance Theater of Harlem, Ballet West presented world premieres of Sophie Laplane’s “Galantheae” and Juliano Nunes’ “Orange” alongside Robert Garland’s “Higher Ground” and Annabelle Lopez Ochoa’s “Balamouk.”  The works differed widely in their narrative scope, approaches to movement and music, and understanding of dance as a message-based medium.

The program’s first half centered on a pair of programmatic works. “Galantheae” is a narrative-driven piece, documenting the blooming of the resilient titular flowers after the winter months (set to piano music of Chopin and works by contemporary composer Ernst Reijseger).

“Galantheae” exemplified the Ballet West dancers’ strength and poise. The opening scene found out-going principal artist Beckanne Sisk skipping and sauntering around the sleeping flower dancers with a taunting, teasing swagger. The sense of playfulness and jeering competition laid over the whole piece as the plant life fought for space and dragged themselves into life. There were a few overly literal moments—the relationship between Sisk’s glittery Snow Fall and the green, lush flower costumes, and the repeated metaphors of the dancers rolling and blooming to life. Yet the forthright energy of Laplane’s choreography gave the piece a compelling agitated tumult.

The work peaked in a set of duets between Emily Adams and Hadriel Diniz, and Nicole Fanney and Beau Chesivoir, where the dancers’ sheer prowess and endurance came into full display. The obvious choice would be to match this tale of natural growth with elongated, fluid motions, but Laplane chose instead to focus on acrobatic, spindling movements. These duets also seemed legitimately strenuous and even painful at times, a potent exaggeration of nature’s quiet battles for life.

Far and away, the most successful and nuanced piece was Robert Garland’s “Higher Ground,” a cycle performed by the Harlem troupe to a highly curated selection of Stevie Wonder songs. In approaching the legendary musician’s massive catalog, Garland looked toward a single vision of this chameleonic artist, the mid-70’s vision of Stevie Wonder the cosmic pioneer. Like Wonder’s music, “Higher Ground” treated distinct traditions as being on an equal footing, incorporating classical ballet, hip-hop dance, soul-era choreography and more into one, unique vision. 

Following the futurist escapades of these Wonder deep cuts, Garland’s choreography honed in on a sense of triumph and awe. Especially in the solos peppered throughout the piece, the dancers flaunted big, bold movements. They stretched and extended their limbs as if reaching for the space-age refuge detailed in Wonder’s lyrics without ever losing the groove and rhythmic pull of his instrumentals. In the moments surrounding the most openly transcendent music—“Heaven is Ten Zillion Light Years Away” and “Saturn”—the DTH sextet balanced their rhythmically tethered group choreography with ballet’s expansiveness so well that it felt like they might actually lift off the stage toward the sky.

Against these two metaphoric works, the post-intermission pieces tracked in more abstract functions. 

The more enlivening of this pair was Annabelle Lopez Ochoa’s “Balamouk,” a playful bout of technical and flirtatious dances again performed by the Dance Theatre of Harlem. Set to a variety of Eastern European and Mediterranean music, the rhythmic piece found the dancers in a war of jealous sparring and courtship dances. One dancer would leap toward another, only to be caught midair or slung back by the surrounding troupes of dancers. The piece also featured stark shadow-play on the back wall, often combining the silhouettes of the dancers’ bodies into one shifting mass. The whole piece possessed a winking sense of innuendo, focusing so heavily on bodies and their relations—wanted, rejected, thwarted and more—to feel like a highbrow dirty joke, especially against the sauntering music.

In contrast, Juliano Nunes’ “Orange” offered a reserved austerity. With the cast donning identical, androgynous orange dresses, the piece began with a flurry of choreographic and chromatic synchronization before the company broke off into a set of duos and trios. Against the vibrancy offered by the night’s other three pieces, “Orange” showcased fluidity and a more classical elegance. The trios in particular exploited this sense of perpetual motion, the dancers dipping between each other’s grasps like water between different vases. The placid, traditional stoicism was further reflected in the music, Beethoven’s “Moonlight” Sonata and a Chopin nocturne. Coming after “Higher Ground,” the combination of the choreography’s muted pleasantness and Classical Music’s Greatest Hits felt a little safe.

That quibble apart, Ballet West is far from an artistically conservative company, and the collaborations of this fifth Choreographic Fest succeeded in presented the troupe at its most adventurous and open. The four diverse works presented a smorgasbord of contemporary choreography worth seeing for its variety alone. Like an independent film festival, the allure isn’t only that you’re seeing great dancing of masterworks—though, you may well catch one—but rather that you’re privy to the future in the making.

Choreographic Fest V continues through Saturday.

Ballet West’s 59th season will present Sleeping Beauty, Eugene Onegin, the Agnes de Mille/Copland Rodeo, the Nutcracker, and a series of Ballet West premieres in April. Find more information about the 2022–23 season at

Leave a Comment