Friday, February 3, 2012

New Work from the Louisville Ballet Showcases Breadth of Talent in Company Choreographrs

Studio Connections
A new, in studio program of contemporary and classical choreography

By Kathi E.B. Ellis.

Entire contents are copyright © 2012 Kathi E.B. Ellis. All rights reserved

In brief comments before the performance, Artistic Director Bruce Simpson placed the evening’s works in perspective: a selection of classical ballet excerpts juxtaposed with pieces choreographed by current company members. The program is designed to encourage high school students to see the connections across the choreographic generations as well as the differences – with daytime performances for area students and evening performances for the public February 1-4. The evening is bookended by Petipa’s Raymonda Act III and Ben Needham-Wood’s commissioned Setting a Tone – programming that invites the compare and contrast outlined by Mr. Simpson.

Natalia Ashikhmina. 
Photo by Wade Bell.
The Louisville Ballet last performed Raymonda in the fall of 2010, and it was good to see this version in the more intimate quarters of the Ballet’s Main Street studio. The twenty-eight dancers easily fill the stage area both physically and energetically in a way that is just not possible in the expanse of the Whitney stage. The Hungarian variation that opens this act was much more precise and assured than in its earlier incarnation. Moving in to the Grand Pas Classique invites some challenges with the audience in such close proximity to the dancers, sharing the same lights – which is much less forgiving than a traditional stage setting – and being able to closely observe the demanding footwork and partnering. The eight ladies and men were up to this challenge. The solo variation, performed by Erica De La O, was clean and precise; the pas de trois (Rachel Cahayla-Wynne, Kateryna Sellers and Ashley Thursby) was delightfully light and flirty; the men’s pas de quatre (Robert Dunbar, Kazuki Ichihashi, Ben Needham-Wood and Douglas Ruiz) was uneven – each of these dancers has individual strengths yet, on Wednesday evening, they were not always a cohesive ensemble in this variation. Natalia Ashikhmina  and Phillip Velinov danced the principal lady and man variations, she with more assurance than he.

Setting a Tone was commissioned with specific criteria, including using classical music and being for eight pairs of dancers. These criteria invite a parallel with the more formal opening ballet; in form there are echoes of the sequence of ensemble, followed by pas de deux, trois, solos, etc., brought to a close with everyone returning to the stage for a finale. Mr. Needham-Wood plays with this form, adding and subtracting dancers with great fluidity so that a seething stage transforms almost invisibly into more intimate variations for smaller numbers of dancers. The three primary couples – Kateryna Sellers/Robert Dunbar, Leigh Anne Albrechta/Brandon Ragland and Amanda Diehl/Kristopher Wojtera – dance a series of pas de deux in the middle of the piece, and also come together in brief combinations of four and six before being rejoined by the rest of the sixteen-member company. The pas de deux are intricately conceived sequences exploring relationships, at first seeming separate but through echoed hand-play suggesting connections between these couples. A Bach concerto is the aural environment for much of the piece, interspersed with a more tonal, contemporary soundbed – begging the question as to whether the modern sets the tone for the classical or vice versa. This play on classical and contemporary connections is echoed in the choreography. Mr. Needham-Wood blends recognizably classical motifs with an exploration of non-traditional lifts, dynamic floor work and non-classical groupings; he also plays with silence, including the unexpectedly somber ending moments with the ensemble slowly walking upstage, facing away from the audience, moving into silence and a slow fade of the lights.

Erica De La O. Photo by Wade Bell.
The central ‘act’ of the evening consists of five short pieces: two more Petipa variations opened and closed this section, with two short pieces by company members and one solo, the Gopak that Mr. Simpson identified as being inspired by traditional dance, performed with passion by Ian Poulis. It was interesting to see three Petipa pieces in one program, thereby inviting the audience to recognize the similarities between them. The clearest parallel was the pas de deux from Le Corsaire (Amanda Diehl and Robert Dunbar) and the Diane and Acteon pas de deux (Erica De La O and Douglas Ruiz), in contrast to the Raymonda pas de deux between then principal lady and man. Each is a set piece with the form of duet, male solo, female solo and duet. The Corsaire pas de deux is the most flamboyant; the Diane and Acteon more lyrical than either of the other two. During each of these excerpts the audience was also treated to the classical tradition of curtain calls – including after individual variations within the pas de deux – in which the choreography of the bows is treated as formally as the performance. The curtain calls for the other pieces were much less structured, though just as intentional.

Ms. De La O and Mr. Ruiz seem to be creating a tradition of Greek mythological pairings, having previously danced Apollo and Daphne (also choreographed by Ben Needham-Wood) as part of the fall Choreographers Showcase. The piece in Studio Connections, credited to Vaganova after Marius Petipa, is much different from their previous piece, demonstrating these dancers’ interpretive versatility. This is an idyllic, pastoral encounter (a far cry from the story of the actual myth) with Mr. Ruiz embracing the rolling jetés with great zest and Ms. De La O performing the Petipa fouettés with aplomb. The playful choreographic nods to the hunting motifs in the music are charming. Fouettés appear again in the Corsaire pas de deux, part of the finale to this piece. Ms. Diehl has a gentle grace in her performance. Mr. Dunbar is energetic, performing his final solo sequence admirably; yet, for me, he does not embody the bravura called for in this particular classical role.

Balancing out the center of the evening are Saudade Amore by Amanda Diehl and a reprise (from the fall showcase) of T’es La Seule by Carrie Patterson. It was good to see Caroline Betancourt and Evgeni Dokoukine in this latter piece again. This short piece lives up to repeated viewings (it was also the Ballet’s offering for the Fund for the Arts Campaign launch earlier this week), with enough engaging shifts of energy, connection and mood to sustain multiple experiences. I look forward to seeing other work by Ms. Patterson. Saudade Amore featured company trainee Annie Honebrink and Ben Needham-Wood. Mr. Needham-Wood seemed much more at home in this contemporary piece than in the first classical variation; his energy and kinetic connection to Ms. Honebrink served the piece well. Ms. Honebrink brought an acute sense of stillness and calmness to this piece, even (maybe especially) during the more daring lifts and partnering combinations in the choreography. This is a bittersweet exploration of connection and separation set to evocative music of Blue October.

Studio Connections is an excellent occasion on which to experience artists of the Louisville Ballet in an informal setting with ‘mainstage’ performance standards. By pairing classical ballet excerpts with current creations of company members, audiences have the opportunity to appreciate the 200-plus year tradition that is the foundation from which today’s choreographers can launch ever-evolving concepts of what ballet can be.


Kathi E.B. Ellis is a member of the Lincoln Center and Chicago Directors' Labs and an associate member of the Stage Directors & Choreographers Society. She has attended the LaMama Directing Symposium in Umbria, Italy, and is featured in Southern Artisty, an online registry of outstanding Southern Artists. Her directing work has been recognized with nominations for the South Florida Theatre Carbonell Award. Locally, Kathi is a member of Looking for Lilith Theatre Company, a founding principal of StageLab theatre training studio, and is part of ShoeString Productions an informal producing collective. She has written book reviews and articles for Southern Theatre, the quarterly publication of the Southeastern Theatre Conference, and was a contributing writer for JCPS' textbook for the 11th grade Arts and Humanities survey course and for YouthArts Tapestry, a Kentucky Arts Council publication.

February 1, 2, 3, & 4, 2012

Louisville Ballet Studios
315 East Main Street
Louisville, KY 40202
(502) 583-2623

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