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Review, 4-21: Future Tense
Tulsa Gets 'In Tense' with Robbins, Welch, and Cong
By Alicia Chesser
Copyright 2005 Alicia Chesser
Photo copyright 2005 Christopher Jean-Richard
TULSA, Oklahoma -- One
wouldn't necessarily expect to find an adventurous ballet company
in Oklahoma, but that is what Marcello Angelini has created in the
short time he has been the artistic director of Tulsa Ballet. His
new "Nutcracker," which premiered in 2003, was a fairly radical reworking of
a much-beloved chestnut; while it had its failings, it was a bold
experiment performed with passion. The company's spring program,
titled "In Tense" and seen April 10 at the Tulsa Performing Arts
Center, shared that boldness, with dancers of incredible vitality
performing three pieces -- Stanton Welch's "Bruiser," Jerome Robbins's
"In the Night," and a premiere by Tulsa Ballet principal dancer
Ma Cong -- that challenged them as much as the audience.
Welch is a fixture in
the repertoires of smaller companies around the country, as well
as an abiding presence on my list of most overrated choreographers.
The big skirts! The spins to the floor! The bombast! The faux-ethnic
arm-waving! He can be exciting, in his too-obvious way, but rarely
has a choreographer impressed me less. But "Bruiser" took me by
surprise: a witty, physically powerful, sometimes even subtle take
on what one might call the sporting body (and the sporting heart).
Welch puts 18 dancers through an incredible workout of boxing jabs,
wrestling holds, even cheerleading poses in a ballet that seems
to take its inspiration from the word "punchy."
Both the men and the
women sport black T-shirts, boy shorts, and blacking under their
eyes; the women, on pointe, dance bare-legged, their hair in ponytails
or frazzled buns. Arching leaps and tight, fast pirouettes begin
the ballet -- walls of men and women coming at you, music-video-style
-- then the movement fades on and off into quiet, solitary bobbing
and weaving, the loose yet intensely focused movement of the human
body priming itself for another round. A man arches his back and
checks his aches and pains in an all-too-human solo; soon a woman
joins him, wrapping her body around him as if to heal his wounds.
A second duet has a couple squaring off, bracing their fists as
if they'd done this so many times before. Forgiveness permeates
their dance, though they're clearly still battling, and it ends
as it began: with a promise to fight, and forgive, again. During
these duets, the other dancers stretch and rub their calves and
shoulders near the wings. There is constant activity, but all within
the quiet concentration of training the body to find the sweet spot,
the target, the win.
Graeme Koehne's music
is Leonard Bernstein-meets-John Adams, jazzy and inexorable. Two
big black curtains at the back of the stage frame the "ring," leaving
a wide column of light between them. Christina Giannelli's lighting
is truly bruising -- harsh kleiglights, deep shadows -- especially
at the end when it illuminates the one woman left standing as this
training day's hero. "Bruiser" is very much a ballet in the style
of Peter Martins, with the big loud music and the unstoppably frenetic
movement. But, unlike Martins's ballets, this one is actually fun
as it pounds you into the ground; it's violent chaos, but with a
heart inside. The men and women in their duets are honest and loving,
not faceless or preachy. Tulsa Ballet's dancers were extraordinary:
perfectly rehearsed, amazingly energetic, as vividly present and
alive when they huddled down to shadowbox in the corner as they
were when leaping full-out into the air.
Maybe it's just that
New York City Ballet spoiled me for Jerome Robbins and I can never
be satisfied again seeing his ballets on any other company. (Thanks,
NYCB!) But this "In the Night" was a disappointment, danced more
like a classroom exercise than the pensive and sweet short story
it is. Ashley Blade-Martin and Domenico Luciano seemed to be thinking
of other things as they rushed through the first pas de deux; they
missed all the poetry in Chopin's music (played by Ramona Pansegrau).
As the second couple, Rene Olivier and Wilson Lema came further
into the ballet's lush life -- especially Olivier, who, with her
dreamy yet earthy demeanor, her physical power, and her musical
intelligence, reminded me very much of ABT's Monique Meunier.
Olivier and Wilson Lema of Tulsa Ballet in Jerome Robbins's
"In the Night." Christopher Jean-Richard photo
copyright 2005 Christopher Jean-Richard and courtesy Tulsa Ballet.
third pas de deux got a stunningly passionate reading from principal
dancers Daniela Buson and Alfonso Martin. They moved so boldly together
-- Buson and Martin have been onstage partners for years -- that
I thought they missed some of the delicacy and thoughtfulness others
have brought out in this duet. They too seemed to rush a bit; even
in the unforgettable moment when the woman touches her partner's
body, hand over hand, until she kneels on the ground before him,
it all seemed to go too quickly. I wanted to see them take more
time to savor each touch, to see them be more introspective for
a moment. But their dramatic reading was refreshing, bringing out
a passion and dynamism in the choreography that I had missed on
other viewings. Buson is a masterful dancer with a very clean style,
a woman who is clearly still absorbing new knowledge about her art
despite having had a long and illustrious career. Rumor has it that
she will retire soon; Tulsa Ballet will miss her hunger for beauty
-- and her beauty itself.
-- in choosing and rehearsing his dancers, and in his programming
choices ("In the Night" is only the second Robbins ballet the company
has performed, the first being "Fancy Free") -- extends to his encouragement
of new choreography from within the ranks. Principal dancer Ma Cong
put together a little number for a spoof "Nutcracker" the company
did a few years ago. Angelini thought it very promising, and offered
Cong the chance to undertake something bigger. The result is "Folia,"
a ballet in seven movements to Spanish music from the 16th and 17th
centuries performed (on tape, alas) by Jordi Savall. "Folia" is
the Portuguese word for "madness," and in interviews before the
performance Cong emphasized that it was a playful madness he was
going for, a spirit of fun and folly, the little bit of wildness
that lives in every art.
His ballet is charming.
The first thing that wins your eye is the costumes, designed by
Jo Wimer. The men wear shorts with tops reminiscent of tunics; the
women, in soft ballet shoes, wear calf-length dresses with double-layered
skirts and long sleeves that are open at the top along the length
of the arm, a striking effect that's both medieval and modern. The
colors are intense but muted reds and blues and purples. Two heavy
red curtains, one upstage left and one downstage right, rise and
fall throughout the ballet.
The movement is quirky:
flowing spins and runs punctuated by a shaggy shrug of the shoulders,
hands flexed and pointed, arms folded tightly around the head. The
use of the upper body is fantastic, full of influences from medieval
dance, puppetry and court jesters, modern Tharpian movement, and
even the Chinese folk dance that was Cong's specialty before he
began to study ballet. The piece begins with a solo by Cong himself,
his long legs stretched out straight while his arms twist around
each other. Four men duck and leap in a witty dance that follows
a flippy, swirly duet by two women. In a pas de deux, Buson and
Martin meet and retreat, collapsing like dolls, elbows up to form
a loose "M" that is one of the ballet's motifs. A fabulous spinning
lift has Martin supporting Buson by her lower back while she lays
horizontal, face up, her legs gently bent at the knees; Martin whirls
her around like a Ginsu knife. Cecile Tuzii has a slow solo on a
deeply shadowed stage, hips and shoulders bent at all sorts of odd
angles. In a pas de trois near the ballet's end, Megan Keough, Shunsuke
Amma, and Michael Eaton pluck the air with their arms, mirroring
the plucked strings of a lute in the music. A reprise of Cong's
solo concludes the piece, sending this band of Bruegelian dancer/fools
off into the night.
Savall's music is thumpy
and plucky -- a drum and a horn and a lute going at it in the 6/8-time
syncopation that characterizes much music from this period -- and
full of a sweet sadness even in its joy. At times Cong's ballet
succumbs to what might be called the "Riverdance Effect," wherein
there is great excitement generated in the audience simply by all
the dancers facing front and doing the same series of steps over
and over as the music builds to a climax. It's a little too easy;
what stays with you is not the choreography but the feeling of thundering
momentum. "Folia" delights the eye with its small but startling
contortions and its influences from many dance traditions. At the
same time, there might be just too much of everything. It washes
over you in a whoosh of movement and color and sound, leaving you
not with intensified vision but with a feeling of vague pleasure
and a sense that you can't quite recollect what just happened. Perhaps
that sense is a proper effect of "madness"; my hunch is that the
ballet simply needs one more edit. Still, Cong is, I believe, a
real choreographic talent whom Angelini is quite right to encourage.
You never know where such gifts will turn up, and it's a tribute
to Angelini's leadership that he has found one within his own company.
I mentioned that the
music for "Folia" was on tape. The same was true, unfortunately,
of "Bruiser," which would have been even more thrilling with the
momentum live music provides. It is shocking that Tulsa, which has
always been a city devoted to the arts, is still without a regular
orchestra. One hopes that with talent like this emerging in Tulsa
Ballet -- not to mention the ongoing, much-discussed desire of Tulsa's
citizens for a return of its beloved Philharmonic -- some kind benefactors
will step up and give that new talent the accompaniment it deserves.
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