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Flash 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.
Rene 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.

The 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.

Angelini's boldness -- 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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