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Flash Review, 11-14: Slaves to the Rhythms
Tulsa Tours the World

By Alicia Chesser
Copyright 2005 Alicia Chesser
Photo copyright 2005 Christopher Jean-Richard

TULSA -- Lush moves and luscious music filled the Tulsa Performing Arts Center October 28 as Tulsa Ballet presented World Rhythms, its first mixed-bill program of the 2005-2006 season. The company branched out dramatically from the classicism of its season opener "La Sylphide" to explore the mystery of a Chinese temple in "Samsara" (a premiere by Ma Cong), the gentle joy of the Italian Baroque in "L'amoroso" (by Nacho Duato, in its first performance by an American company), and the voices and drumbeats of Africa, by way of J. S. Bach, in "Lambarena" (an Oklahoma premiere by San Francisco Ballet veteran and Tulsa Ballet resident choreographer Val Caniparoli). As the evening progressed, the company went from strength to strength, proving itself more than up to the challenges of the latest in contemporary ballet.

Artistic director Marcello Angelini has packed the Tulsa Ballet repertory with dozens of works by contemporary choreographers -- including 33 Oklahoma premieres, five U.S. premieres, and four world premieres in the past 10 years -- making it competitive for up-to-dateness with much wealthier regional companies like Ballet West. In his efforts to introduce the flavors of modern ballet to this rather conservative midwestern city, Angelini has chosen to emphasize the sweet rather than the salty; he chooses Duato and Caniparoli over William Forsythe, for example, and hasn't shown a Balanchine ballet since 2001. ("Western Symphony" will appear this coming spring.) While I believe the company could use a little more of the savory in its post-classical programming -- works with more bite, more intellectual stimulation, more rigor and less sentiment -- the direction Angelini has chosen has clearly gained the approval of his audience in Tulsa and the attention of choreographers who think highly enough of what he's doing to allow their ballets to be staged here (and, in the case of Duato, only a few other places, such as American Ballet Theatre, Pacific Northwest Ballet, and the Royal Ballet).

To say Angelini favors the "sweet" is not to say he's afraid to take a risk. Quite the contrary, as he has proved again and again, most recently with this new ballet by Cong, whose first choreographic effort, "Folia," I covered last spring. Angelini is determined to encourage the growth of the creative class in Tulsa; giving a new choreographer a forum to try (and perhaps to fail) is to take a huge risk in pursuit of that goal. "Samsara," while not as successful as "Folia," is more ambitious in scale and more daring in dance terms. Its movement language borrows from classical ballet, from contemporary dance, and from the Chinese folk tradition in which Cong trained as a young man. The atmosphere is that of a temple, with two wide red fabric columns flanking a huge sheet of gold lame and dim, shadowy lighting by Les Dickert that occasionally flickers like a candle. Jo Wimer's costumes -- high-waisted shorts for the men, leotards for the women -- feature bands of red and black and gold that are both shimmery and matte, like dupioni silk.

In such an exotic atmosphere, clarity and focus are what's needed in the movement if the effect is to remain unmuddled. Cong's choreography for the men is sensational, featuring flexed and fisted hands, arms thrust out into space, and quick contractions to the side (and I mean amazingly quick, over and back in a second). The women's dances are, in my opinion, less effective. In contrast to the remarkably powerful and crisp upper-body movement Cong invented for the men, the women's arms were sinuous and wavelike throughout -- very beautiful, but too soft to stand out in the ever-shifting world of "Samsara." I would have liked to have seen more definition in the upper body and less busy-ness in the legs; the women's movement all seemed to merge together, sometimes fading into the overly-familiar with generic high kicks and swiveling hips.

The five movements of "Samsara" are composed of many "moments" that flow one after another: brief solos backed by a shimmering crowd, gymnastic pas de trois, a cohort of men doing short hops from side to side with their upper bodies on a diagonal, groupings of three and six that move forward and back on the stage. There's quite a lot going on, sometimes too much. The choreographic innovations are small but potent. There are infinity-shaped arms and swooping contractions and releases; a full-body swipe, like a whip into the air, and a thrust of the hands outward, that echo a string motif in the music; a pretty spin to the floor, in a pas de deux, where the woman descends with her back parallel to the ground. The music, by contemporary Chinese composer Liu Xing, warps traditional Chinese instruments and tonalities into something more akin to Laurie Anderson. The effect of the ballet, with its crashing score and mix of movement styles, is very near cacophony -- the din of a crowded ceremony, with brief, bright flashes of enlightenment -- until Cong himself takes the stage for a solo near the end.

It's this solo we've been waiting for, both to define the intentions of the ballet and to focus its energy. Cong rockets into the air like fireworks, legs tensely bent, arms popping, every movement as sharp and strong as that of a warrior. At last the music's wildness gains some purpose; at last the melange of movement gains some definition. The solo climaxes with a turn in arabesque that goes on and on and on ... and somehow gets bigger as it goes, like a swirling black hole swallowing the stars around it. The audience, heretofore somewhat passively awed by the colors and the crashing strings, was suddenly rapt and attentive, then they exhaled sharply and roared in applause after 30 seconds of total concentration. The people I talked to after the ballet could talk of nothing other than that solo. "Folia," from last spring, began and ended with a "defining" solo by Cong, telling us what to look for at the beginning and summing it up thrillingly at the end, and managed to articulate those motifs consistently in every dancer on the stage. The challenge for Cong in his next ballet -- eagerly awaited by this reviewer -- is to thread such definition throughout the piece, to extend in time and through his other dancers the very clear, very powerful dance ideas he is able to express so brilliantly on his own.

The second ballet on the program, "L'amoroso," was created by Duato in 2004 for CND2, the second company to his Compagnia Nacional de Danza, made up of dancers ages 18-21. It has all the characteristics of such youthful originators: charm, impetuosity, silliness, a touch of self-conscious moodiness. There is nothing pompous here, nothing "elevated" -- just the sweetness of six people dancing together to music from the Italian Baroque, under a big sky and a setting (or is it rising?) sun, with a dark horizon far in the distance. The dance language, heavily influenced by such European choreographers as Mats Ek and Jiri Kylian, is loose and formal at once, traceable to classical ballet but often more akin to folk dance. The shapes Duato makes here sometimes resemble icons, flattened and still; sometimes they are like marionettes, the torso quiet while the body jerks and bounces underneath. Sometimes in the midst of an orderly circle one dancer will jump up and flurry her arms, or shake her hands at her cheek while coming downstage in a simple walk. It's a funny, sweet language, its quirky moments curiously moving.

There is also real beauty, as in the three pas de deux that make up the second movement. Here the harvest-festival atmosphere of the first movement -- with drums, rain tubes, and viola da gamba bouncing beneath the dancers' gamboling -- gives way to more extended intimate encounters. The three women shed their long heavy cream-colored skirts, the men their simple tunics, to reveal bare legs and arms. The first pas de deux says "vulnerability," centering around a simple lift into and out of the fetal position. The second is more passionate, the man and the woman careening around and rushing toward and away from each other. The third is the oddest of all, and the most powerful, simply by virtue of one repeated movement in which a lunging man leans a woman over his leg and holds her there for a long moment; she's completely still, arms raised in a V, like a marble angel. (It's an inversion, perhaps, of the similar moment in Balanchine's "Serenade" where the "dark angel" flaps her wings behind the male figure.)

After these pensive encounters, the third movement opens with the feeling of an Antony Tudor ballet ( "Dark Elegies," to be precise). But the mood soon lightens and the three couples break into male/female trios to end the ballet in a rush of circles and bobbles and exhilarated running. There are, throughout, surprising things at the wings, a few dancers tagging along as someone exits the stage, the movement continuing between movements -- a charming little effect that keeps your attention up. The Tulsa Ballet dancers could not have looked more comfortable dancing these steps. "L'amoroso" is the seventh Duato ballet in the repertory, and these dancers -- many of whom have danced in Europe and are familiar with this popular style -- are smart as whips in them, finding both the wit and the warmth in his movement.
Tulsa Ballet's Alexandra Bergman and Ma Cong in Val Caniparoli's "Lambarena." Christopher Jean-Richard photo copyright 2005 Christopher Jean-Richard and courtesy Tulsa Ballet.

In pure dance terms, the best ballet of the evening -- in its idea, its choreography, and its performance -- was the final one, Caniparoli's "Lambarena." What a gorgeous acquisition for this company. From the music to the costumes to the perfectly "bilingual" movement, it's a gem of a fusion ballet. Composed in honor of Albert Schweitzer, whose hospital in Africa bore the same name, the incredible score is an arrangement by Pierre Akendengue and Hughes de Courson (from an original concept by Mariella Bertheas) of familiar pieces by J. S. Bach and traditional African music, melded in such a way that you think they've belonged together from all eternity. Yet the sounds of this score are utterly surprising: you hear new rhythms in the Bach, new melody in the African drumbeats and vocal patterns. Sandra Woodall's costumes are surprising, too. The men wear dark knit tops and knee-length pants with a sort of batik print; the women, on point, are stunning in long, slightly stiff, exquisitely multicolored skirts with narrow and wide stripes and huge draping folds. The simple lighting by Lisa J. Pinkham (recreated by Les Dickert) envelops the dancers in a warm glow.

Not that these dancers needed any help in the "glow" department. From the moment Alexandra Bergman quietly took the stage to the sound of a high-pitched African singer's voice, the whole theater seemed to relax and smile. Tulsa Ballet brought in the two African dance experts who consulted on the ballet's 1995 creation (on San Francisco Ballet), Naomi Diouf and Zakariya Sao Diouf, to teach the cast about their dance traditions. Not only were they completely successful in teaching the classically trained dancers to move their derrieres and throw their shoulders proudly back, they also visited several local schools and ran workshops for kids on African dance -- another example of Angelini's dedication to making ballet matter locally. (And speaking of local relevance: Before the performance, in the gallery of the Performing Arts Center, a small Tulsa African dance-and-drum troupe called N'Goma Uzuri, invited, I assume, by the Tulsa Ballet management, attracted a huge and very enthusiastic crowd -- just the thing to warm us up before the show.)

I mentioned Bergman as the first wave of joy to come onstage in "Lambarena." Along with the darkly focused Emanuel Colina, the buoyant Rupert Edwards, the Ethan-Stiefel-esque Joshua Trader, and the nine other dancers in the piece, she was utterly confident, elegant and earthy at once, moving so calmly through space that you think she's not paying attention, only to surprise you with fierce little feet and a complicated swivel of the torso. Just a word about these Tulsa Ballet dancers: they are so well-trained, so unified in their work onstage, and yet so vivid in their individuality. Every dancer stands out -- you remember not just faces but the tilt of a shoulder -- yet nobody showboats. It's a laudable achievement.

The movement is brilliantly synthesized: a pique into arabesque sweeps into a deep, bottom-heavy plie as two arms give a quick, broad hug to the air. A line of women moves across the stage, each doing the same mind-bending but completely easygoing sequence of movements with arms, body, and feet -- "La Bayadere" made fun. Edwards and Serena Chu revisit a sharp motif introduced by Cong and Bergman: lying on the ground, they contract their abdomens so their arms and upper bodies are slightly raised and turned toward the audience, then they scissor their legs together and apart with the top foot pointed, the bottom one flexed. Caniparoli blends the ballet and the African movement in a way that respects the purity of each while experimenting with what one might reveal about the other. It's a completely successful experiment, beautiful and joyful and thought-provoking -- and hugely crowd-pleasing.

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