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Flash Review, 4-12: Dance to Die for
Classic Duato, Tharp, & North Bring Tulsa to the Finish Line

By Alicia Chesser
Copyright 2007 Alicia Chesser

TULSA -- In its 50th anniversary season, Tulsa Ballet has taken audiences on a vast and various tour of the company's past and present, with peeks at future destinations along the way. Each stop was memorable: from the delicate whirl of Balanchine's "Serenade" to the yippee-ki-yay of Agnes de Mille's "Rodeo," from the pristine "Swan Lake" to Robert North's maniacally manly "Troy Game," Tulsa Ballet showed its versatility, charm, and confidence. The season included two premieres (Ma Cong's "Carmina Burana" and the "Oklahoma! Suite") and the first performance of Nacho Duato's "Por Vos Muero" by an American company, as well as a revised version of artistic director Marcello Angelini's "Nutcracker." The company celebrated dance exuberantly, both pleasing and educating audiences in this suddenly arts-hungry city. The final program, Legends in Motion, seen March 31 at the Tulsa Performing Arts Center, brought the season to a close with lively wit ("Troy Game"), martini-dry, red-hot glamour (Twyla Tharp's "Nine Sinatra Songs"), and meditative intensity ("Por Vos Muero"). Something for everyone? That's Tulsa Ballet.

In an interview with Intermission magazine, the Tulsa Performing Arts Center's in-house publication, Angelini explained that he programmed "Troy Game" (choreographed in 1974) to even the score, as it were, between the men and the women of the company after all the daunting dancing the women have done this season in ballets like "Serenade" and "Swan Lake." Set to thunderous, tumbling, infectiously rhythmic Brazilian percussion music, this piece is both a showcase for and a joke about male physical power. Eight men flex their biceps; scramble up into tense pyramids; somersault slowly with legs extended, showing off rippling thighs; and stretch, pounce, and thrust their fisted arms, shouting "YAH!" Interspersed throughout this parade of prancing poses are several solos that show the dancers in more introspective moments: Ma Cong moves like a thoughtful cat, Alberto Montesso arcs through space in geometric curves, Michael Eaton brushes off the competition with smooth turning jumps, and Rupert Edwards, who has grown remarkably in suppleness and authority during this season, executes complicated tours en l'air as naturally as one breathes. There is menace in the air, but as the ballet's title suggests, it's more a game of bluff and braggadocio than anything really threatening.

When Mugen Kazama and Ricardo Graziano take the floor, that punchy hyper-masculinity becomes sublime silliness. Kazama is the youngster of the group, small but scrappy. The bigger guys, who first scoop him up and toss him around, soon enough catch his infectious jangle as he jives and jogs around the stage. (He ends his big moves with one hand smoothing his hair -- and sometimes ends that way before he's even started, a good-natured fake-out.) Zippy as Kazama is, it's Graziano who steals the show. The opening movements' butch testosterone zone suddenly becomes, in the body of Graziano, an unstoppable dance party. Are there drums inside his body? Because that's what it looks like. Completely consumed by the music, he transforms the ballet's self-conscious muscularity into pure bodily joy. His whole body shakes and worms and fizzes like he's been hit by lightning (except he's grinning like mad, eyes rolled up to the heavens whence cometh this beat). The other men try to contain him, grabbing one foot, then both feet, then his arms, then his shoulders, but each unbound part still buzzes to the drums... until only his head is left free, and it still can't stop dancing. Graziano's performance in "Troy Game" was far and away the single most entertaining of the entire season, and another occasion to marvel at this dancer's budding physical and theatrical range.

"Troy Game" takes Tulsa Ballet's male dancers to the extremes of their physical strength -- and they meet, indeed surpass, the challenge. "Nine Sinatra Songs," the first Tharp ballet in the Tulsa repertoire (staged by original American Ballet Theatre cast member Elaine Kudo), asks something different of its performers: an understated, acid Cool -- sometimes wry, sometimes tough -- whose perfect exemplar is the voice of Frank Sinatra. The 14 dancers here arrive in pairs, mingling idly amongst each other as Tharpian dancers do, dressed in tuxedos and glittery, clingy Oscar de la Renta evening dresses and dangerous high heels. There were some less than smooth moments (Rene Olivier moved uneasily in her heels, gorgeous as she was in a pale peach gown in "Softly as I Leave You"; Wang Yi almost lost Ashley Blade-Martin in a big lift at the end of "All the Way") but on the whole the performance was confident, balancing the rigor of ballroom dance with the very human passions -- impulsive, shy, torrid -- that inspire it.

The best dances were the most private, though in very different ways. In "One for My Baby (and One More for the Road)," Victoria Ignomiriello (in a fabulous black flapper-inspired dress) and Graziano shared a loose, delicate interplay of hands and hair and undone bow ties, all those things that seem so precious when you're tipsy. They found themselves in crazy positions (again, things you'd only try when you've had one too many), up and over each other's shoulders and spinning down on the floor -- but there was not one moment of mugging or vulgarity in their performance. It was a little masterpiece of small-hours knowingness. After the blushing first-date mayhem of Kiri Chapman and Montesso in "Somethin' Stupid" and the frilly fuchsia romp of Megan Keough and Kazama in "Forget Domani," the stage caught fire in "That's Life" by way of a searing tango for Karina Gonzalez and Alfonso Martin. Where Ignomiriello and Graziano worked out their affections with little, loving gestures, Gonzalez and Martin -- pure drama in red and black -- hurled themselves at each other, legs and hair slicing the air, in a brazen dance with no particular goal but the dance itself. Approaching and retreating at top speed and with total physical abandon (which, of course, requires supreme physical control), these dancers perfectly captured the Sinatra toughness-without-hardness, the bittersweet boldness of sexual attraction. At the music's climax, Martin coolly shrugged on his dinner jacket as Gonzalez ran full-tilt toward him, then caught her just as she reached him and rocketed her into a space-devouring lift. There's not a lot of love in Tharp's ballet, but there's a heck of a lot of fun and thrill.

"Nine Sinatra Songs" closed the program on a note of excitement, with the audience charged up by the glamorous glitter of it all. For my money, though, I'd almost have preferred in its stead an encore -- maybe even two -- of the piece that preceded it, "Pour Vos Muero." Angelini has intensely sought to add this Duato ballet to the seven others in the Tulsa repertoire since he first saw it in 1999; I remember his glee when he told me last year that he'd finally succeeded. At the time, I thought (rather wanly), "Ah, another Duato ballet?" I've found the few pieces of his I've seen charming and easy on the eyes, but not particularly substantial. Add to that the collective 'boo' English critics gave "Por Vos Muero" when the Royal Ballet performed it in 2002 -- describing it variously as "dull," "commonplace," "opportunistic," "touchy-feely," and "pretentious twaddle" -- and I was dubious that Angelini had really got his hands on the treasure he thought he had.

I don't know how it looked to British audiences, on British dancers, but on the dancers of Tulsa Ballet it was physically, psychologically, and decoratively rich, and intensely moving. Duato is part of the contemporary expressionist lineage that includes Maurice Bejart and Jiri Kylian; this particular bloodline is not for everyone. And I can see how this particular ballet might not be for everyone, perhaps especially not for the archetypically conservative Royal Ballet. "Por Vos Muero" is deeply Spanish, deeply rooted in the earthy, Catholic, passion-play world of 15th- and 16th-century Europe (a world which the English Reformation had done a great deal to suppress in Britain by the time the music and poetry which inspired this piece were written, by anonymous Catalan composers and Garcilaso de la Vega, respectively. The ballet's composition reminds me of a set of stained-glass windows in a church, telling the story of a society through the ways in which it moved. There were peasant dances; there were courtly dances; there were dances of death and mourning; even a procession of incense-bearers in a religious service looked like a dance (could one say that even incense dances?). Dance once pervaded all strata of culture perhaps almost as much as the faith did, Duato suggests. In this ballet, people dance their lives.æHere, as in the case of stained-glass windows, each image moves each viewer to different observations at different moments. This viewer saw in "Por Vos Muero" the story of a person, a soul, represented by a society of souls, as it moves between earthly and heavenly ways of being -- and some ways in between.

The set, designed by Duato, resembles a huge marionette theater, with heavy red curtains that hang down in arcs above small overlapping walls (one forward, one behind and slightly to the side, and so on) covered tightly in crumpled bronze fabric. The walls define the dancers' world: through them they enter and exit, and in that narrow embrace they are both separated and inseparable from the world above. Nicolas Fischtel's lighting (recreated by Les Dickert) is dim, chiaroscuroed, Rembrantian. The music comes to us courtesy of a group called La Capella Reial de Catalunya, directed by the inimitable Jordi Savall and heard here on a recording. Between movements, the voice of Miguel Bose is heard reciting brief poems by De la Vega, a prominent romantic poet of the Spanish Renaissance.

As the ballet opens, male and female figures in flesh-toned leotards walk into the deeply shadowed walls at the back of the stage. Their walking, away from the audience into blackness, is like a slow-motion animation of one of Leonardo da Vinci's anatomy drawings, each ankle-flex at once excruciatingly articulated and natural as can be. These dancers are bare existence, it seems, living at the most elemental level of humanity. Suddenly one pair (Marit van der Wolde and Wang Yi) returns out of the black in rich, rustling court dress (a blue/black silk and net gown for the woman, black shorts and a velvet tunic with latticework showing through black net at the back for the man). The Giacomettian Van der Wolde (woefully underused in the company until an equally tall man arrived in Yi) whispers a secret in her partner's ear, then they settle calmly into a formal portrait pose. Other couples appear, in similar dress (now grey and turquoise are added to the blue), and suddenly the tempo picks up and the floor fills with whirling, twining figures. The bustling crowd disperses, leaving Keough, Gonzalez, and Serena Chu to dance out a frisky, friendly (and maybe a bit competitive?) conversation. Then it's Cong and Graziano frolicking together to flutes and drums with Chu getting in on their jests, cupping her face in her hands in a coy, youthful gesture.

Then the jesting ends, and suddenly it's evening -- on the stage and in the heart. Six women flow out from behind the walls to a single woeful note held and held by a female singer. They carry bundles of white porcelain masks on sticks, like macabre bouquets of funeral lilies. The imagery of the mask is powerful in Renaissance Europe, as in fact it is today, with its suggestions of duality, the mystery of identity, lies and truthfulness, what is real and what is not real. Against the darkened dresses of the women, the masks glow eerily like disembodied heads. The women's hands cup the air above them as Chu cupped her face earlier; we are moving into a world apart from that youthful, frolicsome one, a world in which faces -- persons -- are not corporeal only. A group of men in burgundy capes rushes onstage swinging thuribles, curving around the stage as around narrow Spanish streets, and among them lurks Gonzalez like a penitent waiting for confession. When they depart, the other women return, without their masks.... Have they been absolved? The question of where we are -- where these souls are -- becomes urgent as Van der Wolde returns in the flesh-toned costume in which we first saw her, this time with Edwards, primitively walking again, followed by other couples in intensely poignant duets. Is this purgatory? Blade-Martin and Yi seem to suggest something like it in a dramatic pas de deux. With Yi's help, and sometimes weeping, Blade-Martin tries to reach her arms up like an angel's wings, then gravitates back to earth in his embrace.

Gonzalez -- the figure to which one's eye keeps returning as she stands slightly apart from the rest -- remains in her court dress amidst this crowd of ghosts. Is she Concupiscence, that power that always pulls us back to the passions of the flesh? A person who has lost her rich culture in the nakedness of modernity? Or is she simply a woman, searching for where she belongs, where she will find love? As the ballet ends she stands alone on the stage, listening carefully to that voice intoning De la Vega's love sonnet, which ends, "For thee I die [por vos muero]." She dances briefly with a "nude" figure, then returns to the shadowed walls where Cong -- in court dress, too -- waits to envelop her in his arms. Bright lights seem to sear their flesh as Gonzalez leans back in Cong's embrace -- then all lights go out and the ballet is over.

Does it sound like "pretentious twaddle"? I suppose it could appear that way, but in the hands of these dancers Duato's ballet was vivacious, serious, focused, and full of life and longing -- the furthest thing from pretentious. His choreography here is considerably less precious than in some of his other ballets, more grounded and ordered and muscular, less fluttery. There is also simply more choreography, which in its careful attention to shape, angle, and speed is thoughtful and complex -- not just lots of steps, as sometimes seems the case with Duato. The concept, too, is richer, inviting multiple questions and responses. "Por Vos Muero" is, it turns out, a superb acquisition for Tulsa Ballet, a piece through which dancers and audiences alike can experience another way of moving -- moving bodies and moving imaginations -- and an exquisite centerpiece to the final program of the company's anniversary season.


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