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Flash Review Journal, 1-29: One for Rosella
Tulsa uses Duato, Kylian & Taylor to reveal the language of dance

By Alicia Chesser
Copyright 2009 Alicia Chesser

TULSA -- Jiri Kylian and Paul Taylor are not even remotely familiar names around here. So when the Tulsa Ballet performed their work November 1 at the Tulsa Performing Arts Center, on a bill with another international artist who's becoming a local favorite, Nacho Duato, it gave a new dimension to area ballet-goers' understanding of the art form's recent history. If the winning program met the first three tenets of the company's stated mission -- to educate, challenge, and entertain -- it also met a fourth, defined by artistic director Marcello Angelini in a recent documentary* as revealing dance itself as a distinct expressive language that doesn't need to create a dramatic narrative in order to tell a story. Not that this program wasn't accurately called "Legends"; Wikipedia describes "legend" (Latin, legenda, "things to be read") as "a narrative of human actions that are perceived both by teller and listeners to take place within human history and to possess certain qualities that give the tale verisimilitude." These "legends" of contemporary ballet brought us three "legends" in this program -- three narratives about human action in very different realms of life.

Of the ten Duato ballets TB has presented over the past several years, "Gnawa" is one of the most well-crafted, musically sensitive, and emotionally satisfying. Duato's stager, Tony Fabre, calls it "one of Nacho's rare happy ballets," an ensemble piece for 14 dancers set to the bounding, swooping, percussive gnawa music of Morocco. "It's a little like an Arabian party," Fabre said in an interview with the Tulsa World, "where everyone is dancing, the energy is high, and the overall feeling [is] one of happiness." The men here wear loose white pants lightly patterned with leaves, the women simple, flowing black dresses. The ballet opens with six couples whipping around the stage in fascinatingly fast lifts. The men raise the women, who maintain a froglike pose, with arms raised up, palms out, legs bent, feet flexed, and head thrust back -- a pose reiterated many times throughout the piece, which offers both supplication and joyous release. Four men perform beetling ronds de jamb in little circles; their arms intertwine, shoulders flexing, torsos shifting to catch the light. (Nicolas Fischtel captures both the aura of moonlight and the flicker of candlelight in his extraordinary lighting design for this ballet.) Suddenly the men and women meld together under a glowing spotlight. In an undulating mass, one or two slip out, only to be re-absorbed into the flow. A later frieze, with all the dancers intertwined, alternating black and white, woman and man, echoes this wave-like mass, extending it across the stage like a series of hieroglyphs.

Serena Chu and Wang Yi emerge from these shadows into a quiet world of harp and flute, stepping lightly like deer by a brook. Their pas de deux is sinuous, tense and relaxed at once. Yi makes a bridge, and Chu slides under it. He makes it again, and she makes one too, perpendicular to his, her feet on his thighs. Together they go over and under, upside down, right side up. One stands slack, head down, arms hanging; the other tilts across his shoulder facing the other way, legs in a taut attitude. One embraces the other, who flings her arms up and away. It's a little masterpiece of cantilevering. Chu has a natural gift for inhabiting these contemporary parts; she can be both massively strong and almost bonelessly flexible, and her face is always calm and attentive. And she is a good match for Yi, whom she grounds and steadies.

Following this gentle pas de deux, all the dancers come forward carrying candles in pots, to a chugging rhythm. Two stop abruptly, arching their upper bodies, and the others stop for them. In a powerfully rhythmic episode, the men's legs thrum with the guitar of the recorded score, which presents traditional North African music by Hassan Hakmoun, Adam Rudolph, Juan Alberto Arteche, Javier Paxarino, Rabih Abou-Khalil, Velez, and Kusur y Sarkissian. Ricardo Graziano takes a stunning solo turn, his bare back evoking a satyr's, his hands linked above his head as his feet pounce, the movement so sharp that it looks like that of another life form. The ballet ends with the dancers raising their lights in a unified prayer, their communal dance having brought a little glow into the darkness. "Gnawa" seems full of many lives -- bugs and water, drums and silence, woman and man, gods and frogs. What brings these lives to life is choreography which finds the folds and billows of the music and shakes them out in movement that shows deep affection for the worlds from which they come. It is well known that Duato allows very few companies to dance his ballets. He is right to trust TB with them. There are few pieces in the repertoire which these dancers perform with more commitment, passion, physical power and nuance.

The force of the challenge which Kylian's "Petite Mort" (1991) presented to the audience was blunted by its coming directly after "Gnawa," with which it shares a "look" (bare shadowed stage, naked torsos, and a style that shares a history; Duato was once one of Kylian's principal dancers). "Petite Mort" is less instantly appealing than "Gnawa," which has infectious rhythms on its side; one could feel a chill descend on the theater when the ballet got going. Where Duato's piece would repay multiple viewings for the sheer visceral pleasure of seeing the bodies tumble and perch, Kylian's needs to be returned to because of its subtlety. It brings together cool neoclassicism and hot-blooded expressivism, filling two Mozart piano concertos with sexual tension. Six men open the ballet to a rumble heard in the distance, carrying the long, thin fencing swords called foils. Nearly nude, barefoot, and in silence, they flash their foils through the air, then place them tenderly, tip first, on the ground. They step on the grip so the point tips up; they roll the long blades in a wide half-circle. This uber-masculine fondling soon erupts into light and music and women's taut bodies, which flood the stage (with the help of a black silk cloth flung over them as they run forward) and turn the men's soliloquies into jackknifing duets.

Kylian's dance language is fluid yet forceful, focused on the interplay of bodies to such a degree that it's sometimes a mystery where the man begins and the woman ends. The TB dancers consistently move with hypnotic languor, their bodies like a breath. A pas de deux in the second movement continues and expands the wavelike formations of the opening. The "facade" motif, begun with the foils, which stand for the image men send out to the world, continues also as six women bourree forward behind stiff gowns whose severe black bodices and wide skirts are extremes of the fashion. The women lean out boldly and tenderly from behind the gowns, then slip back behind them with caresses and wonderment. Of all the women, Karina Gonzalez best captures what's being expressed: not quite drama, not quite humor, but something slightly absurdist. Two late pas de deux, for Gonzalez and Graziano followed by Chu and Martin, bring this interplay of ideas to its most intimate expression in a series of intense interactions. As Graziano kneels to the floor and extends his back leg, Gonzalez stretches out on it, facing away from him, and lifts her upper body to the sky using nothing but her immensely strong lower back. Chu and Martin wrap around each other in a flurry of little battements and inside-out lifts. Always there is motion, contact. "Petite Mort"'s dialogue between these elements of human life does not resolve at the ballet's end, but rather pauses as those six empty dresses, standing in a circle, are turned to reveal a blood-red lining. Who are we? Our bodies or our self-projections? Our primal nakedness or the "costumes" that social constructs require us to wear? Our womanliness and manliness, or our need to live in relationships? Are we, in sum, neoclassical or expressionist? Kylian shakes out his ballet heritage with hyper-extended, hypersensitive, very contemporary bodies, suggesting the fascinating duality he sees in all of life.

Even Garrison Keillor, visiting Tulsa in late October for a broadcast of his "Prairie Home Companion," appreciated the programming acumen of the TB board, noting the appropriateness, given our economic situation, of Taylor's "Black Tuesday" in the company's upcoming show. (Amusingly, he called it "Black Friday" by mistake -- quite a different message that would send!) This piece reveals ballet as "legend," too: a way to speak about who we are and what we do in the world. Dance is as primitive as it is complex; it's what we humans have done since time immemorial when we rejoice and when we grieve. It's a way to tell our story, every bit as much as a novel or a symphony is. "Gnawa" tells a story of human beings in nature; "Petite Mort" tells of human beings in their physical intimacy. "Black Tuesday," which premiered in New York in May 2001, tells of human beings who have fallen victim to a national crisis, who must sustain their humanity in an environment of humiliation, poverty, and war.

In such a world, Taylor asks, what remains of the human things? Laughter, for one. Nathan McGinnis and Ricardo Graziano open the ballet with a soft-shoe duet to "Underneath the Arches," clad in grimy top hats, threadbare pants, and tattered cutaway jackets. In this duet -- brassy, wistful, and sardonic -- Taylor sets the tone for the whole ballet. These men share a determined playfulness, rigid around the edges, a focused effort to dance in the darkness without tripping headlong into it. Consider the contrast with "Gnawa," in which the dancers are one with the shadows, living among them without fear or hesitation, spontaneous and fluid. Taylor's movement here is clear and unfancy. It picks up patches of 1920s dances, to popular songs of the era, and sews them up into jangly but rigorously disciplined bits. These two men have few clothes, fewer dollars, and nowhere to sleep but on the streets of the city that has cast them out ("Underneath the arches / I dream my dreams away / Underneath the arches / On cobblestones I lay"). And so they do a dance of dreams, reminiscing about gentility and wonder, "happy when the daylight comes creeping / Heralding the dawn."

Love remains, too, but darkened. Leah Gallas and Balazs Krajczar ("There's No Depression in Love") and Federica Bagnera and Ke Da ("Slummin' on Park Avenue") smoothly jaunt their way across the steel and concrete city. The escapist songs and strutting movement go only a little way toward offsetting the effect of Krajczar's dismally stained sailor shirt and Bagnera's flea-market hat. (Santo Loquasto designed the sets and costumes, Jennifer Tipton the magically night-illuminated lighting.) The real bitterness of love in dark times emerges with full force in "Sittin' on a Rubbish Can," with an edgy, spunky Marit van der Wolde holding her very pregnant belly through a determinedly energetic solo. Her walk is child-like, like the song, but her attitude is all grown up, creating the kind of multiplicity of conflicting emotions that is one of Taylor's hallmarks. Mugen Kazama compliments his wife, but then asks in pantomime, as other women rush around them, "Are You Making Any Money?" The women turn out to be prostitutes in his service; they pile on top of Kazama and pull away from him as he grinningly chomps a cigar.

One of those women -- Alexandra Bergman, in the cast I saw -- pulls away completely for a moment, and in that moment pulls us into the very heart of the matter as Taylor sees it. Gone are the jaunty songs and soft-shoe rhythms. In Bergman's keening solo we visit "The Boulevard of Broken Dreams," the street where there can be no pretense against fear, no escape from a broken spirit. A group of men thrust her this way and that, raising her high off the ground like a tidal wave out of which she crashes down again and again. One man, Alberto Montesso, appears to rescue her, but we suspect it's only a momentary reprieve. In faded overalls and a newsboy cap, Megan Keough follows this piercing solo with a star turn in "I Went Hunting and the Big Bad Wolf Was Dead." As a Little Rascal shooting bad old poverty off the premises, she scampers at top speed in furious circles, bang-banging everything in sight. It's a mad romp, funny in its wildness, but it's the wildness of an anxious kid. At the ballet's end, the relentlessly major-key music makes way again, as it did in Bergman's solo, for a minor-key lament, this time with Bing Crosby murmuring Yip Harburg's "Brother Can You Spare a Dime?" Dressed as a World War I veteran, his medals smudged and rusty on his chest, Montesso draws out all the heartache of the song. This man, and millions of others like him, "built a railroad," "built a tower," built up America entire, won a war.... Yet here he is, and here they are, with no thanks, no reward, no opportunity to build even a good life for themselves, and not a sou.

What we see in this solo is all the stories that have gone before in "Black Tuesday," concentrated in a good man who just wants to keep getting up again. Montesso scrabbles on the floor and rolls out of a barrel turn; he reaches high, high, higher, before tumbling into a heap. His dance is fragmented, angry, impotent. The scraps of 1920s dances are now scraps only, and as the curtain falls on "Black Tuesday," the only thing we see are the spot-lit, outstretched hands of the dancers, reaching across the lip of the stage in a final gesture of passionate human need. It's a subtle and devastating ballet, and the TB dancers, though new to the torsional twists of Taylor's style, communicate its visceral energy with technical precision -- their quick footwork in particular is superb -- and intense emotional presence.

One can't overstate how amazing it is to have these works presented in this city. That TB has grown so strong as to be able to perform ballets by the likes of Kylian and Taylor and Duato -- and not just perform them, but to truly do them justice in their radical variety, illuminating their many facets, bringing their depths and challenges to a new audience -- is a testament to what can be accomplished when an organization really believes in the power of dance.


In Memorium: Rosella Hightower

Rosella Hightower, one of Oklahoma's famed five American Indian ballerinas, died on November 4. A star of the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo and its several offshoots, Hightower performed major roles through the 1940s and '50s with the great male stars of the age (among them, Andre Eglevsky and Anton Dolin). She settled in Cannes in the 1960s, opening the Centre de Danse Classique there, and over the next 20 years served as director of the Marseille Ballet, the Paris Opera Ballet, and the La Scala Ballet. In 1983, she co-founded, with Robert Berthier, the Jeune Ballet de France. Her statue stands with those of her four friends -- Moscelyne Larkin, Yvonne Chouteau, Maria Tallchief, and Marjorie Tallchief -- on the lawn of the Tulsa Historical Society. Thus passes another link in the chain to ballet's beginnings in America, and another pioneer of ballet from the unlikely state of Oklahoma. May she rest in peace, happy in the knowledge that her bold, beautiful art is being carried on in the state that continues to honor her legacy.


*"One Step at a Time," directed by local high school students Alexia Dickey and Kenzie Clark, under the direction of teacher Clifton Raphael.

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