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Flash Review, 3-16: 'Winter' was hot
Tulsa's Cong finds his voice

Tulsa Ballet's Ricardo Graziano in Ma Cong's "Luscious." Photo by Julie Shelton and courtesy Tulsa Ballet.

By Alicia Chesser
Copyright 2010 Alicia Chesser

TULSA -- Studio K, constructed in 2008, has enabled Tulsa Ballet to expand beyond the four programs per year schedule it had been stuck in for 50 years to, this season, seven, and also to do something that's proving transformative for company and audience alike: try new things. The new studio allows TB to show the community dance that is more challenging and more surprising than what can be offered on the more formal stage of the Performing Arts Center. In its second annual "Winter Celebration," the audience was treated to that special feeling of being in on a joke as the company, in sketches created by the dancers, spoofed itself in "Dracula" and "The Nutcracker," got back at Ma Cong in "V for Vendetta" (choreographed by Alfonso Martin and Wang Yi) for the hell he puts his dancers through in his ballets, and held a "Dance Competition" pitting five soloists and one couple against each other in little warhorses of the classical repertoire. (The losing dancer -- demi-soloist Alberto Montesso in drag -- got a literal "pink slip.")

Lodged amid all the silliness (in a performance seen December 3) were two seriously delightful bits of art: a preview of Edwaard Liang's as-yet-untitled new ballet for TB's upcoming Pop Culture program, and Cong's "Luscious," which premiered last summer at Ballet Des Moines. I'll look forward to reviewing the Liang piece -- the excerpt from which was a freewheeling wraparound duet for Martin and Karina Gonzalez, set to a song by Rufus Wainwright -- when it premieres in full this May.

"Luscious" shows Cong making huge strides as a choreographer. After three years of steady -- nay, dogged -- work, he finds in this piece a seamless integration between arms and legs, between groundedness and lightness, between quirky and classical. I have found fault at times with his overemphasis on the upper body and his dependence on large-group momentum for theatrical effect -- which is kind of like relying on accessories to make an outfit when the garment itself is imperfectly cut. His choreography has always had an earnest sensibility that doesn't take itself too seriously; as he gains confidence in that sensibility, he is able to communicate it more directly, without getting caught up in bangles and flourishes. His is not the pining of a Duato, the pondering of a Kylian, or the whimsy of a Wheeldon. In "Luscious," Cong finds his voice. No longer are the hands aimlessly fluttering. No longer are the unison groups doing all the power work. This is a simple ballet, like a casual dinner party out on a patio, with a spirit of ease and pleasure that comes through in every sequence.

The well-chosen music -- a set of songs in French by Henry Torgue and the delightful Rene Aubry -- helps. Warm peachy lighting allows both shadow and glow. Mandolins and clarinets pluck and shuffle in one-two cafe rhythms. In quick-tempo songs, the dancers prick the floor with their feet, pushing off to rebound in the other direction with bodies arcing high and low; in slower passages, the low instruments wash the dancers from movement to movement like a gentle wave. Cong incorporates positions that seem to come from yoga: a hinge at the hips, a chest thrust gently forward so that the back grows long, an exploration of balance through pushing and pulling, an emphatic grounding in deeply flexed knees and feet. Six couples open the ballet, then break off into little fragments, sometimes in pairs, sometimes with two dancers moving downstage and three forming a sort of chorus behind them. The duets are spare and soft, full of gentle lifts and lowerings, their oceanic flow punctuated by brief, taut solos that fly across the horizon of the stage. Cong gives the well-worn triad (i.e., two men hoisting one woman) a break in this ballet, focusing instead on the one-on-one play of partners. I liked this small repeated phrase: a man standing behind a woman pushes his leg forward to push hers up, which continues the lift, until they are two bodies uniting in one action.

The many sections of "Luscious" flow immediately from one to the next, but the first and second halves feel very different. The first is slow and quiet, finding its full development in a long, delicate pas de deux for Gonzalez and Yi, both wearing white. The superior second has a deliciously giddy feeling which peaks in two shape-shifting dances to Aubry's songs "Le Vent" and "Chaloupee." Hunched over like cartoon bad guys, three women and three men do shambling balancés in super-speedy triple-time, then punch up for a firework blast of jumps and zig-zag arms. Ricardo Graziano, who is second to none at TB in contemporary ballets, captures perfectly the champagne feeling of this second half, moving fast and sleek and fizzy in a solo full of rapid-fire traveling leaps. The jazzy drum interludes that pop up in the strolling rhythms of "Chaloupee" are met by the dancers with a funny fillip of head and shoulders that instantly dissolves back into an exaggeratedly easygoing walk. "Luscious" is full of sweet surprises, the best of which is that Cong is splendidly coming into his own.

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