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Soo Youn Cho and Alfonso Martin in Tulsa Ballet's production of William Forsythe's "In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated." Photo copyright Rosalie O'Connor.

Copyright 2010 Alicia Chesser

TULSA -- For the past 15 years, Tulsa Ballet artistic director Marcello Angelini has been leading his company to this moment, when it could not only obtain the rights to perform works like William Forsythe's "In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated" and Jiri Kylian's "Sechs Tanze," but actually perform them with the skill, stamina, and artistic maturity they require.

It feels like a turning point.

As usual, Tulsa is 20 years behind the coasts in experiencing what's new in the arts -- and more like 40 years behind in accepting it. But the most recent pre-"Nutcracker" program from Tulsa Ballet, seen October 28 and 29 at the Tulsa Performing Arts Center and featuring the iconic works by Forsythe and Kylian, made a strong case that the company's persevering commitment to reaching forward (and bringing its community forward) is paying off.

Angelini started the process gently, knowing the tastes of his audience and the level of his dancers, with appealing but not strictly classical works by choreographers like Val Caniparoli. Then he edged up to introducing Nacho Duato (who has become beloved here). Last year saw the Oklahoma premieres of Forsythe's "Vertiginous Thrill of Exactitude," James Kudelka's "There, Below," Jorma Elo's "Slice to Sharp," and Kylian's "Petite Mort."

'In the Middle' (1987) and "Sechs Tanze" (1986) together form a sort of shorthand for what's been developing in European "contemporary ballet" since the 1980s. Both works stand at the early (and still authoritative) edge of a line that now includes Duato, Angelin Preljocaj, Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui, Crystal Pite, Wayne McGregor, Douglas Lee, Lightfoot Leon, Russell Maliphant, Mats Ek, and many others.

The United States has seen only a handful of these choreographers' works. As a culture we still prefer classical ballet. We tend to want ballet to look like something that speaks to us of an idealized time and place. Something that's an escape. Something... pretty. Not something that forces us to use every last ounce of our attention and makes us wonder what the hell is going on.

Soo Youn Cho and Alfonso Martin in Tulsa Ballet's production of William Forsythe's "In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated." Photo copyright Rosalie O'Connor.

Forsythe once said of one of his creations: "At the end of the piece, I almost had the feeling that the audience applauds very enthusiastically its own attention, which, because [...] of television to some degree, is harder and harder to get." Like any serious artist, Forsythe challenges viewers to look harder, listen better, see at a deeper level.

A few in the Tulsa audience that weekend didn't care for Forsythe's challenge to them, walking out before the end of the piece and loudly denouncing it as "horrible." But the ballet received a standing ovation from those who remained. Audiences do O's a lot at TB, but rarely after contemporary works. It was a testament to an extraordinary performance.

The TB dancers exploded into 'In the Middle' with a level of courage and joy that is new in them. I viewed a couple of early rehearsals of this ballet, when stager Jodie Gates started teaching it. From those early weeks to this performance, these dancers were transformed from eager but slightly stiff technicians into confident channels of the electricity that pulses through the bodies in this piece. They opened hip joints, underarms, and backs of knees to receive and carry the life of Forsythe's movement. (Not just Forsythe's – really you could say this work is the centuries-old history of ballet distilled to its essence.) Dancers who have had irritating mannerisms lost them totally to their investment in this physical challenge. They took risks they've never taken before, staying in a balance past the point of comfort, falling with all their weight. There was no attempt to be beautiful (although they were, blazingly so). They were too busy living inside the overwhelming power of physics and geometry. It's a full-time job, and they treated it as one.

Soo Youn Cho and Alfonso Martin in Tulsa Ballet's production of William Forsythe's "In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated." Photo copyright Rosalie O'Connor.

Principal dancer Soo Youn Cho became a ballerina in these performances, after skirting around it ever since she came here several years ago. She danced in all three ballets on the program on the same evening (in addition to the Forsythe and Kylian, Twyla Tharp's "Nine Sinatra Songs") and was, for the first time in a contemporary work, fully and stunningly invested in what she was doing. New senior soloist Sofia Menteguiaga attacked the principal woman's role, created by Sylvie Guillem, with fierce musical intelligence. I've never seen the company's leading man Alfonso Martin take so many risks. In every step his choice seemed to be, "Go for it."

In the second cast, demi-soloist Alberto Montesso gave the performance of a lifetime, moving so fast, in so many directions almost simultaneously, that his arms literally blurred. His every turn, leap, and balance was at the highest level of dancing this company has seen: virtuoso ballet plugged into the bloodstream.

TB has trimmed down its roster this season (from 28 to 26 in the main company), which means that extra-fine corps dancers like Alexandra Christian and Erin Pritchard get chances at meaty roles – which means they get to grow. Each member of the two casts -- which also included Christian, Pritchard, Alexandra Bergman, Diana Gomez, Beatrice Sebelin, Ma Cong, and the powerhouse newcomer Yoshihisa Arai – showed impressive commitment in unwaveringly clean lines, bold turns, dynamic epaulement, and a cool, meditative ease with the music's undercurrent.

"Sechs Tanze" (1986) challenged these dancers in a different way -- to be loose, grounded, deadpan, and so in tune with the effervescence of Mozart's music ("Six German Dances") that it seemed to be moving them rather than them moving to it. Again they rose to the immense task of feeling their way into the movement of a (very different from Forsythe) master. Stager Roslyn Anderson said she emphasized with them the "cleanliness" of the movement. One doesn't need to "show" the humor, and these dancers resisted the urge to jokiness that ruins so many comic ballets.

"Mozart's ability to react [to] difficult circumstances with a self-preserving outburst of nonsensical poetry is well known," Kylian has said of this ballet's deeply frivolous sensibility. Paying homage to this temperament of Mozart's, the work pairs ridiculous "outbursts" (fluttering hands, bobbling heads, insanely fast tumbles on the floor, mock deaths) with vaguely menacing offstage sound effects and a deeply shadowed black-box set. Anderson told me that Leonard Bernstein once watched a performance of "Sechs Tanze" by Nederlands Dans Theater and told her, "That's exactly what Mozart meant."

Tulsa Ballet's Alexandra Bergman in Jiri Kylian's "Sechs Tanze." Photo by and copyright
Rosalie O'Connor & courtesy Tulsa Ballet.

Unlike other Kylian ballets, "Sechs Tanze" doesn't have a great deal of room for personal interpretative effects. The choreography works in such vigorous harmony with the music that all the dancers -- in 18th-century undergarments and powdered wigs -- need to do is move right along with it. That's not to say it's easy; quite the contrary. The TB cast perfectly captured the nuttiness in play here, with Bergman (perhaps the company's most versatile dancer) taking the lead in movement whose force just keeps poofing out as it reaches its climax. Her deadpan blankness was a huge achievement as her body skittered and slouched.

TB closed this program with "Nine Sinatra Songs," a Tharp ballet that is a predictable audience favorite. Given the challenge the company posed to its audience with the Forsythe and Kylian works, soothing them with some ballroom dancing at the end made sense. It is not Tharp at her best -- there are whole phrases of choreography that are cringe-makingly awkward, and the structure of the piece is the nadir of Tharpian casualness -- but these dancers made the most of it.

The final duet, performed by Martin and Cho to "That's Life," is the best of the lot -- a very dry martini amidst a lot of sloshing whiskey and white wine. There's a whiff of cruelty in this duet, a classic contest between man and woman in which "the winner" shifts every few seconds. Cho shot daggers into Martin's eyes as he yanked her toward his body by the arm. Deliciously nasty.

Also of special note was Christian in "One for My Baby," slinking around Joshua Stayton's body dressed all in black. Christian is a tall, strong drink of... vodka?... and dances with the combination of exceptional control and exploratory freedom that is the mark of a singular artist. She didn't just do the choreography, she filled it with herself, giving passing moments her full attention and letting us see every transition as well as every pose.

TB is at this moment a thoroughly impressive company with a world-class repertory, versatile and engaging principals, and a deep bench. Visiting stagers never fail to remark on the quickness and eagerness of the dancers Angelini has recruited. They are hungry for new work, Angelini is willing to give it to them, and their energy and enthusiasm are bringing the Tulsa audience along for the ride.

Soo Youn Cho and Alfonso Martin in Twyla Tharp's "Sinatra Songs." Photograph by and copyright Rosalie O'Connor & courtesy Tulsa Ballet. Photo copyright Rosalie O'Connor.

(In planning a mixed repertory evening of dance or theater, the conventional wisdom is to start with a lighter piece so the audience has time to gather its attention, then hit it with the heavy artillery in the middle or at the end of the program. For Tulsa Ballet's recent mixed repertory program, reviewed above by Alicia Chesser, artistic director Marcello Angelini chose to open with William Forsythe's dense genre-buster "In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated," followed by Jiri Kylian's comic "Sechs Tanze" and Twyla Tharp's frothy "Nine Sinatra Songs." We asked him why. -- PB-I.)

It was a calculated risk. First, let me say that our audience is now well-versed on all types of good dance, so even a work like 'In the Middle' is not a stretch for them anymore. Second I felt that, knowing Sinatra and Tharp were somewhere down the road, people with some doubts might have stuck with the program (no pun intended) in order to see that. If the riskier work were at the end, they might have left before the end of it. We did have a couple of people who felt 'In the Middle' was a bit too much for them, but they all stayed. And, by the end, they really enjoyed all three works. "Sechs Tanze" is not a closer. It's too short and doesn't have a very strong ending.

Lastly, I always feel an evening of dance is like a dinner. At times I like to start with something light and gentle on the palate, just to whet the appetite of the audience. Then you go into a good main course and then dessert. Other times, like in this last case, I like to start with something like a really strong plate, something that is a hearty main course with a very strong, particular taste. And after that a little dessert, kind of a Creme Brule, followed by Tiramisu and Frangelico. This last program was one of those: One very strong main dish, with a distinctive flavor, and two delicious desserts! The after dinner liquor, the Frangelico, was the music of Frank Sinatra....

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