Both the Louisville Ballet and Louisville Visual Art have been talking a lot about this week’s collaborative production, “Human Abstract.” There have been videos and photos on social media, interviews with the artists, preview articles and more. And on Wednesday, February 22, the world premiere of this collaboration came to fruition at the Bomhard Theater, Kentucky Center for the Arts.
The Ballet has established relationships with several contemporary choreographers, two that specifically come to mind are Adam Hougland (“Ten Beautiful Objects,” “Fragile Stasis,” among others) and Ma Cong (“Tethered Pulse”) with the former creating ballets on the company. And these works have certainly showcased the capacity of the dancers to bring the discipline and technique of classical training to the open landscape that is contemporary choreography.
This week, audiences will see that capacity expanded exponentially in the collaboratively-created choreography and staging of Lucas Jervies and the seven dancers. From the opening moments of stillness succeeded by the first of many iterated positions, gestures, and fluid sculptural poses, it is clear that we are entering into new territory.
One of the factors in this newness is that the dancers are dancing on grass. The Bomhard stage has been transformed with inside-outside grass, courtesy of the team of visual artists who created the minimal, yet impactful, physical environment: Tiffany Carbonneau, Andrew Cozzens, and Ezra Kellerman. Additional scenic elements include portals and frames that fly in and out and which are lighted from within; a period chandelier and a large white table that is manipulated in non-traditional ways by the dancers.
Another aspect of new, or different, is that the dancers also demonstrate other talents: Roger Creel plays Chopin’s Etudes 1 and 3 on the piano; Benjamin Wetzel performs text from Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein” and sings a variety of songs; Erica De La O has a standout moment lip-synching; and all get to hang out by the piano to sing “Happy Birthday” at one point. This montage of disparate material and genres is familiar from the world of devised theater pieces, and it is clear that Jervies brings a strong directorial eye, as well as choreographic skill, to the process.
Jevies’ work is non-linear, but abstract as this piece is, there is a loose narrative thread centering on Wetzel and his interactions with the rest of the company, Leigh Anne Albrechta, Creel, Helen Daigle, De La O, Brandon Ragland and Kateryna Sellars. In his first ‘solo’ role (this is absolutely an ensemble piece) it is exciting to see Wetzel fill the stage with ease whether lying flat on his back, eyeing the audience with ruefulness, singing, reciting or, of course, dancing.
One of the iterated motifs is the use of a single hand in gestures that nurture, reject, impel, seduce, and more. A deceptively simple marker, interjected into much more complex movement sequences, that collectively explore friendships and relationships. In a work that is denoted abstract, it is of course possible for audiences to bring their own experiences into play as they watch and listen. One such moment, for me, is when Wetzel lies motionless on the grass, his head carefully nestled by Sellars, while Creel stands still at his feet – an ineluctable reminder of the AIDS crisis when men died mourned by family while their lovers were excluded. Is that the intent? Maybe; maybe not. It’s the image that, at that moment, this intense collaboration evoked for me. The power of creativity to conjure responses in the viewer.
And yet there is also humor. The Happy Birthday sequence in which the table briefly became the eighth character was delightfully zany, in the way that partygoers loosen up as the night gets older. And the wooing between Wetzel and Creel is both overtly comical, and also leads to a coming together which is both sweet and inevitable.
Jervies spoke at a “Lunch and Learn” last month about his improvisational approach to choreography and his expectations of collaboration with all the artists involved in the process. Watching these seven dancers work together, there is a connectedness among them that speaks to this kind of process; they are a holistic unit – however many of them are on stage at one time. The sculptural ensemble sequences create a sense of one organism, with different parts/dancers highlighted at times, yet absolutely a part of the whole.
At 80 minutes, “Human Abstract” is a physically-challenging ballet. Most of the dancers are on stage for most of the time. This ensemble works at a technical and aesthetic level that is the strongest and most compelling that I’ve seen at the Louisville Ballet and, as stated earlier, the company’s work in other contemporary works has been of a high caliber. Whatever aspects of this multi-national, artist-centered, personally-energizing collaboration gelled, “Human Abstract” should become an exceptional calling card for the Louisville Ballet not just in our city, but in the larger dance world. And let’s hope the outcome can be replicated in future creations.
There are five performances left; and I understand that Friday and Saturday evenings are close to sold out, so tickets are going fast. “Human Abstract” is one of those productions that, when you hear it talked about, you will kick yourself if you didn’t get to see it.