REVIEW | Louisville Ballet Dancers Flex Choreography Muscles

  The 2014 Louisville Ballet Choreographers’ Showcase is this week at the ballet’s headquarters on Main Street. This year’s Showcase brought together a smorgasbord of seventeen short pieces choreographed by company members and trainees, with almost half of the complete company represented as choreographers. Some pieces were choreographed by familiar names, while others contributed an original piece to the Showcase for the first time. 

The Choreographers’ Showcase runs through Saturday evening at the Ballet’s studio on East Main Street.

In an attempt to compensate for the bitter cold outside, the studio was decidedly toasty for this year’s salute to company choreographers, which will be the final showcase under artistic director Bruce Simpson, who retires at the end of this season. This program has grown in scope under Simpson’s leadership. It is now a regular part of the season – and a popular part, if the number of people who braved subzero temperatures is a testament – and has the support of the costuming department, who are to be applauded for bringing so many different looks to these seventeen dances so soon after the complex costuming needs of The Nutcracker. It is to be hoped that as the board seeks a successor to Simpson, they will seek a leader who will also embrace the energy and importance of growing a future generation of choreographers.

The program was very full, lasting almost as long as a full-length ballet, and without the more comfortable seats of Whitney Hall or the Brown Theatre to support that time. The evening could have benefited from two short intermissions so that the audience could have more space to reflect on the wide array of offerings.

The evening began with Ashley Thursby’s “Mirror | rorriM” set to music by Arvo Part, the piece bookended by mirror images of the same tableau. Thursby has contributed other pieces to the Louisville Ballet’s studio programs, and her work continues to grow as a choreographer. Previous pieces I’ve seen have used pairs of dancers, but in this year’s showcase, Thursby experimented with an ensemble of seven and managed the flow of pairings and groupings with sophistication. There were times when this piece seemed cramped in the intimate setting of the studio, making me wish to see how it would translate to the larger stage of the Whitney.

Company newcomer Roger Creel gave us an extended reflection on “Shiloh” – which has so many cultural resonances throughout history – to music that embodied this reach by Hildegard von Bingen, Bach and Bartok. While this piece expressed a sense of ritual and sacrifice, it was not entirely clear how these pieces of music and attitudes specifically reflected back to a Shiloh.

Benjamin Wetzel’s high-energy “Picadilly Disco” was a complete change of energy from this previous piece in the evening’s order. Set to both music (John Adams) and words (a poem by Adrian Matejka), Wetzel confidently handled an ensemble of eight, though there are times when there are so many foci on stage that the audience is not sure where to look, lest they miss something elsewhere.

Rob Morrow, Ryan Stokes and Justin Michael Hogan have all created pieces for earlier Showcases, and each brings a completely different  piece to this evening’s program. Hogan’s “Behind Closed Doors” uses Rufus Wainwright’s “Agnus Dei,” making creative use of the funky creaks at the beginning of the piece to suggest a creaking door (though it’s actually a violin). Danced by Thursby and Stokes, this is another piece that suggests ritual – and is an interesting counterpoint to “The Fall.” In this work and in Sanjay Saverimuttu’s “Strange Attractors,” Thursby brings not only an elegance of line to her dancing but also a psychological depth; it was good to see her in these contemporary pieces after “Vivandière” earlier this season. (This piece was danced by Leigh Anne Albrechta and Brandon Ragland at other performances.)

“Outside Looking In,” set to music by Philip Glass, is Stokes’ contribution. His ensemble of seven bring elegance and wistfulness to this study of one person being on the outside when there is an uneven number of people in the group. Morrow’s “Paranoia Prima,” set to Ennio Morricone’s music of the same name, is visually striking as he takes full advantage of the limited lighting capacity of the studio, creating an eerie chiaroscuro effect for the exploration of paranoia between Natalia Ashikhmina and Eduard Forehand.

Two brief pieces this evening sent ripples of smiles and laughs throughout the audience.  Morrow returned to the stage dancing in Helen Daigle’s “Wishblown,” a charming interpretation of Bob Schneider’s “Blow Me Back to You.” Although choreographed by Daigle, the energy of this piece reminded me of the whimsy in Morrow’s “Rainbow Connection” – maybe I was making too many connections!  Daigle both illustrates and illumines the lyrics with her choreography and is never heavy-handed in the connections she makes between word and movement.

Philip Velinov and Forehand brought two charming romantic pieces to the evening. Forehand’s “Lacking Promises” was well situated, and received, at the beginning of the second half. Velinov’s “On the Edge of Love” was rather lost in the midst of the longer first half, surrounded by more modern, abstract ensemble pieces. Velinov used music by A. Petrov and V. Basner, mid-twentieth century Russian musicians, to create a series of romantic interludes suggesting that being on the edge of love is both sweet and sad, in turn full of anticipation and regret. Ashikhmina, Erica De La O, Kateryna Sellers, Mark Kreiger, Ragland and Kristopher Wotjera found the inherent nostalgia in exploring these relationships set, as suggested by the music and costuming, in an earlier, possibly simpler time.

Christy Corbett Miller was “The Girl from Impanema” in the first part of Forehand’s stylish “Lacking Promises.” Clearly the five men (Krieger, Sanjay Saverimuttu, Christopher Scruggs, Velinov and Wotjera) were out of their league in aspiring to such a girl. The second movement featured Annie Honnebrink and Velinov in an elegant duet set to the Charlie Byrd Trio’s “To Say Goodbye.” I could have wished for Honnebrink to have had more of a connection with her partner to substantiate that saying goodbye is never easy, regardless of the circumstances.

The trainees were well represented with six of the evening’s ballets. Saverimuttu has been part of other studio performances, and his “Strange Attractors,” set to music of Ezio Bosso, employed three pairs of dancers, bringing more of a sense of structure to his choreography than I’ve sensed in the past. Jessica Columbus gave us a charmingly perky “Sleepyhead” to the eponymous song by Passion Pit. Her ensemble of six women relished the high energy moves, until the last moments in which they dropped their heads in rest.

“Time,” choreographed by Marta Kelly to music by Mikhal, brought one of the larger ensembles of the evening (eight dancers) to the stage. Kelly manages the number and groupings of these dancers well, and yet this piece felt like it could have ended several times before it did; in part this is suggested by the music and perhaps the title. But there were several moments when it felt like the dancers’ images were finding resolution, then yet another dancer came on stage, the stage picture morphed to new movements and the piece continued once more.

Elizabeth Smith’s “To Become,” the English title of the Ludovico Einaudi’s music “Divenire,” was one of several all-women ensembles during the evening. Again, the ending of the piece was unsatisfatory – what became and who became were questions that were left hanging. Again, the music in part defined this lack of resolution.

“Refraction,” which Jonathan Paul set to the music of Beethoven’s popular “Moonlight Sonata,” was interesting but, for me, offered an awkward juxtaposition. Paul’s all-female ensemble delightfully embodied his homage to the Romantic movement, but at times the choreography strained against a piece of music that is so familiar to many.

Lacey Elliston’s “Litost” manifested misery and remorse with unremitting and driving choreography that left the six dancers heaving uncomfortably at the end of approximately six minutes of Clint Mansell’s “Lux Aeterna.”

The icing on the cake this evening was the brief “Buzzed” by Krieger, in which Hogan and Wotjera (delightfully cast against type!) embody the tongue in cheek interpretation of the “Flight of the Bumblebee” by Yo Yo Ma and Bobby Ferrin.

Ragland ended the evening with “The Fall,” set to music by Max Richter. Ragland has been a staple of the studio programs, and his “Silent Conversations” transfered from the studio to the Whitney last year. This is the first overtly narrative ballet of his that I’ve seen, and it is a powerful telling of a fall from grace. Erica de la O and Douglas Ruiz, once more paired as a couple whose story has a mythic place in our collective storytelling, danced seamlessly together, and the moment in which they realize their nakedness was hauntingly effective and delicately staged by Ragland. His ensemble of four – fates? observers? guardians? – are danced strongly by Albrechta, Miller, Emily Reinking O’Dell and Sellers.

One of the strengths of the Choreographers’ Showcase is the fact that these choreographers come from the ranks of a company in which all dancers frequently dance with multiple partners and ever-shifting ensembles, on the Whitney stage and in the studio. The choreographers already know what their colleagues can do well and what new roles they would like to see their colleagues attempt. This collective knowledge can only strengthen their choreographic ideas and, over time, bring confidence to those who are truly interested in choreographing as they move forward in their careers. It is impressive to see returning choreographers blossom and new choreographers bring their ideas to the stage. 

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