Arts and Culture

Friday evening saw the unveiling of the “Spring Collaboration” program of the Louisville Ballet and the Louisville Orchestra at Whitney Hall. An all-Hougland evening of choreography, two of the pieces are world premieres, one composed by LO music director Teddy Abrams.

The evening began with Adam Hougland’s 2003 work, “Cold Virtues.” Set to Phillip Glass’ “Violin Concerto No. 1,” the new element for this piece was provided by the excellent Amy Dickson, who has transcribed the concerto for saxophone rather than violin.

Helen Daigle and Roger Creel danced the primary couple on Friday, with Erica De La O and Ryan Stokes as the secondary couple. The first pair are the sophisticated manipulators who come between the second, more straightforward, pair ruining their relationship. There are five other couples who echo the physical leitmotifs of the manipulation.

Hougland’s choreography in this is uncompromising. It begins deceptively simply with a walk downstage, the only suggestion of what is to come is the stretching and twisting of fingers of the primary couple, glancing to each other, as they lay their trap. From there the lifts, the floor work and the tempo are demanding and devastating as the plot unfurls, giving a sense of an unalterable force that will play out, and carry all with it, bystander or participant.

This is the first time I’ve seen “Cold Virtues,” and I wonder whether the lushness of the saxophone substantially changes the tenor of the manipulation from that of the violin. 

“Union” brings together Hougland, Abrams and visual artist Chris Doyle, who has created a projected backdrop which morphs and fluxes throughout the four movements. Four couples choreographically explore four musical movements before coming together in a brief variation for eight.

It’s tempting to impose a narrative on Abrams’ musical expression with the sense that “Union,” in suggesting several musical genres from the 20th century and also more traditional American music forms, moves backward through our history to a time when we fought to determine what union meant to us a country.

It was good to see Hougland create a piece that was primarily focused on duets, without a larger ensemble in support as with the other two pieces in the evening. This piece also has a lighter tone than the other two — a well-placed respite from the others’ rawness. Dancers and music are matched in brio, and there is a sense of expansiveness as each duet has the space to use the stage unimpeded.

Seeing three pieces together highlights some of Hougland’s signature movements (or working on three pieces simultaneously, he is consciously repeating his motifs).

For both of these ballets, members of the Louisville Orchestra were on the stage. This was an interesting choice that was more successful for the first work than the second. In the first piece, it brought the audience more awareness of Dickson’s performance, and the muted color palette of Marion Williams’ costumes and the formal attire of the orchestra did not compete visually.

However, Doyle’s bold, moving colors created a field against which the musicians’ movements stood out distracting, at times, from the dance patterns in the foreground. Lighting designers Michael T. Ford (“Cold Virtues”) and Trad A Burns (“Union”) were also faced with the task of ensuring that their designs for the dance were discrete enough that they did not also illuminate the orchestra while simultaneously giving the musicians sufficient light.

Spoiler Alert: It is impossible to write about “Petrouchka” without divulging some key creative decisions.

Hougland has already tackled Stravinsky’s “Firebird” and “Rite of Spring” (the latter created for the Louisville Ballet), so it seems it would be only a matter of time before he would also approach this third early 20th-century Stravinsky-Diaghilev creation.

Hougland, Williams and Burns have deconstructed the physical space and the original storyline in ways that are bold and breath-taking, visually compelling and emotionally raw. The Whitney stage and its lighting trusses have never been deployed in the way that they appeared on Friday evening.

The opening moment of “Petrouchka” — with the serried ranks of the ensemble in long black robes, on black chairs, against the black walls of the Whitney stage, illuminated by stark white, sharply defined light — set the tone for the dystopian journey. Hougland has taken some key themes from the original story ballet, and here offers them up in an abstract environment that also suggests the implicit dangers of conformity and groupthink in a modern world.

Hougland takes full advantage of the size of a stripped Whitney stage. The black-clad dancers surge and seethe ominously through the space; the movement of the chairs is integral to the dance patterns, and dancer-as-observer on the periphery is also intentional.

Kateryna Sellars dances the girl/doll/automaton role with Roger Creel as her partner/manipulator. Sellars and Creel are partnered in a series of dysfunctional duets, with an iterated motif of Sellars striving to animate Creel who then, it seems, dis-animates her. The ensemble at times repeats this sequence in mimicry or mockery.

The monochromatic theme of the opening is followed in subsequent movements, shifting to off-white and, finally, into a disturbing lilac hue. Sellars is forced into a lilac coverall by Creel, and the stage is then filled with lilac-garbed technicians whose “lab-bench” is actually a lilac-hued, almost stage-width tube of light that flashes on in the final moment, foregrounding an isolated Sellars as a potential subject/result of the mimed experiment.

“Petrouchka” was preceded by a Q&A session moderated by WUOL’s Daniel Gilliam. The program announced that Robert Curran, Abrams and Hougland would participate; disappointingly, only the latter two did so.

While the conversation was interesting, it was an odd interpolation into an evening dedicated to non-verbal arts. Perhaps it was added to ensure sufficient time for the transformation occurring behind the curtain during intermission.

Both Abrams and Curran have spoken about the imperative for live music as a core component to dance programming. The Louisville Orchestra, Teddy Abrams conducting, on Friday evening gave a fine performance, much more nuanced and sensitive than has been my experience with other times the orchestra has played for the ballet recently.

Collectively, this evening dazzles with the multiple, layered possibilities of collaboration across so many visual and performing art forms. The evening’s combination of ballets also serves as a tribute to more than a decade of creativity from the Louisville Ballet’s principle choreographer, Adam Hougland.

Moreover, this program displays, once again, just how at home the Louisville Ballet dancers are in a modern-contemporary ballet vernacular. There is a vitality and intensity in performance across the whole company that projects beyond the footlights.

Last season, I commented on Curran’s curatorial role in the annual Choreographer’s Showcase, a role it appears he has resumed again this spring. And it feels like it is in this kind of eclectic, genre- and media-mixing programming he is finding his voice as the artistic leader of the Louisville Ballet.

Whether we are ballet aficionados, orchestra subscribers, fans of the arts, or Louisville boosters in general, we can appreciate this holistic embrace of collaborative programming, an approach that deserves the community’s attention and support.