The Louisville arts community is being treated to both a U.S. and a world premiere in this weekend’s sprawling collaboration between the Louisville Ballet, Kentucky Opera and the Louisville Orchestra. With only two performances of The Beyond in the Whitney, there are limited opportunities for audiences to experience these two intriguing and provocative works.
The first ballet is Australian choreographer Stephen Baynes’ Requiem, making its U.S. debut here in Louisville. Baynes choreographed this seven years ago for the Australian Ballet Company when Robert Curran, the Louisville Ballet’s Producing and Artistic Director, was a company member and part of that ensemble. This season he steps into the role of régisseur to restage Baynes’ elegant étude on mortality and immortality in Louisville.
Taking Gabriel Fauré’s choral composition “Requiem” as inspiration, Baynes crafts a deceptively simple series of sequences to the seven movements. Artists from the Kentucky Opera provide the ethereal atmospheric voices, only occasionally visible behind the panels of Richard Roberts’ original design. The dancers, clad in black (Anna French’s chic design from the original,) populate an undefined space.
In ever-changing combinations the limpid choreography suggests evocations of grief and memories, the presence of death, the possibility of a life beyond. The emotional core of the piece is the pas de deux, danced by Erica De La O and Mark Krieger. The assurance with which they embraced the expansively light movements was breathtaking.
Jeannde Ford, first seen in the Choreographers Showcase, joins the company again, providing a mature perspective of grief. Brandon Ragland’s line in his solo was precise and clean. The ensemble also included Natalia Ashikhmina and Rob Morrow, Leigh Anne Albrechta, Kristopher Wojtera, Ryan Stokes, Roger Creel, Emily Reinking O’Dell, Kateryna Sellers, and trainee Amanda Carrick. Vocal soloists were Chad Sloan and Emily Albrink.
Faust, an ambitious and occasionally compelling hybrid, occupied the second half of the program. Auteur director Sally Blackwood brings a strong concept to this revisioning of Charles Gounod’s opera “Faust.” Edited from the original five acts to focus on Faust, Marguerite and the Devil, with her own translation of the French libretto, and set in a brooding atmosphere peopled with “the souls of the departed,” this piece is at its most compelling when movement and voice are truly integrated. In this iteration it feels much more like turn-taking between operatic arias and Adam Hougland’s choreography.
Designer Trad A Burns, whose lighting design is familiar to Louisville audiences, also takes on scenic design. The Whitney stage is framed on three sides with metal girders to which dancers attach and detach more than 50 heavy-duty bungee cords to create environments.
In addition to Gounod’s score, Tim Barnes provides a hellish soundscape when we’re in the nether world. And costume designer Zhanna Goldentul’s eerily anonymous costumes add to the disquietening effect of 38 dancers roiling in Hell.
Emily Albrink returns to the stage as Marguerite, with Garret Sorrenson as Faust and the mostly unseen Devil is sung by Jorgeandrés Camargo. The Kentucky Opera chorus is under the direction of chorus master Lisa Hasson.
Albrink and Sorrenson are integrated into the choreography, and it is here that Blackwood’s vision is most successful. The focus of her work is new operatic form and the role of opera in contemporary society. When Faust is beset by forms in Hell as he enjoys the sybaritic excesses of the flesh is both disturbing and evocative. When Marguerite is borne aloft away from Faust’s temptations or mired in those same forms as she struggles to withstand his attacks, there are resonances with the stories that have formed the #MeToo movement.
Nonetheless, dramaturgically the piece becomes a predictable sequence of operatic arias that carry the story line interspersed primarily with bungee-choreography to Barnes’ soundscape (the creation of a seat for Marguerite was especially complex) or a handful of dynamic dance pieces to Gounod’s choral pieces. For this ballet-opera hybrid to come fully into being, I would hope that future versions would find ways further to integrate rather than to juxtapose these two art forms. “Faust” is on the right track, but hasn’t quite found the balance yet.
The final performance of “The Beyond” is Sunday, March 4 at 2:00 p.m.