Irene Rodriguez in "La Pena Negra" at Jacob's Pillow
Can a dance company exist purely on the star power of its leader?
In the case of Compania Irene Rodriguez, the answer is yes.
The Cuban-branded flamenco ensemble, dancing this week at Jacob’s Pillow, does not possess the heat of other ensembles of the same genre. But it does have Rodriguez who, it can be argued, seizes enough heart and imagination to carry a whole troupe – almost.
When Rodriguez is on the stage, every other dancer becomes a mere adornment. Rodriquez is the fire. The way she flicks her fringed shawl or pounds out her beats balancing on the tips of her toes is hypnotic. She is a force of nature.
The others dancers cannot rival her technique. When she is not there with them, like in “Entre Espinas, Rosas,” the dancers deployed in precision patterns and rhythms look pretty, yet the attack does not have the searing stab that one expects from an experienced, long-lived flamenco dancer.
While the company might not have the crushing vigor and intensity, the troupe of seven dancers and four musicians does have a homey, appealing warmth and friendliness. It also sports a playfulness.
Take “El Mito,” the opening piece. The curtain rises only partially, revealing only the bare legs and shod feet rapping out, in visual and aural unison, a cadence. An interloper’s legs appear, taking center stage and then, by surprise, her feet and legs fly up and out of sight. As the others disperse, her shoes clunk to the floor.
It’s cute and clever and gets the audience laughing. It’s also not what one expects.
Neither is “El Grito,” based on the Edvard Munch’s “The Scream.” Here, Rodriquez and company tap out a refrain of pain and anxiety that ends with the dancers twisting their faces into the contorted image of the famed painting. Again, it was a surprise, but in this case, not a welcomed one.
All of this is performed to live music by a blasé band with guitar, saxophone and drums. Andres Correa, the singer, stood out, however. His soulful, plaintive style filled every corner of the theater, reverberating through the listeners’ core during the musical interludes “Homenaje a Jose Greco” and “Caminos.”
This wavering of between stirring sentiment and middling scenarios made for an uneven evening.
Rodriquez’s nearly made up for it in the end with in her final solo “Amaranto,” To music by Noel Gutierrez, Rodriguez proved her singular power to enchant. Clearly, it is her command of the art and the stage that brought her to Jacob’s Pillow. But without a more ardent ensemble, I’m not sure she will be invited back.
Ballet BC in Artistic Director Emily Molnar’s “To this day”
It’s difficult to remember a more stunning opening to a Jacob’s Pillow season than Ballet BC. The company wowed audience on Wednesday night with its triple-bill of dances that emphasized its unity and defined its as a most connected group of artists.
They move and breath, flock and fly in precise formations with an intensity that kept audience riveted every second. This is no exaggeration.
The audience-wide awe began with Sharon Eyal and Gai Behar’s “Bedroom Folk.” The curtain opened on the 14-member cast pressed together in two rows, stepping lightly in place and staring straight ahead. The white light, designed by Theirry Dreyfus, beamed down from above and threw eerie shadows over their faces and legs. They looked like a heartless, mindless brigade that was under constant interrogation.
The industrial soundscape by Ori Lichtik pounded and enhanced the sense that this was the post-apocalyptic world where monotony and oppression dehumanized. And I could not look away.
The dancers, moved around the stage like this, with only occasional bursts of individuality – but they always returned to the group formation. Their jarring movement, especially the cocking of their head and flapping, was avian. Other times, the dancers were smooth, swirling their torso, but most of the movement was not meant to be pretty – just controlled; and their rendering of such was spotless.
This theme of harmonized dancing extended through to Artistic Director Emily Molnar’s “To this day” and Medhi Walerski’s “Petite Ceremonie.”
“To this day” was a psychedelic trip back to the 1960s with songs by Jimi Hendrix. On a smoky stage and a corner illuminated by a vertical row of stage lights that shot out at the audience, the dance is a homage to the time period.
The dancers, in colorful jeans and tops, tore up the stage to “Once I Had a Woman,” Voodoo Chile Blues” and “Born Under A Bad Sign.” Breaking out in solos, duets, etc., the dancers also held firm together, reaching for the sky with one arm as if seeking to touch the bluesy riffs of the guitar god. Mainly, however, the pluck and slide of the strings was what propelled the choreography and the dancers to a hyper-hallucinatory state.
The final piece showed this amazing troupe also can move props as precisely as their bodies. “Petite Ceremonie” started with muted operatic music and dancers – this time donning formal black-tie for the men and cocktail dresses for the women – stepping precisely in line. This time, however, they pushed and posed atop large white blocks that they eventually stacked for a celebratory final pose to Vivaldi’s “Winter.”
The ta-da finish sent the audience to its feet. It was a well-deserved ovation for a fine company that I would recommend highly. They will remain at the Pillow through Saturday. Go if you are able.
BalletNext was founded by former American Ballet Theatre superstar Michele Wiles, center right, but features young, still unformed dancers. Pianist Venrana Subotic stands with Wiles.
Seven years after its formation, BalletNext has still not found its footing.
The company, a regular at Kaatsbaan International Dance Center, was established and is directed by former American Ballet Theatre superstar Michele Wiles. Yet even with Wiles at the helm, the company stands on shaky legs.
As seen on Saturday night at the Tivoli, N.Y., dance haven, the company now consists of eight pre-professional dancers from the University of Utah. Under Wiles tutelage, I’m sure these dancers have blossomed, but they are not quite there yet.
I’m not sure why Wiles doesn’t hire professional dancers. The company started out as a pick-up company for her professional colleagues from American Ballet Theatre and New York City Ballet. It has devolved into student showcase that two years ago led me to complain that her dancers were, “a band of uncertain and under rehearsed young women who are still wobbly in their pointe shoes.”
Wiles current group is much finer, but you could see a woozy confidence, a misfortune for any type of performance art. Professionals, though they do suffer insecurities, know how to hide them.
Uncertainty really only came through in the first ballet, “Ushuaia.” Danced to live music by Heinrich Biber, played by a quartet of piano, violin and cello, the ballet is a romp for four. This is a complex ballet, in which the dancers, dressed in black and red, are expected to display strength and power brought forth through sharp and speedy pointe work.
The result was mixed. For the most part, they tackled the choreography artfully, even Wiles’ trademark vogue moves that always look like they don't belong. Unfortunately, tinges of panic and uncertainty seeped in the rendering a few too many times.
The young women did much better with two works that Wiles created on them – “Simmer” and “Hey, Wait.”
“Simmer,” to three pieces from Franz Schubert’s Impromptus D. 899 played beautifully by pianist Venrana Subotic, was a cat’s cradle with a dancer caught up in the middle. The unraveling and spooling in of strings, which was central to the ballet, could have been a tangled disaster. The dancers kept it all straight and had fun with the choreography – allowing their personalities to shine through.
“Hey, Wait,” to music by Tom Harrell, showed off the dancers' edgy attitude. Dressed in black unitards, slashed with vibrant colors, the BalletNext crew finally let go and danced with courage. Sarah Murphy especially stood out. Though petite compared to her fellow dancers, she towered over the others with her self-assured style.
Clearly, BalletNext is making headway. Next time I see the company, I’m hoping to not lament its lack of professionals. If Wiles can keep and hone these dancers and hire some men too, she might actually have something.
For now though, the company remains a dabbler in the New York ballet world flush with solid artists.
A rare moment in "Jane Eyre" when Jane (Isabella Boylston) and Rochester (Thomas Forster) actually faced each other.
Choreographer George Balanchine was famed to have said “there are no mother-in-laws in ballet.”
Thus placing any narrative on the ballet stage, where body language is the only language, could be fraught with character confusion. If the viewer is unfamiliar with the story or hasn’t pre-read the program notes, one can often find themselves distracted with simply trying to figure out who is who and what are they doing.
“Jane Eyre,” a tale of a downtrodden child and woman whose life is a series of cruel misfortunes and impositions, is one of those stories that is endangered of not translating well to the ballet stage. Written by Charlotte Bronte, the story entwines many characters – most of who are cruel -- who shape Jane’s path from childhood to womanhood. Distinguishing the characters – for those unfamiliar with this dark saga – can be difficult.
Certainly, it was a challenge for Cathy Marston, the director and choreographer of American Ballet Theatre’s shared production of “Jane Eyre.” The result was a mediocre ballet that would benefit from some expansion and reworking.
As seen Saturday at the Metropolitan Opera House, the ballet, with music compiled and composed by Philip Feeney, has sparks of ingenuity – the male cast of D-men who plague Jane throughout her life – is one such metaphor that resonated and carried the ballet from start to end.
Yet the ballet moved so quickly that it can be difficult for the viewer to dig into Jane’s experiences and psychology. That in turn, made it hard to sympathize with her – despite the endless callousness she experienced.
Much of the problem stemmed from the choreography itself, which was unclear and often missed the deep passion that she and her employer Rochester felt for each other. Many of their duets had him swinging and carrying her on his back. He hardly faced her and gazed into her eyes as two lovers would do. This left the impression she was a burden to Rochester, not his true love who unleashed his repressed emotions.
Isabella Boyston as Jane and Thomas Forster as Rochester, do what they can – embodying the characters and emoting as much sincere affection and passion as they could through the rapidly released storyline.
Marston did race through it, muddying the plot for the audience, making every scene appear to be separate from the whole. For example, Young Jane, danced movingly by Breanne Granlund, looked like a spectator at the funeral that led her to live with well-meaning but unkind relatives. This was the first step in her difficult life, but again, she looked like a passerby.
Then, when moved in with relatives, the tightness of Jane’s new family was not fully expressed and that was key to her expulsion there and into the heartless boarding school where deprivation was part of the curriculum.
The boarding school was one area of success for Marston who clearly stated its rigidity with the forced uniformity with a corps de ballet that moved precisely with their assigned tables and blankets.
Even though that scene was successful, the whole came off as a series of unrelated episodes and I’m familiar with the story.
Furthermore, Jane’s relationship to St. John (Duncan Lyle) and her feelings about Blanche Ingram (Hee Seo) were so muted that it only confounded the audience even more. The audience always needs to know who each person is, why they are there and how they affect the main’s character’s trajectory. That answer was often elusive.
Lastly, the over the top direction given to Jane’s pupil Adele, danced by Erica Lall, was cartoonish. That needed to be toned down to transform her from hyper-active gnat into energetic, but huggable/lovable child.
Marston can do so much with “Jane Eyre” and my hope is she will. The tragic tale that ends happily could be a blockbuster. But in its current state, it’s not.
Nathan Griswold and Ana Maria Lucaciu are engaging dancers who portray fear of the overlord in "Slightly Off Stage."
A disagreement in dystopia – that’s how I would describe “Slightly Off Stage,” a duet created and performed by Ana Maria Lucaciu and Nathan Griswold.
The work-in-progress, shown at Kaatsbaan International Dance Center on Saturday, was thought-provoking and the dancing by Lucaciu and Griswold, telling. They moved as one, solid in their positions, but responsive. They harbored that delicate balance with clarity and purpose.
All this took place while trapped in a factory-like atmosphere where they are tasked with frantically assembling and disassembling stacks of papers as told to them by “they” and an unseen overseer whose voice directed their moves.
It was clear from the start that these two excellent dancers – Lucaciu from the shuttered Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet and Griswold from the Atlanta Ballet – were portraying characters whose personalities were repressed. Dressed alike in gray and black, they arrived to the stage with a tower of papers between them. Though they glanced at each other surreptitiously, they executed their cross-purposes – she, to take papers in while he, to take them out.
It was a set up for their duet – a demonstration of what these two do best, dance together. For “Slightly Off Stage,” they appeared apprehensive, looking upward, fearing the bosses' scolding. When the let go, they mirrored each other’s moves and pushed each other outward. The result was both preserving their personas as worker bees, occasionally stopping to point a finger of blame at each other, while allowing a glimmer of their individuality to seep through a crack.
Meanwhile, the neat pile of papers loomed – until it didn’t. With Griswold swinging her by her ankles, Lucaciu allowed herself to became a Zamboni – both sweeping the floor with her belly and extended arms, scattering the papers across the stage.
After realizing her error, Lucaciu did try to gather up the pieces, but then gave up, letting the papers remain in a crumbled heap. She was free from the fear of the invisible overlord, but Griswold wasn’t. While she tried to coax him back into their sympathetic duet, his heart was frozen, lost in the anxiety of the deep-voiced despot. He finished “Slightly Off Stage” trying to reassemble the stack.
The work was obviously Orwellian. Decades ago, it might have felt foreign. Unfortunately, today, “Slightly Off Stage” reverberates as relevant.