Yuri Possokhov’s Firebird; photo by Scott Rasmussen
With Firebird, Grand Rapids Ballet’s exquisite season opener, the company shows its extraordinary range, relevance, and reach under James Sofranko’s artistic direction, and that they never been stronger, better, or more beautiful as a company.
Though the program includes a variation of the titular work choreographed by Yuri Possokhov and set to Igor Stravinsky’s first classic composition, there is so much more to this show than this beloved storybook ballet based on a Russian folktale and originally commissioned for the 1910 Paris season of Sergei Diaghiliev’s Ballet Russes with choreography by Michel Fokine.
Thankfully so. For though the dancers’ technique and expressivity is excellent, their storytelling ability is constrained by the limitations of Possokhov’s choreography, and much of the other works in this program better showcase the extraordinary talent of this company. And yet, Yuka Oba-Muschiana’s Firebird is still mystical; Josue Justiz’s Prince and Julia Turner’s Princess are adoring, pained and lovely; and Matthew Wenckowski’s Kaschei is both terrifying and charming.
Their Firebird is still an audience pleaser and an enormous achievement with a huge corps de ballet and that gorgeous score; however, the program might have been better named “Cold Virtues,” after Adam Hougland’s truly stunning dance that originally premiered in 2003 for Louisville Ballet. It is riveting and disturbing, and will haunt the memory of anyone who sees it.
Raw and elemental, this dystopic piece looks like a sepia photograph sprung to life and feels as if it’s from another time yet also familiar. Shot through with masculine energy, seven men and seven women, all lithe, nimble, fierce, and strong, with angular arms and soft shoes, use every ounce of their classical training to create an unforgettable cinematic modern-infused ballet, with pairs Alexandra Meister-Upleger and James Cunningham as well as Emily Reed and Steven Houser at the center.
Set to Philip Glass’s “Glass Violin Concerto” with wild, dark, dramatic strings and costumes by Marion Williams, the dancers make backwards entrances with outstretched arms; they roll on the floor, shimmy, sway, and embrace in pairs; they get dragged across the floor on a diagonal line with 180 degree turnout; they freeze in midair; they move in a circle as if in a folk dance with one dancer at the center; and they otherwise create stunning lifts, extraordinary angles and swirls to heart-racing effect.
Principal dancers Yuka Oba-Muschiana and Matthew Wenckowski are transfixing in Penny Saunders’ sensual pas de deux “Again.” The tension-filled contemporary piece begins and ends with the dancers in deep bows to the audience and with moments in-between that shift from the closeness of full-body contact lifts in attitude to their being apart, with a distance between them that feels bigger than that which we can see. Their performance is elegant and nuanced, particularly as they draw circles on the floor with their toes as well as in the air with their bodies. It is gorgeous.
The opening piece, “Mozart Symphony,” is a wonderful original work by Artistic Director James Sofranko that premiered last June at Grand Rapids’ Festival of the Arts. The classical romantic dance is an ebullient celebration of Mozart’s notoriously joyful music that pays terrific homage to the master for its musicality. Though in an understated way, it takes a nod from George Balanchine and is very reminiscent of New York City Ballet’s heyday with its uplifted pas de deux, pleasing asymmetrical work, and glorification of the feminine yet with very strong male dancers. Lighthearted and at times funny, the five pairs of dancers each carry their own personality and quality, often spritely and impish. Little frog-legged lifts and a move in which a female dancer nestles herself under her partner’s arm into his embrace are but two examples of sweet yet lasting motifs.
Firebird is so much more than its titular piece and truly shows off the best Grand Rapids Ballet has to offer, which is more than can reasonably be expected of a professional regional ballet company. This is a group of dancers whose work is more than ready to be launched on a national if not international stage. And yet West Michigan patrons are among the lucky few who receive the gift of their live performance in the here and now.
MOVEMEDIA is Contemporary Dance at Grand Rapids Ballet
Written by Grand Rapids Ballet Company Dancer Connie Flachs
Photography by Eric Bouwens
As a dancer with Grand Rapids Ballet, I have felt firsthand the lack of publicity when the arts section of the Grand Rapids Press dissolved. The excitement of opening night’s review was lost. A platform for critical discussion evaporated. The work being done at Grand Rapids Ballet is too important to exist only within the walls of the Peter Martin Wege Theater. Art needs to be reviewed, critiqued, and discussed not only by those of us who create it but by those who view it. I hope this extremely biased review helps spark interest and discussion within the community. The views expressed here are only my own and do not reflect the opinions of Grand Rapids Ballet.
This is the sixth year Grand Rapids Ballet has produced MOVEMEDIA, a show that seeks to push the boundaries and preconceptions of dance beyond what most people visualize when they think “ballet”. MOVEMEDIA has introduced Grand Rapids’ audiences to ballets danced sofas, performed barefoot, or featuring politics. The program also provides a platform for emerging choreographers to create on talented, professional dancers in an experimental environment. This year’s program continues on this path, creating work that utilizes modern technology, the latest dance trends, and the unique talents of Grand Rapids Ballet.
The program opens with “Dear Light Along the Way to Nothingness” choreographed by Robert Dekkers, the artistic director of Post:Ballet in San Francisco. Ambient music and a barren stage with a greenish glow initiate the experience. A single man walks on draped in a warrior-like sweater and scaly tights settling, stagnant on the stage. Others fill the empty space, barely acknowledging each other’s existence. The single man, Levi Teachout, begins to dance in an intense, angular way. A series of solos follow. Just as the piece risks becoming generic movement study the mood breaks and dancers exit, replaced by small trios and solos. This piece clearly exists in a world of its own, as though the audience is peering through a microscope to see what occurs beyond the naked eye. Is this world only at the microscopic level? Is it in the past? Is it a future society? Dekker’s work is particularly unusual for Grand Rapids Ballet. The choreography was created with
large input from the individual dancers. The avant garde costumes, designed by Christian Squires, are shiny and structured in a futuristic manner, accessorized by glittering facial tattoos. The intensity of the performers’ stares raises questions: What are they looking at? What are they searching for? How are they related?
Particularly memorable is an intense shaking section that resolves as a line of dancers washes across the stage. A solo danced by Grace Haskins is especially striking due to her sharp and quirky movements. The eye is also drawn to the strong movements of Caroline Wiley, Cassidy Isaacson, and Adriana Wagenveld as they forcefully descend upon the stage. A pas de deux between Jack Lennon and Yuka Oba is the apex of the piece. Lennon’s powerful stance supports Oba’s fluidity and together they build suspense along with the music’s crescendos. As the ballet draws to a close, Oba is enveloped into the wings by her fellow performers, leaving only Ednis Mallol Gomez and Matthew Wenckowski on stage, struggling with some sort of force. Their superhuman movement, from whizzing revolutions to one armed pushups, fit right into the strange, fantastical world Dekkers has created.
The mood of Robyn Mineko Williams’ “Glean” is a deep contrast to Dekkers’ work. Adriana Wagenveld and Nicholas Schultz emerge into a path of light, dancing a pas de deux filled with manipulation; Wagenveld’s head follows Schultz’s hand; her step forces his knee forward. The movement is simple and honest, as though they’re in the beginning stages of a relationship. The movement isn’t memorable, but Wagenveld’s deep gaze into Schultz’s eyes is hard to forget.
The first pas de deux dissolves into a second duet between Cassidy Isaacson and Matthew Wenckowski. Dressed in costumes identical to the first couple, I found myself imaging their dancing as a later phase of the same relationship, one where the couple is less ensconced with each other and more selfconscious. Isaacson and Wenckowski partner intricately but rarely make eye contact, often staring out at the audience as though wondering what others think of them. The fuzzy, grainy music adds to the feeling that there are spectators just outside of view, whispering, judging, and commenting to each other. Wenckowski is left on stage alone. The combination of the dark lighting and his black pants draw attention to his bare torso, emphasizing each muscle. His arms reach further than imaginable, emanating from some sort of angst. His gorgeous movement ends in slow walking, mirrored by Isaac Aoki. Wenckowski leaves Aoki works himself into awkwardly beautiful positions. Yuka Oba meets him on stage and they begin dancing, perhaps representing the final, mature stage of the relationship. Their steps are the most complicated and intricate, suddenly resolving into identical poses the way a long-term couple can finish each other’s sentences.
Oba is left on stage alone as Aoki fades into darkness, moving with distress showing openly on her face. She stops, facing the public, as though she can no longer go on without her partner. But she begins again, continuing on as the lights black out. Williams’ piece is pretty, choreographed with a vocabulary of steps that veteran MOVEMEDIA audience members will be familiar with. The simplicity of lighting and costumes allows the viewer to assign their own meaning to each relationship.
Penny Saunders shares a similar background with Williams: both have danced with Hubbard Street, a mainstay of Chicago’s contemporary dance scene and began their choreography while working for that company. Both have choreographed on Grand Rapids Ballet previously and tend to use space holding, manipulation, and a certain fluidity in the movement they create. Saunders’ work, “In Frame”, danced to Max Richter’s arrangement of Vivaldi’s esteemed The Four Seasons, is a more cohesive vision than “Glean” and exhibits complexity that outdoes Saunders’ own preceding works. The choreography itself features well-rehearsed unison movements but breaks off into variations and intriguing patterns before the synchronicity grows tiring. The movement of the dancers bodies creates shapes that expand beyond the dancers themselves, building architecture that spans the breadth of the stage. Together the dancers operate like cogs in a machine, passing an invisible fireball between them, holding the intensity in their deep lunges and engaged arms.
The piece opens and closes with the image of a single dancer sitting on a bench, contemplating artwork by Alice Klock that’s projected onto a hanging picture frame. Others enter in the darkness, as though they are the ideas she thinks of while examining the work. As the lights come up, this dancer is absorbed into a diagonal, interacting with the fragments of her imagination. They all become part of the imaginary world inspired by the artwork, participating in the journey of creativity art can inspire. Saunders’ work gathers power from the strength of the group work that swirls over the stage through the Spring, Summer and Fall movements, making Caroline Wiley’s solo to Winter stand out in its simplicity and quietness. There’s very little technical movement in this dance: Wiley spends most of her solo on the floor in the center of a projection of a Klock painting. Despite the absence of pirouettes, jumps, or extensions, this solo is absolutely breathtaking. Wiley gives each detail immense importance, forcing the viewer to also immerse themselves in the minute movements of her body. Perhaps this is the true portrait of an artist, alone, experimenting, unassuming and free of self-consciousness despite the onlookers on the outskirts.
My biased review is only one take on this diverse MOVEMEDIA program. I encourage you to experience and interpret it for yourself and continue the discussion.
Save Tchaikovsky’s brilliant original score there was little choreographer Mario Radacovsky’s psychological ballet Black Swan White Swan (retitled Black & White: Swan Lake for 2017) had in common with traditional productions of Swan Lake. No feather-adorned tutus, no clack of pointe shoes hitting the stage floor and no love story of prince and a beautiful swan that transcends death. His contemporary version of the Marius Petipa classic instead had its dancers in modern-day costume, often barefoot, and told the story of a self-absorbed man who, faced with his own mortality, sought refuge in romantic relationships with two very different women only to be tormented by feelings of guilt and betrayal over his infidelities with them.
The world premiere of the black-and-white themed two-act ballet by Grand Rapids Ballet (GRB) at the Peter Martin Wege Theatre began with a darkened stage on which the moving image of the surface of a shimmering lake was projected. The lake’s waters gradually became more turbulent as apparition-like circles of white light rose from its depths.
The mesmerizing scene then shifted to two others that served as setup for the ballet’s storyline and where we were introduced to its main characters.
In the first, a brief encounter between Nicholas Schultz as Siegfried and Laura McQueen Schultz as the White Swan (she looking more like a secretary than a swan) left the impression that Siegfried was in poor health as he collapsed to the floor (repeating the gesture at intervals throughout the first act) and that whatever ailed him, as well as his inner demons, were being manifested in the form of the sorcerer, Von Rothbart. Dancer Kyohei Giovanni Yoshida was riveting in his portrayal of the clingy, jealous and sinister Von Rothbart who seemed to have an equal measure of aggression and desire for Siegfried. His dancing was a potent blend of skill and power.
The second found Siegfried at a dance party where he encountered Black Swan, Dawnell Dryja. Radacovsky’s contemporary dance choreography for the scene had its five couples rocking back and forth in each other’s arms in a slow dance then picking up the pace to a comedic level while the Black Swan fawned over a now-melancholy Siegfried while Von Rothbart inserted himself between the pair, grabbing at Siegfried or climbing onto his back.
Apart from the ballet’s leads, GRB’s dancers appeared at times uneasy in Radacovsky’s gesture-laden contemporary movement language; their dancing lacked energy and crispness.
Toward the end of the first act however, the ballet and the dancers’ performances seemed to come into their own thanks to a striking dreamlike scene where a corps of fourteen swans, barefoot and in white leotards, performed choreography that blended references to Petipa’s production with twisty, off-balance movement. The swans each danced in individual spotlights atop the shimmering lake projection that harked back to the ballet’s beginning and brought home the notion that the swans were in fact the apparition-like lights that rose from the lake’s depths. Backed by a wall of mirrored panels that multiplied the number of Swans, Siegfried and Von Rothbart slowly stalked each other as the swans danced, creating a marvelous juxtaposition of growing tension and animated beauty.
A lightning-quick dance of the four cygnets and a playful and acrobatic pas de deux between Siegfried and the White Swan followed to end the act. McQueen Schultz as the White Swan was radiant and her performance in the pas deft.
The ballet’s second act saw Radacovsky’s choreography abandon its sometimes cutesy elements in favor of rich, emotional and more technically challenging movement. It opened with Siegfried and Von Rothbart in another battle of wills in which both dancers shone.
The ballet then climaxed in the Black Swan pas de deux where a seductive and fierce Dryja partnered by Schultz wowed the audience. Darting legs, sharp turns and daring lifts were thoroughly enthralling.
The rest of the ballet saw Siegfried seemingly defeat Von Rothbart only to have him return when the White and Black Swans met each other and exposed Siegfried’s infidelities. The ballet ended with Siegfried and Von Rothbart lying lifeless on the stage as the projected image of a swan in flight surrounded them and GRB’s swan corps slowly flapped their arms to Tchaikovsky’s stirring music.
Perhaps not a production for the ballet purist and in some ways a flawed one, Radacovsky’s ballet was nonetheless a triumph. For GRB, now in its 40thseason and the second under new artistic director and former Pacific Northwest Ballet prima ballerina, Patricia Barker, Black Swan White Swan was bold and successful step in the new direction Barker is taking the company from a little-known regional ballet company to one in the national spotlight.
Grand Rapids Ballet’s “Black & White: Swan Lake” returns to the stage at Peter Martin Wege Theater February 10-12, 2017. Here’s the MLive review of the premiere that was originally published in May of 2012…
Laura and Nicholas Schultz as Odette and Siegfried in the Grand Rapids Ballet’s premier of “Black Swan White Swan,” a variation of the classic ballet “Swan Lake.” (Chris Clark | Mlive.com)
By Jeffrey Kaczmarczyk for MLive.com (May 11, 2012)
4 stars of 4
GRAND RAPIDS, MI – Great art is great, in part, because, whether it’s Shakespeare’s plays or Beethoven’s symphonies, it can be created new again.
Natalie Portman, in the film “Black Swan,” is set against rehearsals for “Swan Lake.” Music from Tchaikovsky’s score is part of the 2010 film, but the tale of Von Rothbart, the sorcerer, is not told in Darren Aronofsky’s film.
Grand Rapids Ballet Company’s new production of “Black & White: Swan Lake” re-imagines it yet again to cap the company’s 40th anniversary season with an artistic accomplishment of the highest order. Startling special effects surround amazing choreography in the show.
Choreographer Mario Radacovsky’s new production – beguiling, captivating, ultimately enigmatic — is not a retelling of the story of Princess Odette, the White Swan; or of Von Rothburt’s daughter, Odile, the Black Swan.
GRBC’s production, which opened last weekend in its Wege Theatre, is the story of Siegfried and his journey of discovery, both in the real world as well as in the realm of his imagination, aided, abetted by Von Rothbart.
The most important duets, in fact, are those between Siegfried and Von Rothbart, as his Mephistophelean manipulator, and by Von Rothbart, as Siegfried looking inside himself, at his alter ego, mirroring his actions, sharing his coats, engaging in frequent combat.
Radacovsky’s tale is one for the 21st century, with a dance vocabulary to match. It’s classical dance, yes, but not at all classical ballet with women on pointe. Dancers all were in dance shoes or barefoot.
Manipulations of the spine, legs spread far apart, toes pointing at 90 degree angles to the leg were some of the unfamiliar, and even uncomfortable moves Radacovsky employed, to say nothing of any number of gestures to suggest swans in motion.
Four strong dancers, with strong characterizations to match, tell the 80-minute story to most of Tchaikovsky’s much loved, pre-recorded score to “Swan Lake.”
Friday’s cast, to open its second weekend of three performances, included Nicholas Schultz as Siegfried, Kyohei Giovanni Yoshida as von Rothbart, Laura McQueen Schultz as the White Swan, Dawnell Dryja as the Black Swan.
Schultz, a fine leading man, has developed the tools to grow a character in the short space of a show as well as the strength and stamina to partner so many people so much of the time.
Yoshida, an exciting dancer always, gave Von Rothbart a cunning, commanding presence, with some spectacular moves, but riveting even when he moved with catlike stealth.
McQueen Schultz danced a graceful, White Swan, partnered often off the floor, frequently in surprising lifts and carries, suggesting her sad, remote distance.
Dryja, as the Black Swan, was a sexy, magnetic personality with a touch of femme fatale. Her solo variation had energy crackling at the tips of her fingers and toes. The trust between her and Schultz when paired together is unmatched.
Radacovsky’s party scene, establishing the normalcy of Siegfried’s world, was witty and gay with five couples dancing the world’s oldest game.
No fewer than 14 swans, matching white outfits with loose, flowing hair, were a strong corps de ballet with willowy gestures often in perfect unison.
As Shakespeare’s plays profit from modern lighting and Beethoven’s piano concertos feature modern instruments, Radacovsky’s 21st century version of a 19th century ballet benefited greatly from set and lighting design by Marek Holly and projection design by Michael Auer.
Mirrored drops reflected the action and provide subtle entrances and exits. Pools of light served as accent lighting as well as destinations marking turning points in the tale.
Best of all were breathtaking projections transforming the Wege Theatre into the semblance of a lake itself. A surprising special effect at the end sealed the deal.
Grand Rapids Ballet Company’s 40th season ends on a high note, though two more chances remain to see “Black Swan White Swan.”
GRAND RAPIDS, MI – Grand Rapids Ballethas spent years of dreaming of a new production of “The Nutcracker.”
Years of planning and designing, and months of choreographing and rehearsing its new production of Tchaikovsky’s “Nutcracker” culminated on Friday in DeVos Performance Hall.
It’s simply divine, delicious and delightful.
“The Nutcracker,” conducted by John Varineau, leading the Grand Rapids Symphony, opened to enthusiastic audience acclaim as Grand Rapids Ballet’s first, brand-new production of the holiday ballet in some 30 years.
Tchaikovsky’s beloved score is the same as before. The tale of Clara and her magical nutcracker doll come to life is mostly so as well. After that, everything’s new.
Settings by Chris Van Allsburg and Eugene Lee provide the authenticity of the Stahlbaum home down to shadow silhouette portraits over the fireplace mantle that set the scene in early 19th century Vienna. The meticulously painted drops also supply the whimsy of the imaginary Marzipan Castle in the second act, which Clara and her Prince reach by traveling on a boat pulled by dolphins.
Sumptuous costumes designed by artistic director Patricia Barker reflect the handsome, cutaway jackets and empire waist gowns of Regency Era. Clara’s godfather, the eccentric Drosselmeier, naturally, is something of a throwback in an old-fashioned, 18th century long coat and knee breeches.
Lights, projections and special effects add a touch of 21st century magic to supply falling snow, fireworks and scampering mice. As Clara falls asleep on Christmas Eve, her mesmerizing transformation into a tiny figure, coming face to face with now-gigantic mice beneath the Christmas tree, is a wondrous delight you have to see yourself.
Yet glitz, glamour and production values aside, the essence of the show is new choreography by Val Caniparoli, one of the best-known and best-traveled American choreographers working today.
Caniparoli’s “Nutcracker” is classical ballet at its best. Graceful and elegant, understated at times, Caniparoli fills the stage with deceptively simple yet highly technical ballet steps. Frequently his choreography flows as if the dancers were on ice skates instead of toe shoes. But the sheer athleticism of his lifts and carries cannot be dismissed.
The Stahlbaum’s Christmas party in full flow tells the tale of adults conversing and sharing social dances, children playing with drums and dolls, causing an occasional ruckus until distracted by Drosselmeier’s life-size Sugar Plum and Nutcracker dolls, both of which arrive in delightfully deceptive ways.
The battle scene between the Nutcracker and Mouse King was depicted dramatically with music to match and made a seamless transition into the ravishing Snow scene.
Grand Rapids Ballet’s two most veteran members, Stephen Sanford and Dawnell Dryja danced Friday as the Nutcracker Prince and Sugar Plum Fairy. Yet the two don’t dance the grand pas de deux in Act II.
Among the many changes in the re-imagined “Nutcracker, the young Clara, portrayed by Julia Rudlaff in Act I, becomes a slumbering Clara who dreams of herself as a young adult, danced by Yuka Oba.
Dream Clara dances the grand pas de deux because, after all, a girl who dreams of a handsome prince doesn’t sit back and watch some other girl dance with him.
Enraptured by the wonder of her journey Oba blossomed on stage, partnered confidently by Sanford. The Snow scene was unabashedly romantic, danced with the enthusiasm of newly discovered passion between two young lovers. Building upon that foundation, their grand pas de deux in Act II brought forth even greater technical accomplishments.
Dryja, leading 12 little fairies, was radiant in her solo with dainty feet and captivating presence that filled the stage even when dancing alone.
Grand Rapids Ballet last year launched a $2.5 million capital campaign to retire debts, build and endowment, and create a new production of “Nutcracker.” Realizing that vision led the company to expand by one-third this season. No fewer than 32 dancers are on the roster. Thirteen are newcomers this season.
The payoff in the Snow scene and in the “Waltz of the Flowers” was extraordinary with a corps de ballet of 16 snowflakes and 12 flowers, all professionals, apprentices, trainees or guests, who danced with nimble assurance and supple cohesion.
The Arabian Spice divertissement, with Ednis Gomez as a snake charmer and Monica Pelfrey as an asp, was sinewy and sensuous. Kyohei Yoshida’s spellbinding spins in the Chinese Tea divertissement, pursued by a new Chinese dragon, were electrifying.
Therese Davis, Connie Flachs and Laura McQueen Schultz danced with polished poise in the French Pastilles variation. The Russian Caviar divertissement had Isaac Aoki, Steven Houser and Nicholas Schultz exploding across the stage with powerful leaps as the audience clapped along to the Trepak rhythm.
Grand Rapids Ballet’s new production, as likely as not, will have its naysayers.
A prologue that has Drosselmeier, portrayed magnetically by Attila Mosolygo, planning Christmas surprises for his godchildren, as well as an epilogue that returns Clara to her home, safe and sound, are entirely new to DeVos Hall.
The enormous Mother Ginger is no more, though her masked Harlequin children still appear in the show. Overall, there are fewer students and children on stage.
But the new version of “The Nutcracker,” which the company plans to tour in future years, surely will elevate Grand Rapids Ballet’s reputation as a professional troupe of consequence while entertaining a new generation at the holidays with the magic of dance.