Staging A Midsummer Night’s Dream is a dream come true for Anne Mueller
A Q&A with Grand Rapids Ballet’s Marketing Director, Michael Erickson
Photo by Bailee Columber
A ballet company’s rehearsal schedule is complex and layered; at any given time, the dancers may be working on as many as four or five different productions. That’s why it’s not at all surprising to see Anne Mueller in Studio A staging the final production of our moving 2019-20 season, associate artistic director of the National Ballet of Canada Christopher Stowell’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which will not open until April 24, 2020.
So, when I saw this multi-faceted and amazingly accomplished dance professional taking a rare (and short) lunch break, it seemed as good a time as any to sit down for a lightening-round Q&A to get to know her a little better.
Q: First, welcome to West Michigan. We’re so happy you’re here.
A: Thank you. I’m loving Grand Rapids and Grand Rapids Ballet; the vibe is wonderful in both the city and the studios, which makes my job an absolute pleasure.
Anne Mueller staging Stowell;s A Midsummer Nights Dream; photo by Damion Van Slyke
Q: Speaking of Grand Rapids Ballet, what sets a company like ours apart from others with which you’ve worked.
A: Well, every company has a unique culture, of course, but what I’m loving here is the generosity and openness the dancers have in their work process. They seem excited to receive and apply information, which makes the staging process fun and effective. They are taking on their characters beautifully, which is so important in a story ballet, especially one with a fairly complex plot.
Q: Enough about us. Tell us more about yourself.
A: <laughs> Sure. I live in Boise, Idaho with my husband, Lars, and dog, August. I work for Ballet Idaho as Artistic Associate, which is a fancy way of saying I spend a lot of time in the studio with the company dancers teaching class, running rehearsals, staging ballets, assisting visiting choreographers and stagers, and supporting the work of our artistic director, Garrett Anderson. Before my current job, I was co-artistic director of The Portland Ballet, was managing director for a theatre company, and held several positions on the artistic staff of Oregon Ballet Theatre (OBT), where I also danced for 15 years. At OBT, I worked for many years with Christopher Stowell who was artistic director there from 2003 to 2012. Christopher brought an amazing repertoire of ballets to OBT and also choreographed a number of original works. He and I enjoyed working together a great deal on new works, so I frequently danced in his ballets and sometimes assisted him as his choreographic assistant. I was also a co-founder of Trey McIntyre Project and danced for the company during the summers of 2005 to 2007. I’ve staged ballets for McIntyre, Stowell, and Nicolo Fonte and have worked recently with the National Ballet of Canada as an assistant to choreographer Guillaume Côté and as a guest rehearsal assistant on The Second Detail and on Karen Kain’s Swan Lake.
Yuka Oba-Muschiana and Steven Houser in Stowell’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream; photo by Bailee Columber
Q: You mention the term “staging” which you’re doing for our production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Can you tell our readers what that means exactly?
A: Of course. In terms of my work here now, I’m responsible for teaching the dancers in certain roles all of the steps that they’ll do as they portray these roles; this includes musical, spacing, and qualitative information, as well as elements of storytelling and character. I’m tasked with re-creating the choreography in a way that’s as true to the choreographer’s intent as possible. Sometimes small adjustments can be made to make things “fit” better with the current cast of dancers, but these changes are generally small tweaks rather than major changes.
Q: How interesting! So in addition to teaching the actual dance steps, you’re also an acting coach. Which makes me wonder: What do you enjoy most about dance personally and professionally?
A: At this point in my career — being almost ten years past my performing career — what I love most is connecting with dancers artistically and passing on information to them that I’ve gained throughout my journeys in dance. I love to help them find ways to do things better and to improve. I find it very satisfying.
Q: That’s a perfect segue to my next question: What’s the best piece of dance advice you’ve received and from whom?
A: I’ve received a ton of great advice from many brilliant teachers and coaches through the years, but one that sticks out was, coincidentally, from Christopher Stowell. Early in my time with him, he was coaching me on Balanchine’s Duo Concertant which is one of my favorite roles; he observed I really felt my dancing in my legs rather than my upper body. When he told me this, it shifted my thinking dramatically; in the years that followed, I enjoyed a whole new and different way of exploring movement, and it helped me grow considerably as an artist.
See Anne’s efforts when A Midsummer Night’s Dream runs April 24-26 and May 1-3 at Peter Martin Wege Theatre. For tickets, call 616.454.4771 x10 or visit grballet.com today!
Brian Enos stands in the front of the studio, dressed head to toe in black. His focused gaze is directed on the three girls learning Alice, waltzing across the center of the room.
“Good, good,” he declares softly. Approaching one of them, he asks her to stretch her leg farther in the arabesque pique and turn her pirouette more quickly. He demonstrates with fluid agility and she follows his lead, moving farther and with more dynamic range after incorporating these corrections.
Enos himself is a study in contrasts. Soft-spoken but direct. Kind but demanding. Even his succinctly styled mohawk hair is the opposite of what one would expect from a ballet choreographer. In essence, this makes him the perfect choice to choreograph Grand Rapids Ballet’s production of the classic story Alice in Wonderland, returning May 3-5 and 10-11, 2019, after it’s triumphant 2017 premiere.
Enos’ choreographic style draws on classical ballet technique, but the steps you will see on stage are a far cry from Swan Lake. The Mad Hatter and March Hare tango, the Cheshire Cat slinks jazzily across the floor, the White Rabbit spins neurotically with ferocious abandon. The score arranged by Brendan Vincent keeps with this fresh and modern feel. The story is taken out of the Victorian age and into a more abstract, timeless place. While the production has elements of the Disney version and is assuredly family-friendly, the ballet is modernized and complex.
Enos began his conception of the production by reading the original Lewis Carroll story. Despite the story’s original reception as “sheer nonsense,” Carroll’s puzzling world has persevered over time, appealing to both children and adults alike. Enos determined the ballet would follow the book more closely than the movie, incorporating some of the darker elements of the story and keeping with his sensibilities as a person.
We continue our series of introductions to the famously strong female characters of playwright Henrik Ibsen that appear in Val Caniparoli’s Ibsen’s House in Extremely Close April 12-14 at Peter Martin Wege Theatre.
Here we are introduced to Ellida Wangel from his 1888 five-act play, Lady from the Sea.
Lady From The Sea diverges slightly from Ibsen’s general attachment to realism, including some folklore and fantasy. Indeed, the story is based on the same tale Hans Christian Anderson derived The Little Mermaid from. The text explores craving and desire and the battle between ego and self in reconciling what one has with what one wants. Unlike many of the women we will meet who leave their husbands, turn away from convention, or regret their lifelong devotion to society’s norms, the free spirit of Ellida eventually chooses to remain with her kind and honest husband, Dr. Wangel.
You are greeted at the Wangel residence with streaming rays of sun and the warm air of summer. You’ve rarely visited in the past: There isn’t much to do here in this small town but admire the flowers that dot the hills.
“We are so glad you’ve come!” Dr. Wangel greets you, welcoming and earnest as always. “Ellida (played by company dancer Connie Flachs) has really been in a terrible state as of late. I hope an old friend can bring my wife back to high spirits. She’ll be right along, she’s just nearly finished her daily bathing.”
Sure enough, a few minutes pass and Ellida wanders up the hill, her hair drying in the breeze, still damp from her ritual swim in the inlet.
You’ve always been a bit jealous of Ellida. Most call her strange, wild even, especially in this provincial area. Yet, you envy the aura of mystery she carries with her and her freedom of spirit.
“Ellida, my dear. It’s lovely to see you, and on such a beautiful day!”
“Lovely. Nothing has seemed lovely to me for a while now.” Her eyes drift over the garden gate, out to the ocean.
You’re a bit taken aback, but the Doctor had warned you she’d been suffering as of late.
“What has been bothering you?” You ask tentatively.
“I am tormented. Oh, my dear friend, it’s terrible! There is so little to keep me busy here in this stifling town. I long for the sea and for that strange, American sailor (played by company dancer Matt Wenckowski) I met long ago. Do you remember how I spoke of him? I told you of our romance right after it occurred. A passion like I had never know, flowing and crashing like the waves of the ocean.”
“But why does it torment you so? I see it as romantic, the young love of two free spirits-”
“You do not understand.” Ellida says, standing and pacing the garden restlessly. “I have no desire to think of this man. I want him out of my mind. I have a wonderful, devoted husband here and duties to his girls. But the obsession infests me, worms its way inside not just my brain but my body.”
“What can you possibly mean by that? Ellida, you’ve always been known to speak of things more intensely than most, but no memory can alter one’s physical being!”
“My son. My son that I lost so quickly. The son of Dr. Wangel and myself. He had… He had…” She swallows hard, composing herself. “He had the stranger’s eyes.”
You feel any envy of Ellida’s mystique receding, leaving with the tide. Instead, a true picture of her torment emerges, just like the boat cutting through the fog on the horizon.
“It’s him!” Ellida screams, noticing the boat. “The sailor is on that ship, I’m sure of it.”
“What—what will you do?” You ask, at a loss.
“I must speak to Dr. Wangel at once. I must talk with the stranger free from any obligations. I know I want to stay here. All of my logic tells me I should. Staying is convenient, sensible, right. But my body has a terrible attraction towards the sea… And I cannot choose freely between the two if I am anchored still to the doctor.”
She exits in a frenzy. You are left to sit with your own struggle between reason and feeling. Because of course, Ellida is mad. That sailor could not have given his eyes to her son. And she would be crazy to throw away the security of her life on this island to be with a man she knows only from memory. But, more deeply, below the logical rationalizing of your brain, you feel how she yearns for freedom to speak with this stranger. Ellida, when you were close to her in your youth, was never one to avoid the ocean on the days when the water was choppy. She would test the water for herself. Here, in her safe, secure life, she has been landlocked. The Doctor must unmoor her if he can ever hope for her to float back to choose a life on dry land.
For tickets to Extremely Close, call 616.454.4771 x10 or tap or click here.
We continue our series of introductions to the famously strong female characters of playwright Henrik Ibsen that appear in Val Caniparoli’s Ibsen’s House in Extremely Close April 12-14 at Peter Martin Wege Theatre.
Next, we meet Mrs. Helen Alving from the 1881 three-act play Ghosts which premiered in Chicago, Illinois.
Like many of Ibsen’s plays, Ghosts was the subject of great controversy, especially because of its inclusion of sensitive topics including religion, venereal disease, and infidelity. While Nora in A Doll’s House deals with breaking the standing moral code, Ghosts illuminates the tragic consequences of conforming.
You’ve journeyed a long way out of town to call upon Mrs. Alving (played by company dancer Alexandra Meister-Upleger), and nothing about her home lends a sense of ease after your extended travels. There is a chill in the air and the cold rain soaks through your overcoat as you hurry down the path to the front door.
You’re welcomed in by Regina—the young maid Mrs. Alving has always treated as a member of her own family. As you warm your hands by the fire, Mrs. Alving arrives, her image wearier than your memory of her: The lines around her mouth are deeply creased and a droop interferes with the proud posture of her youth. She is the portrait of a woman who has spent years holding herself together.
She places a book in your hand: It is not a text you would ever be caught reading.
“I admire your curiosity and thirst for information, Mrs. Alving, but really, I couldn’t possibly read a piece of literature that deals with—”
“Now, I know that Pastor Manders would never approve,” she interjects, “But I’ve found all sorts of information in this tome that I resonate with…”
She carries on talking about the radical novel, but you find yourself distracted by the smile dancing on her lips as she refers to Pastor Manders. It was rumored they were quite fond of each other and that she fled to him for refuge from her tumultuous marriage to the Captain, who is now deceased. But prior to his death, their son, Oswald (played by company dancer Isaac Aoki), was born and she and the Captain moved out here and the rumors were quelled.
“Oh! Oswald is doing beautifully!” She proclaims with a positivity that seems out of place in this dreary estate. “You should see the latest painting he’s been working on; it’s just wonder—”
She seems to have lost her voice, as well as her cheery air; Oswald is an artist who is now suffering due to the sins of his father.
“I have to tell you,” she whispers hoarsely. “All is not well. Oswald is contaminated. He’s been so tired, listless, since he’s returned home from abroad. He can’t work on his art. His joy for life has been infected. His doctor told him there is no chance of recovery. I tried so hard to save him, to keep him away from the influence of his degenerate father. I spent my life covering up my husbands’ infidelities and loose affairs. I had heard the talk of—was Nora her name?—the vile rumors about that woman who left her family. People would have spoken of me that way! I had to maintain order, uphold the law of my marriage, protect my son and our family’s reputation.”
“You chose nobility,” you offer, attempting to assuage her obvious distress.
“I chose cowardice,” Mrs. Alving refutes. “And for what? Devotion to duty did not result in devotion from my Captain. Now, Oswald has the sickness. This is my last chance to be brave. I must choose whether to hold my son to the duty of life or to help him towards freedom.”
A silence falls between the two of you. Is she hinting at the unspeakable? You’re not quite sure you understand her. You don’t know what to say.
“And now, I must ask you to take your leave. Regina will escort you back to town. Oswald, come say goodbye to our guest!”
Regina and Oswald appear at the staircase. For a moment, standing in the gloomy shadows of the hallway, their resemblance is striking. Regina steps out of the darkness with your jacket; she seems eager for you to leave.
“Goodbye Mrs. Alving, Oswald,” you nod to the mother and son who stand on the stoop, waving to you. You take one last look at the eerie estate, and when you turn back for a final wave the two have vanished.
For tickets to Extremely Close, call 616.454.4771 x10 or tap or click here.
Now that we’ve met the author, Henrik Ibsen, let’s meet his famously strong female characters that appear in Val Caniparoli’s Ibsen’s House in Extremely Close April 12-14 at Peter Martin Wege Theatre.
First up is Nora Helmer (played by company dancer Yuka Oba) from his 1879 three-act play, A Doll’s House, which premiered at the Royal Theatre in Copenhagen, Denmark on December 21.
The play is significant for the way it deals with the fate of a married woman, who at the time in Norway lacked reasonable opportunities for self-fulfillment in a male-dominated world. It aroused a great sensation at the time, and caused a “storm of outraged controversy” that went beyond the theater to the world newspapers and society.[Wikipedia]
Nora invites you into her immaculate sitting room, not too expensively furnished, but neat and orderly. She appears on first glance as the ideal nineteenth-century wife: dainty and saccharine-sweet like the macaroons she offers you. However, as you chat longer, you notice something is amiss. The doll-like existence she lives doesn’t fully suit her; her husband, Torvald (played by company dancer Nathan Young), treats her delicately, as though she is a child, without any agency. He draws attention repeatedly to her beauty and talks endlessly about their happiness. Stealing bites of macaroon as he looks away seems to be the only way she exercises her own power.
As her husband leaves the room, Nora leans in closely in confidence. Her previous smiles have vanished and a fire burns behind her eyes. She confesses she has recently taken out a secret loan to help pay for her husband’s medical treatment. At this point in history, women can’t partake in such financial endeavors so she cunningly forged a signature and she’s dealing with the fallout of it: blackmail.
“Something glorious is about to happen,” she whispers. Her husband is about to learn she has been performing “tricks” with other men in an attempt to pay off the debt ensued for his health. She believes he will sacrifice his reputation to protect her. You nod slowly, not wanting to mar her optimism, but leave with a queasy feeling about the matter.
No word comes from Nora over the next few weeks until a neighbor asks if you’ve heard of the Helmer’s scandal. “She just left,” your gossiping neighbor whisper-yells. “Walked out on him and the children. Can you even begin to fathom….?”
But you can. You have seen the fire in her eyes, you know of her defiance. Her husband failed her expectations, sacrificing his devotion and integrity to the woman he has married for the public theater of happiness and dignity. She was done playing the role of the doll. As the scene ends with the slam of a door, you wonder if you will see her again, free in the wild world outside the doll’s house.
For tickets to Extremely Close, call 616.454.4771 x10 or tap or click here.
Yuka Oba in George Balanchine’s Allegro Brilliante, photo by Isaac Aoki
A Closer Look at Wild Sweet Love
by Jade Butler
For his inaugural Grand Rapids Ballet rep (short for repertory:a production inwhichacompanypresentsseveral different works in one show), new artistic director James Sofranko thoughtfully selected vastly different masterpieces. Three will be Grand Rapids premieres: Allegro Brilliante by modern master George Balanchine; Ghost Light by our choreographer-in-residence and Princess Grace Award winner, Penny Saunders; and Wild Sweet Love by internationally acclaimed choreographer Trey McIntrye; and a fourth will be a world premiere work choreographed by Sofranko himself. This tour de force is a fantastic way to showcase our versatile, multi-faceted dancers and to open our exciting new season with fresh perspective.
Allegro Brilliante is a classic “lights and tights” ballet centered around a principal couple, supported by four corps couples. The ballet is set to Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No.3 (listen to it here), originally created from a unique composition intended to be part of Tchaikovsky’s 6th symphony. Choreographed in 1956, Allegro Brilliante is still performed regularly by New York City Balletand other ballet companies worldwide. The demanding choreography paired with a quick tempo is a classic Balanchine trademark everyone has come to love. You can truly “see the music [and] hear the dance” with this brilliant work; it is a thrilling and delightful addition to this diverse mixed bill.
Penny Saunders’ Ghost Light is an alluringly haunting work inspired by the singular light that is often left on stage when unoccupied. Popular superstition holds that it is put out to appease any possible cohabiting spirits in the theater, hence the term “ghost light.” Similar notions are the light provide opportunities for ghosts in the theater to perform onstage. The ghost light in this work magically draws the dancers out of the shadows with masterful light design by Scott Bolman. This is the fifth work by Saunders to be added to our repertoire.
Wild Sweet Love
Trey McIntrye‘sWild Sweet Love is set to hit songs by popular artists such as Queen, Lou Reed, The Partridge Family, and Roberta Flack, with Mendelssohn’s Wedding March thrown in for good measure. Originally created at Sacramento Ballet in 2007, Grand Rapids Ballet is the third company to add Wild Sweet Love into its repertoire. Delightfully quirky and athletic, Wild Sweet Love measures up to be just as brilliant as Allegro Brilliante and just as captivating as Ghost Light.
“Like Balanchine, McIntyre builds an excitingly modern dance upon a very classic foundation. Wild Sweet Love is both wild and sweet. And very, very good.”
—The Sacramento Bee
Get Your Tickets!
This is the perfect show to kick-off our exciting new 2018-19 season—the first under the artistic direction of James Sofranko. It has something for everyone and will showcase your favorite dancers (and introduce you to some new ones, too).
Single tickets don’t go on sale to the public on Monday, June 18 (mark your calendars), but you can purchase season subscriptions now. To do so, call our box office manager, Kelly, at 616.454.4771, x10, email her, or visit our website today.
Diversity is a hot topic right now—and for very good reasons. As the world becomes more inclusive, it’s important that these changes are reflected and celebrated by the arts and culture around us.
That’s why the next two installments of our contemporary dance series, MOVEMEDIA, will focus on the topic of diversity in its many different forms and interpretations.
The brainchild of creative director, Michael Auer, MOVEMEDIA: Diversity brings together choreographers from all over the globe and from every facet of society to create very personal world-premiere works on the issues of diversity which speak to them most. Hear more from Michael below, along with company dancers Yuka Oba and Ednis Gomez, on why the time was right to tackle this topic through the beauty of dance. Thank you, Feel Like You Belong, for the video.
“We felt that the time was right to address the issue of diversity. We wanted to provide a platform for choreographers to express their view of what diversity means to them.” —Michael Auer, Grand Rapids Ballet Creative Director
The first installment of MOVEMEDIA: Diversity will take place February 9-11 and Peter Martin Wege Theatre. This show will include three individual pieces in one spectacular performance. Let’s meet the choreographers and learn a little more about their works.
Jennifer is the founder and Artistic Director of the Arch Dance Company and Program Director of ArchCore40 Dance Intensives. She is a graduate of The Alvin Ailey School and the Maggie Flanigan Acting Conservatory where she studied the Meisner Technique. Archibald has choreographed for the Atlanta Ballet, Ailey II, Cincinnati Ballet, Ballet Memphis, Kansas City Ballet, Tulsa Ballet II, Ballet Nashville; and worked commercially for Tommy Hilfiger, NIKE and MAC Cosmetics as well as chart-listed singers and actors. She was recently appointed as the first female Resident Choreographer in Cincinnati Ballet’s 40-year history. In 2018, she will be creating new works for Cincinnati Ballet, Tulsa Ballet, Grand Rapids Ballet, Amy Seiwert’s Imagery, Ballet Nashville and Stockholm’s Balletakademien next season.
Archibald’s works have been performed at venues including New York’s City Center, Lincoln Center, The Kennedy Center, Aaron Davis Hall, Jacob’s Pillow Inside|Out Stage and Central Park’s Summerstage Mainstage. Jennifer was awarded a Choreographic Fellow for Ailey’s New Directions Choreography Labunder the direction of Robert Battle. She is 2015′s Choreographic Winnings recipient by the Joffrey Ballet. She also choreographed “Seven”, a biographical work about Olympian Jackie Joyner-Kersee, commissioned by St. Louis based MADCODance Company. Her new work “Delilah” is currently touring Scandinavia. Arch Dance Company’s “Chasing Shadows” will be remounted for Dallas Black Dance Theater for their 2018/19 season. Jennifer is currently an Acting Lecturer at the Yale School of Drama.
In 2015, she was appointed as Guest Faculty Lecturer to develop the Hip Hop dance curriculum at Columbia/Barnard College. Jennifer is also a guest artist at several universities including Fordham/Ailey, Purchase College, Princeton, Virginia Commonwealth University, University of South Florida, Goucher College, Columbia College Chicago, and Bates College. In 2017, she premiered new works for Miami New World School of the Arts, South Carolina’s Governor’s School of the Arts, Ailey Fordham, Boston Conservatory, and Point Park. Internationally, she has taught master classes in Brazil, Bermuda, Canada, Italy, Slovenia, Sweden, France, Russia, Mexico, China, and Ecuador.
Her piece is entitled Vapor and in her own words:
Each of us interprets and negotiates the world around us through the lens of our own identity, culture, and experience. Today’s diversity should speak to individuality, for it is the individual that makes up the grassroots foundation of a society. People should be encouraged to recognize, explore, and cultivate their individual qualities. This work is designed to process a greater sense of self-awareness needed to succeed in our diverse and complex society; cultivating movement that explores on-going physical negotiation amongst the dancers. We must train ourselves in acceptance every day. Through acceptance the dancers will open up an infinite inner space. I like to enter the rehearsal space guided by the words of Nelson Mandela: ‘It is for us to adapt our understanding of a common humanity; to learn of the richness of how human life is diverse; to recognize the presence of disability in our human midst as an enrichment of our diversity.’
Jennifer working in the studio with dancers (from left to right) Isaac Aoki, Mari Beer, Ednis Gomez, and Claire Ashcraft.
NORBERT DE LA CRUZ III
Born in the Philippines, Norbert is a NYC and LA-based freelance contemporary dance choreographer and educator. Since receiving his BFA from the Juilliard School in 2010, he has been commissioned by Aspen Santa Fe Ballet, Tulsa Ballet II, Barak Ballet, Hubbard Street II, James Sewell Ballet, Attack Theatre, Ballet X, and Grand Rapids Ballet. De La Cruz has been awarded fellowships from the Jerome Robbins NEW foundation, the Princess Grace Awards – USA, The Jerome Foundation, The Wolf Trap Foundation, and the Commissioning Choreographers Campaign.
He has been selected for professional development programs such as the NY Choreographic institute (an affiliate of the NYCB), the National Choreographers Initiative (Irvine, CA), Hubbard Street’s National Choreographic Competition (Chicago), Joffrey Academy of Dance Winning Works (Chicago), Alvin Ailey New Directions Choreography Lab (NY).
His work has been presented by the Joyce Theatre (NY), Wolf Trap (VA), Ailey CitiGroup Theatre (NY), Martha Knoebel Dance Theatre (CA), Peter Jay Sharp Theatre (NY), Blanch Touhill Performing Arts Center (MO), Aspen District Theatre (CO), Lensic Performing Arts Center (NM), Wallis Annenberg (CA), Kelly Strayhorn Theatre (PA), the Broadway Playhouse (IL), Irvine Barclay Theatre (CA), and McCallum Theatre (CA). In teaching and choreography, his credentials include The Juilliard School Summer, Ailey/Fordham University, Princeton University Ballet, University of Hartford Dance Division, The University of Richmond Department of Theatre and Dance, SUNY Purchase Conservatory of Dance, Marymount Manhattan College, NJ Performing Arts Center, Los Angeles County High School for the Arts, Ramon C. Cortines Visual and Performing Arts High School, Windward School for the Arts, Westside Dance Project, Hawkins School for the Arts, Charles Maple Youth Conservatory, and No.OneArthouse. He conducts seasonal workshops and projects in both New York City and Los Angeles.
Additional honorable mentions include the Asian Arts Alliance Jadin Wong Award, McCallum Theatre Choreography Festival, and Dance Magazines Top 25 to watch in 2016. Working as a freelancer, Norbert is currently pursuing his MFA in dance at Hollins University Graduate Program.
Norbert’s work is entitled The Return of Balance:
In this piece, I want to explore diversity by destabilizing the relational aspects of heteronormative pairings. Set to a cinematic, ambient, and emotionally charged score, the energy and content of the dance is a result of a collective creative studio process. I hope to interrogate the arising tensions of our relationships, its proximity effects, and the balance and/or symmetry that is desired and physicalized between those bodies. The 14-minute contemporary work hopes to reflect on heteronormative codes.
Norbert has videos of his piece on Instagram you can check out here.
Loughlan is an Aussie/Kiwi choreographer and performer based in New Zealand’s capital city, Wellington. He is the choreographer in residence at the Royal New Zealand Ballet, and the creative director of Prior Visual, a project based film collective.
A graduate of the New Zealand School of Dance, his choreographic work began as early as his first school years where he received the Warrandyte Youth Arts Award. He joined the Royal New Zealand Ballet in 2010, and in 2015 was awarded the prestigious Harry Haythorne Choreographic Award by the Ballet Foundation of New Zealand.
In 2016 Loughlan received the Tup Lang Choreographic Award from Creative New Zealand for his work as a unique artistic voice and was made choreographer in residence in 2018, under the directorship of Patricia Barker. He is invested in producing theatre, film and multi-media projects with his work currently receiving premieres in New Zealand, Canada, Denmark, Hong Kong and the United States.
His ballets have been described by the New Zealand Herald as ‘dance that uses extreme geometries, innovative partnering, elegance and refinement’. His works for the Royal New Zealand Ballet include Diminished Illusions, EVE, The Long and the Short of it, LARK, Ideale and Between-Us. In 2018 he created a short film for the Royal New Zealand Ballet and Te Papa (New Zealand’s National Museum) to launch the new National Gallery Toi Art Collection.
Prior maintains a strong bond with the New Zealand School of Dance where he has been invited to create three works for student casts – Verse, FirstLight and Curious Alchemy. FirstLight made it’s premiere in 2014 at the closing gala of the Asian Grand Prix in Hong Kong, while Curious Alchemy premiered in 2017 at Toronto’s Assemblée Internationale, and later at the School’s 50th Anniversary Celebration programme.
Loughlan’s piece is entitled They/Them and explores the topic of gender neutrality:
Gender expression and the debate to use gender neutral language is an ongoing and multilayered issue. Our social landscape, as it has developed over thousands of years, is fixated on binary paradigms and exists under an outdated ideology. Tradition dictates the portrayal of gender and gender identity in ballet dancers as almost always exclusive to male and female partnerships and strict gender-specific roles. This work aims to present gender identity as a fluid construct highlighting the importance of the individual as a neutral entity undefined by gender or physical form. Are traditional gender constructs holding us back, and would adopting a gender fluid, non-binary ideology help to decrease trans issues and gender inequality? Are we more than the sum of our parts?
Gender neutral costumes for They/Them by William Fitzgerald. From left to right: Cassidy Isaacson, Mari Beer, Sidney Scully, Matt Wenckowski, Nigel Tau, Isaac Aoki, Yuka Oba, and Ednis Gomez.
“I want them to walk away with something. A thought, an emotion, a topic–and I want to have choreographers rethink what it is that they’re creating. I want the audience to be touched somehow.” —Michael Auer, Grand Rapids Ballet Creative Director
This will be a thought-provoking show that will have you talking for days. Be a part of the discussion and get your tickets today! Call 616.454.4771 x17 and speak to Kelly our box office manager or visit grballet.com/diversity.
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.
Originally posted by Steve Sucato for Cultured.GR 3/6/17.
Grand Rapids Ballet’s Creative Director, Michael Auer, creates theatrical magic behind the scenes.
In preparation for this weekend’s “MOVEMEDIA: World Premieres” performances, the Ballet’s creative director can be found high above the stage hanging projectors—or whatever it takes to help choreographers and dancers realize their visions.
“Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain,” said the Wizard of Oz after being caught for the elaborate stagecraft he presented to Dorothy and her compatriots in the 1939 movie classic of the same name. It’s a desire for anonymity Grand Rapids Ballet (GRB) creative director Michael Auer, the organization’s own multi talented and multifaceted wizard, can identify with as well. When it comes to helping others find the courage, heart and smarts in their creative endeavors for the 46-year-old ballet organization, Auer stays behind the scenes.
Born in Vienna, Austria, Auer studied ballet at the Vienna State Opera Ballet and then at New York’s School of American Ballet. He went on to a professional dance career with North Carolina Dance Theatre, Eliot Feld Ballet, Frankfurt Ballet and at Pacific Northwest Ballet. With was there that he met wife Patricia Barker, a prima ballerina with the company. They’ve now been together for 33 years.
After his career as a dancer, Auer’s second career was as a self-taught computer software engineer. He has worked at Microsoft, Boeing, Carnegie Mellon and others—creating software, developing early virtual reality technology, and doing market research.
That diverse skill set has served him—and GRB—well since Barker took over as artistic director in 2010. The 62-year-old Auer is not only Barker’s right-hand man, artistic advisor, confidant, and sounding board. He also plays the role of website developer, IT guy, and technical liaison between guest choreographers and GRB’s production staff.
Instead of assuming the job title of “artistic associate,” standard at most ballet companies, Auer says he bestowed upon himself the title of creative director, a title he was used to at many of the tech companies he worked for in the past. Because, along with the aforementioned duties, he takes on rehearsing and coaching roles for the company’s dancers and teaching class, the position of creative director is more fitting to the broad scope of his responsibilities.
Perhaps his biggest duty is acting as a creative conduit between guest choreographers/répétiteurs and the capabilities of GRB’s 300-seat Peter Martin Wege Theatre.
“Primarily what I do when a choreographer comes in is help facilitate things like the use of music and any audio editing that needs done. [I help with] technical requirements, such as if they are looking to do projections and special effects, and how the stage needs to be arranged,” says Auer.
His efforts in those areas are perhaps best seen in GRB’s popular contemporary dance series “MOVEMEDIA.” The series takes the creative talents of some of today’s most sought after choreographers and blends them with visual elements and technology to provide a contemporary performance experience. In past “MOVEMEDIA” productions, Auer has helped choreographers with creating video projections and other special effects, including helping to make the background video of a film strip in choreographer Robyn Mineko Williams’ “One Take” (2014) look vintage, and remixing the music and navigating flashlight logistics for GRB resident choreographer Penny Saunders’ 2015 work for the company, “Slight.” He also came up with 3D stage floor projections of water and moonlight for Mario Radacosky’s 2012 ballet “Black & White: Swan Lake” that the company reprised last month.
Auer says he has a personal agenda to get choreographers to understand that they have an artistic purpose behind their works and that they are not just putting steps together.
“Their piece should say something,” says Auer. “It should speak to those in the audience and possibly raise a dialog in the community.”
For the latest iteration of “MOVEMEDIA,” “World Premieres,” happening March 10–12 at the Peter Martin Wege Theatre, Auer worked with Saunders again on her new ballet, “In Frame.”
“My goal with the work was to create an environment that connects the universal realities of love, life and death, creation and destruction, to the beauty and vulnerability of the creative process,” said Saunders.
Set to several tracks from Max Richter’s reworked version of Antonio Vivaldi’s “The Four Seasons,” Saunders says she enlisted Auer to help project images of ink and watercolor paintings by artist Alice Klock during her piece.
“The only reason I took on an endeavor like this is because I know that Michael Auer will figure out a way for all of this to come together,” says Saunders. “I have seen him in action enough times now to know that I can count on his brain to help me make it all work.”
Auer also had a hand in synchronizing video projections to the music used in Robert Dekkers and Vanessa Theissen’s new work for the program, “Dear Light Along the Way to Nothingness.” Titled after an excerpt James Merrill’s poem “Log,” the 26-minute ballet for 21 dancers is set to Caroline Shaw’s 2013 Pulitzer Prize-winning composition, “Partita for Eight Voices.”
“This work was inspired by the dancers, my collaborators (Vanessa and costume designer Christian Squires), and the present environment in which we live,” says Dekkers.
Rounding out what Auer refers to as “probably the biggest ‘MOVEMEDIA’ we’ve ever done” will be award-winning choreographer Robyn Mineko Williams’ latest for the company.
There are certainly advantages for a ballet company in having their own theater space, like not having to pay to rent another theater space, having 24/7 access to it for rehearsals, and allowing for experimentation by choreographers and technical staff. But perhaps the theater’s most unique advantage is the way the stage is raked, with an incline from the front edge of the stage to the back. This allows for everyone in the audience to see the stage floor, making the use of floor projections that one might otherwise only see as an audience member in other theaters seated in the balcony. Auer says while the Peter Martin Wege theater has those advantage,s it also has its limitations. One of the biggest is the inability to fully “fly” in and out stage curtains, drops, and scenic elements such as at other venues they use like DeVos Performance Hall where the company performs its annual The Nutcracker production. Other limitations include the lack of an orchestra pit and having only a 10-foot loading dock door that prohibits bringing in large set pieces.
In addition to helping choreographers explore the capabilities of what they can technically do with their works, Auer also helps GRB’s dancers explore what they can do with their art.
As mentioned, Auer teaches and coaches the dancers but particularly enjoys rehearsing and “cleaning” dance works.
“I do like going in when the dancers know their steps and we can start getting people in line,” says Auer. “I help the dancers add quality, dynamics, intent, and purpose to their dancing.”
When he is not working his magic behind the scenes at GRB, Auer says he likes to cook.
“Having places like Fish Lads of Grand Rapids and Trader Joe’s has elevated our cooking at home,” he says. As for Barker’s culinary skills, he jokingly says “I keep Patricia [Barker] far, far away from the cooktop.”
She doesn’t deny it.
“I think [the kitchen] is a wasted room in the house,” Barker confesses.
The Seattle transplants bought a house in Heritage Hill that they share with their 23-year-old pet cat Mathilda and are settling into life in Grand Rapids.
“There has been a tremendous growth in the city for the better since we arrived with an influx of new people, new buildings, new restaurants and more,” says Auer.
But for now, the pair’s attentions are focused on the upcoming “MOVEMEDIA” production. There’s plenty of magic yet to be made Barker, her dancers, and though the audience may not realize it, by man behind the curtain, Michael Auer.
Choreography is one of the most important ways to tell the story and communicate emotion in any ballet production. In 2014, Grand Rapids Ballet is reimagined The Nutcracker with the creative dream team of children’s book illustrator/author Chris Van Allsburg (The Polar Express, Jumanji) and Tony Award winning set designer Eugene Lee (Wicked, Sweeney Todd) for set and production design, and Val Caniparoli for choreography. Grand Rapids Ballet’s newest version of The Nutcracker is a unique production for West Michigan, which stays true to the original story. Grand Rapids Ballet chose Val Caniparoli of the San Francisco Ballet, who is known for his innovative choreography, to choreograph and create a new Nutcracker voice.
His Background Val Caniparoli, a longtime choreographer since 1982, is one of America’s most sought after choreographers. He has contributed to the repertoires of more than 45 dance companies and won many awards. He has been with the San Francisco Ballet for over 40 years, where he is a principal character dancer. Caniparoli is known for his innovative choreography and his versatility. His body of work is based in classical ballet, but his choreography is also influenced by many other types of movement, ranging from modern dance and ethnic dance to social dancing and ice skating. His diverse body of work has led to him being one of the world’s most highly sought after American choreographers.
Original Van Allsburg illustration of the “Street Scene” backdrop
Caniparoli believes in collaborating with the entire creative team on a ballet production. He also isn’t afraid to change a successful ballet if he comes up with a promising new idea while working on a production. Caniparoli shares some of his creative process: “I rarely think of steps. I’m inspired to create by being in the room with the dancers and with the music. I’m one that collaborates right away with everyone that’s involved in the project. I don’t wait for the designers to come in. They are in the studio from day one. They are affected by the rehearsals. Sometimes I’m affected by a design, and it gives me a great idea. It all intertwines with me.” He feels that collaborating with the dancers is important to creating choreography. “In many ways, the dancers take ownership of the ballet and give it a better quality product because of it. Everyone is involved and takes great pride in what they accomplished,” says Caniparoli.
Original costume sketches by Patricia Barker
Reimagining The Nutcracker
Grand Rapids Ballet’s Artistic Director Patricia Barker has worked with the creative team of Van Allsburg, Lee, and Caniparoli to create a new Nutcracker that is unique to West Michigan, while still honoring the traditional storyline. The choreography plays a key role in bringing the production together for this vision. Caniparoli choreographs from the perspective of both a dancer and choreographer. He comments, “I’ve been dancing the San Francisco Ballet version of The Nutcracker for over 40 years, and I’m still dancing it. I’m heavily influenced by three different choreographers within those 43 years: Lew Christensen, William Christensen, and Helgi Tomasson. I’m influenced heavily by Lew Christensen’s version of The Nutcracker. The Christensen brothers brought the first version of Nutcracker to North America, at the San Francisco Ballet. I’m highly influenced by their background, which was classical ballet and vaudeville. I was coached by Lew Christensen. There is this great picture of him coaching me as Drosselmeier during Nutcracker rehearsal, and I distinctly remember how he taught me and what he wanted me to do. So that is ingrained in my head for how I want this Drosselmeier to be. It’s my interpretation of how he taught me, so it is kind of cool how things are handed down.”
Caniparoli believes The Nutcracker is the hardest and most important ballet for a choreographer. He says, “The challenge is telling the story, and connecting everything, and making everything mean something to the audience. You want adults and children to love it and come back every year. The big challenge is also the importance of the work. It’s got to last, at minimum 10 years. It’s the hardest ballet for any choreographer because of audience expectations, and working with both children as well as company dancers.”
Reimagining The Nutcracker is not new to Caniparoli. “This is my third version of The Nutcracker, and each version is different. I love recreating it and rethinking it, and trying to find different ways of making that music work for me as well as the audience. It is like a different viewpoint of it. I love that challenge,” says Caniparoli. Caniparoli’s shares his hopes for audience reaction: “I want this Nutcracker to be fun for everybody and have a sense of humor as well as magic. I want the audience to have fun and to take their children, and watch their wonderment as they see it for the first time. I want them to see it through their children’s eyes.”
Val Caniparoli’s versatile choreography style and his Nutcracker history and training, make him an ideal voice for bringing Grand Rapids Ballet’s newest Nutcracker vision to life.