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.