theatre/dance

Oct. 15, 2004

 

Fall Performance: A choreographic contrast
By David Ollington

The generosity of the dancers makes the Kansas City Ballet great. Its Fall Performance, Oct. 7-10 at the Lyric Theatre, consisted of three starkly contrasting works of choreography, all danced with heart and impeccably drilled, musical precision.

Marius Petipa, the genius of the 19th century Russian ballet, originally choreographed the opening dance, ³Paquita.² Beneath three chandeliers, an ensemble of ten women and two men executed a traditional, conventional amalgamation of movement from the classical vocabulary.

Fall performance

Keelan Whitmore, Matthew Donnell, Stayce Camparo, Paris Wilcox and Juan Pablo Trujillo in Jerome Robbins' The Concert. (photo by Steve Wilson)


Petipa stayed within guidelines that reflected to the Russian royalty, a comforting reflection of their aristocratic ideals. He had the dancers treat each other and the audience with deference and respect. He used balletic movement to express a clear hierarchy: principal, soloist and ensemble. The archaic aesthetic framed the effortless feats of the dancers, in this case, skilled artisans. Truly, the company brought life and lyricism to choreography that would have felt stiff and stilted at less accomplished hands.

“Paquita,” like the field of dance in our culture, is a world composed predominantly of women. Groups of women execute precise, lush and allegro movement, filling the stage, jumping, turning and gesturing with alacrity. Then the man, Juan Pablo Trujillo, made his entrance. Suddenly, the tempo of the dancing came almost to a halt as the female ensemble slowly and deliberately danced in geometric formations that framed the partnering work of Trujillo and Kimberly Cowen. The abrupt transition, the abundant presence of the female gender with only one man onstage, and Trujillo’s royal presence, gave almost a political weight to the newly arrived male dancer.

Cowen, as always, incited enthusiastic applause with brilliant dancing. Her balances, especially in a dance with so much density of motion, floated with an airy grace. The hallmark of a great ballerina is the ability to execute 32 foutteé turns, a turning series on one leg with the other gesturing front and side to create the momentum for each turn. Cowen met this challenge (center stage, framed by a symmetrical formation of the corps de ballet, in a conventional tableau) to the awesome delight of the viewers.

“Paquita” included also several women’s solos. Stefani Schrimpf, Lisa Thorn, Lisa Choules and Rachel Coats all performed these exquisitely — clean lines, expressive hands and shining technique. Schrimpf, in particular, used coy glances to the audience to complete her solo; she danced with enough presence to fill an auditorium twice as large.

“Stepping Stones” followed “Paquita.” Choreographer Kathryn Posin first choreographed this more abstract, less presentational work in 1993. The program notes explained the symbolism Posin used to conceptualize this piece, what the six platforms onstage meant, what the varied shades of the costumes meant, and what the various groups of dancers depicted.

How sad that we relied on a program to assist us with understanding a work. Could Posin have choreographed a work that stands on its own?

The dancers realized Posin’s piece with their usual professionalism, but the dance itself lacked cohesion, and 20 pages of program notes failed to remedy this. The movement choices became predictable. For example, a series of platforms lined the stage. Six couples, men and women, danced on each platform. One couple did a movement, the next followed, until the final couple does — you guessed it —the same movement.

Would she have created more texture with at least a subtle variance between the couples? Or to have the last couple surprise us with a different choice?

Despite athletic execution and some stunning visuals (thanks in part to Amy Taylor’s lighting), “Stepping Stones” resorted too often to rudimentary choreographic habits.

In 1956, Jerome Robbins, staged “The Concert (Or, The Perils of Everybody)” for the New York City Ballet. Witty, original and refreshing this dance served as the finale to the Fall Performance.

Robbins made his mark on the ballet world by bringing a distinctly American voice to dance. In contrast to the dominant content of ballet in the early 20th Century, princes and queens dancing European folk tales, Robbins created his first major work, “Fancy Free,” about three sailors on leave in 1940’s New York City. This dance served later as the inspiration for the Broadway musical “On the Town,” the only dance in history to later become a musical play. Though he spent most of his life in the field of classical ballet, Robbins took a side road onto the Broadway stage, as director and creator as such masterpieces as “West Side Story” and “Fiddler on the Roof.”

Robbins, despite genius and success, led a life of conflict. Dance With Demons, the 2001 biography by Greg Lawrence, details a cruel temper, a tormented bisexuality and difficulty Robbins had dealing with his Judaism. During the Cold War, Robbins testified before The House Un-American Activities Committee, a congressional effort to purge from show business suspected Communists.

“The Concert” parodied vanity, decorum, convention and society, as if Robbins found an acceptable, a 1950’s venue with which to express feelings about the world in which he in many ways didn’t fit. A pianist (Dan Velicer) played Chopin on a grand piano. Concertgoers wearing tights and various accoutrements delineating characterization (hats, glasses, jackets) entered with folding chairs and embarked on a demented, competitive game of musical chairs. Men lifted and transported women like furniture. A charming, women’s sextet ensued with one ballerina always out of sync but beautifully timed. A woman chose a hat to wear each one gaudy and flamboyant.

Robbins used slapstick to incite humor: A ballerina got hit on the head with a bat; a man (Francis Veyette) plotted and attempted to execute the murder of his wife by knife. Though hilarious, the recurrent themes of bitter resentment, non-conformity and awkward mistake divulged an underlying darkness from the corners of Robbins’ mind.

The performers danced every step well and proved as adept at vaudevillian humor as they are with classical ballet.

The three dances of the evening provided an amazing variety. Each dance had a different mood, feel and period. William Whitener, Kansas City Ballet artistic director, shrewdly chose three dances from very different times of dance history: “Paquita” (1881), “The Concert” (1956) and “Stepping Stones” (1993).

Putting “Paquita” in the program before “The Concert” helped the audience appreciate much of Robbins’ humor, as Robbins poked fun at ballet conventions.

The Kansas City Ballet’s next performance will be The Nutcracker at the Midland Theatre, Dec. 3 through Dec. 24. Call 816-931-2232 X375 or visit www.kcballet.org.

David Ollington is a Kansas City-based writer and teaches at Kansas State University in Manhattan. He can be contacted at Ollington@aol.com or publisher_editEKC@kcactive.com.

 


              
              
                 

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