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National Choreographers Initiative

by Kathy Lee Scott

July 26, 2008 -- Irvine Barclay Theatre, Irvine, CA

For the past five years, four up-and-coming choreographers vie for a spot in the three-week intensive program, National Choreographers Initiative, held in Irvine, California.

From a field of 25, the four who won spots this year included Edmund Stripe from Alberta Ballet, Amy Seiwert from Smuin Ballet, Emery LeCrone of The New Chamber Ballet and Metropolitan Opera, and Ma Cong from Tulsa Ballet. All four presented their works-in-progress at the July 26 showing, held at the Irvine Barclay Theatre. According to NCI Artistic Director Molly Lynch, the program offers ballet choreographers an opportunity to create dances they may never have done otherwise.  They came with a range of preparation: from none to almost completed works.

Stripe arrived only knowing the music he wanted to use: five pieces by minimalist Marc Mellits. The time constraints prevented him from finishing, so he presented a "Shortened Suite." The first section with dancers, "Trans Fatty Acid's Rein," featured three pairs in squeaky soft shoes. They began performing the modern-style moves in syncopated fashion, which evolved to partnered lifts and supported moves, then returned to groupings based on sex. A few of the dancers seemed uncomfortable with the exaggerated shoulder isolations Stripe asked for, slopping through them.

To "Mara's Lullaby," an adagio for cello, Stripe created a lyrical, flowing pas de deux between Valerie Tellmann and Jason Linsley. Linsley lifted Tellmann onto his shoulder, across his shoulders and around her waist. When he pressed her overhead, she dropped her legs down instead of up in a normal swan formation.

The last section, "Mechanically Separated Chicken Parts," reunited all eight dancers in similar patterns as the first piece. The allegro music prompted quick beats, leaps, jumps and turns. The steps Stripe choreographed followed the piano music almost to the note at times, then departed from the frantic pace. The unison dancing led to comparison among the dancers, and one was a bit ahead of the others. It was overall, a nice piece.

Seiwart selected music by Karl Jenkins for her two-part piece. She had listened to it for a year before the initiative, so she arrived with ideas to try. Most of the dance used the modern lexicon – turned-in legs, flexed feet, sharply angled arms. Seiwart even choreographed sickled ankles for the ladies during a lift.

"SoCal Sketch #2" featured lyrical phrasing and movement that captured the choral and orchestral piece's mood. Jenkins' harmonics are similar to what Danny Elfman uses in his work. Fearful of creating the "same dance over and over," Seiwart experimented with various lifts and moves. The women would leap into the men’s arms from all sorts of directions, and they'd wrap themselves around each other. During the pas de deux between Christian Broomhall and Adrienne Benz, he held her up by her hand, then dropped her. She unwrapped toward the floor as if unwinding from a piece of material.

The shorter "SoCal Sketch #1" featured pointe work but in modern poses. The dancers merged into pairs, then switched partners until all eight had danced with each other at least once.  At one point, the man turned the woman in arabesque but he held her with a supporting arm across her back and clasping her upper arm. He seemed to physically manipulate the woman, even guiding her foot down from relevé to flat. One pair had the woman curl over the man's back, then he slid sideways crablike in plié off stage with her. One woman kneeled on her partner's thighs; others pirouetted with the passé leg around the ankle, like what's seen on the television show, "So You Think You Can Dance."

Before NCI, LeCrone had already created some pas de deux for her music, a blend of Michael Gordon's "Light is Calling," Mendelssohn's "Duet," and David Lang's "Child: V. Little Eye." After teaching all eight dancers the pieces, she selected who would do which pas de deux and rearranged them to fit the music. Again using modern lexicon, LeCrone included multiple lifts, carries, and supported moves interspersed with some group and solo parts.

Several times, she had her women fall limply while held aloft so their arms dangled. Other times, the men rolled the women around their shoulders like props. One intriguing move had the ladies leaping backward toward their partners, who caught them either under the arms, around the waist or by the thighs. According to LeCrone, she asked the dancers to figure out how to jump onto their men but in a different way. One stood in her partner's hand while in passé. Several times, the ladies would wind their way down from a lift like sinuous snakes.

To the Mendelssohn music, the soloist repeatedly put her hand to her mouth as if she was spitting out a tooth. On the floor, the women lay across the men in an X formation before the men rolled from under them. It created an intriguing illusion. During the last musical interlude, one dancer struck her partner at the knee to make him kneel before she sat on him while he kneeled in a fourth position lunge. The entire piece seemed endless, especially with the unmelodious music repeating the same phrase.

Inspired by the "Tom and Jerry" cartoons, Cong created a comedic piece to five selections of French composer Hugues Le Bars' music. Cong's "French Twist" had the dancers follow the tempo of the music with exaggerated movements in the first part. He, too, used turned-in legs, flexed feet and straight or crooked arms.  Cong gave his dancers chairs during the second part. They would stand or sit and even dragged them around.

The men seemed to manipulate the women like puppets until the ladies knocked them down. A waltz tempo led pairs through a canon sequence that had the men pull the women through their legs. Quirky movements followed the music exactly. Cong used universal moves to indicate hilarity (rapidly shaking upheld hands), upset (holding stomachs), and headaches (hands to temples). While enjoyable, the same attitude throughout the five sections lessoned the impact. If Cong had interspersed a few serious movements, the humor would be greater for the contrast.

Despite separate choreographers, the pieces blended into one another. Each used similar moves throughout: carries of ladies in second position with flexed feet, angular arms in high fifth, turned in legs. For a workshop that targets ballet choreographers, it seems the result produced more modern than balletic works. The creators failed to use the dancers' strict schooling in their works to produce attractive pieces. Instead, they countered the dancers' training by using the more relaxed modern dance lexicon. It seems a shame, but, the audience enjoyed the evening.

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