Ballet Across America II
by Carmel Morgan
June 17, 2010 -- The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, Opera House, Washington, DC
Program B of the Kennedy Center’s second installment of Ballet Across America featured Ballet Memphis, Ballet Arizona, and Pacific Northwest Ballet. I should confess at the outset that I am a former Memphian. Therefore, I was especially proud that Ballet Memphis received an invitation to perform this year, and that they rocked in their performance. Ballet Memphis has a number of treasures on its hands. Its Artistic Director, Dorothy Gunther Pugh, who founded the company in 1986, is a business-savvy entrepreneur who, against all odds (Pugh admitted she’s “pigheaded”), built a world-class ballet company and a strong dance audience in a place where you’d be more likely to expect fans of soul, blues, and rock-n-roll (and BBQ). The works of Trey McIntyre, who served as Resident Choreographer for Ballet Memphis for eight seasons, are another of the company’s treasures. Pugh and McIntyre combined forces to make ballets relevant to life in Memphis. One such ballet is McIntyre’s 2007 “In Dreams,” which honors Memphis’ music heritage. “In Dreams” dives headlong into heartache through the songs of Memphis-based Sun Studios recording artist Roy Orbison.
At the Kennedy Center, where the musical offerings tend to be mainly classical and so do the ballet companies brought to the esteemed venue, Ballet Memphis’ “In Dreams” captured the attention of an audience eager to see and hear something different. The five dancers in the work – Stephanie Mei Hom, Steven McMahon, Julie Niekrasz, Jonathan Powell, and Jane Rehm – poured themselves into their roles. They all wore country-inspired black costumes designed by Bruce Bui, while the lighting design, by Nicolas Phillips and Jack Mehler, showed off a scalloped, lacy decoration on the black scrim behind. The stage remained fairly dark, and the skin of the dancers had a dreamy, yellowish glow.
“In Dreams” is a mature piece that explores memory and sadness. Plenty of steps sizzled, but what one felt above all else was longing. There’s a certain McIntyre style of expression that calls for a tragic face with a shattering stare. Looking at Rehm, you’d swear the pain of Orbison’s songs traveled right though her and froze in her eyes. In a solo, Rehm seemed like a moth drawn to light, fierce and magical. When she shrank to the floor or raised her arms up in a kind of surrender, you couldn’t help but deeply feel the music’s grief. For me, the somewhat hollow sound of the recording only heightened the anguish. As Pugh pointed out in a post-performance discussion, she couldn’t have live music in this case because Orbison is dead!
Ballet Arizona’s “Diversions,” choreographed this year by Artistic Director Ib Andersen to Benjamin Britten’s “Diversions for Piano (Left Hand) and Orchestra, Op. 2” (performed by special guest pianist William Wolfram), also received a warm welcome. The lighting design by Michael Korsch conveyed a dreamlike feeling, as in the preceding piece. Here, however, the greenish fog and amber haze provided something to move through, like wood nymphs in a forest setting. The work’s twenty dancers wore mossy brownish green costumes designed by Fabio Toblini. Legs clearly got the emphasis in both the costumes and the choreography. The women’s outfits had little ruffles at the hips, while the men wore vests and had tights with a design at the thigh. Men vaulted women into a striking lift where the ladies’ legs swung into a pretty sideways “V.” Surprises included somersaults and tight embraces. The dancers moved and flowed with the dramatic music as an ensemble. It’s a credit to Andersen’s artistic direction that they achieved such amazing uniformity.
Pacific Northwest Ballet had the final slot on the “B” Program. They performed a 2008 Benjamin Millepied work, “3 Movements,” that is accompanied by music by Steve Reich. Like “Diversions,” this work involved live music and a large number of dancers – in this case, 16. The dancers wore costumes in shades of black, white, and gray designed by Isabella Boylston, who was assisted by Larae Theige Hascall. The men looked business casual in dress shirts and pants, while the women looked innocently and simply dressed, too, as if for a school dance. The set, designed by Millepied, consisted of a striped curtain in black and whitish gray. “3 Movements” delivered intensity. As the music pulsed, like the flicker of a heartbeat, the dancers moved up and down in waves, constantly twisting, turning, and changing direction. Jazzy, almost Broadway-ish movement burst forth. To cacophonous clanging and insistent shrieks, dancers skipped and later formed a sort of chorus line, legs flying high and then crossing other legs.