Ballet Across America continues at the Kennedy Center with a second three-company program (repeats twice on June 19) which offers a fascinating contrast to the first program earlier this week.
Program 2 opens with Ballet Memphis performing In Dreams, by Trey McIntyre, set to songs (recorded music was used for this piece) by Roy Orbison. The late great Orbison, known for his madly, passionately, sentimental voice and lyrics, recorded some of his greatest work at Sun Records in Memphis, so in its way, In Dreams glorifies a local music in much the same way that NC Dance Theatre’s Shindig does. Interestingly, Memphis ranks 19th in the list of US cities above 100,000 population, as compared to Charlotte’s 18th position.
From this one example, Ballet Memphis does not fare very well compared to NCDT. In Dreams is a ballet, with the women on pointe, but it is oddly unballetic, and even more oddly passionless. These dreams don’t float; the five dancers rarely defy gravity, moving in the heavy, stiff-armed manner of modern dancers drawn to earth rather than sky, as McIntyre works the downbeat and the bass lines, rather than the soaring elastic voice of the songs. There is quite a bit of pointless running around the stage as a time-filler, punctuated by rather ugly wide-legged stances ungraced by balletic turn-out. This all occurs in lighting (Nicholas Phillips and Jack Mehler) that is probably meant to look dim and smoky, but is merely obscure. The costumes (Bruce Bui) are equally dark. They seemed drab, but that may have been because they couldn’t really be seen. Just to make sure no emotional crescendo was reached, McIntyre inserted a bit of interview material with Orbison between the final two songs. Of the choreographic segments, the pas de deux showed the greatest inventiveness. The duet to “The Crowd” was the high point of the dance.
Disappointment was banished by Ballet Arizona, which performed a very beautiful new work by company artistic director Ib Anderson. Ballet Arizona is located in Phoenix, number 5 on our list of large cities, right behind Houston. The size of the company reflects this. Twenty dancers filled the large stage for Diversions, which is set to Benjamin Britten’s Diversions for Piano (Left-Hand) and Orchestra, Op. 2. Conducted in the pit by Timothy Russell, this rich, patterned, emotional music was played by the Kennedy Center House Orchestra, with guest pianist William Wolfram. The lighting (Michael Korsch), while neither bright nor harsh, illuminated the dancers and followed the emotional progress of the music, as well as showing off the rich fabrics of the women’s tutus and the men’s vests above their sleek, tights-clad legs (costumes by Favio Toblini).
Some artistic directors choose a physically diverse company of dancers; others prefer a more uniform look for the bodies they move through space. Anderson is of the latter sort. His dancers are on the tall side, and all sleek and powerful, unusually open and strong in the torso, with strong turn-out and crisp grace. (In this work, the costuming is also uniform in color, shape and style, with difference but not contrast between men and women.) Anderson utilizes what are clearly signature moves to carve some gorgeous images in the air. One involves a lunge onto the leading leg by the ballerina, a lunge onto the arched foot on pointe that takes the knee far beyond the weight-bearing point. The leg is sideways to the viewer, so we see a series of lines as assured as any drawn by Matisse: the underside of the thigh, the calf, the arch of the foot link to form a momentary curvaceous architecture that ravishes the mind every time. (Choreographer Alonzo King uses this step, too, in his powerful ballets.) Interestingly, this is a move that NCDT dancer Traci Gilchrest excels at — and she spent time earlier in her career at Ballet Arizona.
I found the entire dance thrilling, but was literally on the edge of my seat when nine men took the stage for the kind of large dance usually done only by the women. But here, although it was graceful, it wasn’t sweet or pretty or delicate, but sent out wave after wave of purely male energy. Balanchine famously said that “ballet is woman,” but the contemporary companies that interest me more are the ones that might say, “ballet is human” and give the men plenty to do other than provide support and background to the ballerinas. NC Dance Theatre is able to do this to a degree, but Ballet Arizona, with its much larger company, shows what this philosophy can produce on stage.
The evening closes with the Pacific Northwest Ballet from Seattle, WA (city No. 25, as compared to Washington, DC, No. 27), which demonstrated exactly why the company is so highly regarded. The cast list shows there were 16 dancers; I would have guessed twice that number, they moved so fast and furiously through Benjamin Millepied’s 3 Movements, set to Steve Reich’s 1986 Three Movements for Orchestra. The Kennedy Center House Orchestra, under Allan Dameron, did justice to this exercise in escalating complexity, and Isabella Boynton’s costuming reinforced its structural nature. Men wore pants, shirts and ties; the women simple short dresses or skirts and tops. Colors ranged from black through grays to white on both, while all the men’s shoes were black and the women’s white. As they flashed and surged and cycled (with some foxy tango moves worked in) through Reich’s rhythms, they made the music comprehensible and beautiful to me in a way I had not previously experienced. Those black and white feet hitting the stage like a sixteen-part instrument gave the feeling that the dancers were making the music; wonderful. But how do you end a dance to Steve Reich music, which doesn’t come to a conclusion so much as simply stop? Here, Millepied has all the dancers pivot simultaneously to the back curtain and race through it, leaving it billowing behind them like a resonant chord, the last foot disappearing just as darkness falls.