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to Section One | to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, October 23, 2015 - Volume 43 Issue 43
Grand Rapids Ballet was pure delight!
Arts & Entertainment
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Grand Rapids Ballet was pure delight!

by Sharon Cumberland - SGN A&E Writer

GRAND RAPIDS BALLET
'MOVEMEDIA'
CORNISH PLAYHOUSE
AT SEATTLE CENTER
October 10


Everyone who was at Cornish Playhouse for Grand Rapids Ballet's 'MOVEMEDIA' was in for a treat - four treats, in fact, since one dance was as delightful and interesting as the other. The program was performed by a troupe of young dancers whose precision, energy, and humor was an ever-increasing pleasure throughout the evening.

I think I should have known that the Grand Rapids Ballet was coming to Seattle, but I had never heard of the group before. I didn't learn about it until I attended a lecture at Pacific Northwest Ballet at which PNB Artistic Director Peter Boal interviewed former PNB principal dancer Patricia Barker who was in town to help him stage the revival of Balanchine's 'Prodigal Son.' She had danced the role of the Siren at PNB and Peter Boal had danced the role of the Son at the New York City Ballet, so they were able to re-stage Balanchine's iconic work on a new generation of dancers. If you were lucky enough to see the recent PNB program, 'See the Music,' you know how successfully they did their work.

Well, it turns out that Patricia Barker's life after retiring from PNB is being the Artistic Director of the Grand Rapids Ballet, a job she's had since 2010. By all accounts she's doing a fabulous job in bringing new life and professionalism to that company by commissioning new works for them and directing their ballet school. They performed two programs at the Cornish Playhouse (formerly Intiman): 'A Midsummer Night's Dream' (2014) choreographed by another PNB alum, Olivier Wevers, and 'MOVEMEDIA,' a collection of four new and innovative dances that show off the sharp, expressive skills of Grand Rapids Ballet's young troupe.

I'm very sad not to have seen 'A Midsummer Night's Dream' - especially since I admire the work of Olivier Wevers and remember Patricia Barker so well in one of her signature roles as Titania in Balanchine's version of that great Shakespearean ballet. But I really got a sense of the flexibility and range of the Grand Rapids Ballet as they performed in 'MOVEMEDIA,' a varied and challenging program of uniform excellence. Though my explorations on You Tube show that the Grand Rapids Ballet perform many classical and new ballets, as their company title indicates, this particular program was an exploration in modern dance.

'Slight' (2015) - Choreography by Penny Saunders
I last saw a work by this choreographer in Whim W'Him's program 'Threefold,' which included her 'Soir Bleu,' a work based upon an Edward Hopper painting. This new work, commissioned for Grand Rapids Ballet, is considerably more abstract but equally expert in moving dancers across the stage in complex patterns. The program notes tell us that 'Slight' is an exploration of light and shadow - a clear element in the creation of effects. But I was more interested in Saunders clever use of forces, as they moved on and off the stage in surprising developments to dramatic string music. My favorite sequence was when a bar of lights dropped down from the fly to about three feet from the floor. Four couples then sat down in the dark with only their arms in the light, performing a very clear, very witty line dance with their hands, fingers, and elbows. At one point the girls rolled over onto the boys so that the configurations merged into four-armed conversations.

As I sit in dark auditoriums writing in my notebook, I sometimes can't read my own blind scrawls, but on this dance my writing is clear: in big block letters - I LOVE IT!

'Beethoven Excerpt' (2015) - Choreography by Mario Radakovsky
I also loved this 'orchestra' of twenty-one dancers in swallowtail coats sitting in orchestral sections, acting out the opening section of Beethoven's familiar 5th Symphony. While some of the gestures were the same ones that you and I would make to indicate a violin, a clarinet, or a drum, the dance gestures not only imitated instruments, but demonstrated dynamics and tempo with dancers leaping onto their chairs, leaning back in their chairs and throwing their feet into the air, and even brandishing their chairs above their heads. To see a fugal passage flow across the stage with groups of dancers performing the same musical gestures like a tidal wave is to see the music embodied in a third dimension. This brilliant dance is not only funny, frantic, and dramatic - it is a moving exploration of Beethoven's passionate music.

'The Envelope' (1984) - Choreography by David Parsons
In this clever, somewhat Kafkaesque dance, an envelope - presumably containing an unwanted message - is passed hand-to-hand by a group of odd characters the program identifies as spies, Ditz, First Death and King - but they all look like members of a modernist version of the Ministry of Silly Walks. They pass the letter around in a kaleidoscopic array of patterns to the comical strains of Rossini and to the peals of laughter coming from the audience, until the letter is finally flung off stage - only to be flung back again by an unseen, godlike hand that keeps these busy cogs turning in their bureaucratic wheel ad infinitum. It was a humorous commentary on the twentieth century that we in the digital age can laugh at, forgetting for the moment that we are in service to the many electronic devices the envelope represents.

'Written & Forgotten' (2014) - Choreography by Annabelle Lopez Ochoa
This work was commissioned for the Grand Rapids Ballet who perform it with the commitment of dancers who have had an internationally famous choreographer build an original work on their bodies. On a white stage androgynous dancers enter with red balloons balanced on different parts of their anatomies in a circus-like evocation of childhood. The dreamy sequences range from a slow-moving dancer creeping across stage in an inverted V with a balloon attached to her rear that appears to be holding her up, to a racy boy in red undies who leads the finale to Leonard Cohen's 'Dance me to the end of love' (though Cohen is not credited in the program). 'Written & Forgotten' is a joyful and exuberant reminder of the spontaneity of youth we've forgotten - represented by a conservatively dressed central figure who is confused and somewhat alarmed by the gang of dancers in red undies who jiggle, jump, and cavort with balloons, red clown noses, and uninhibited relish in one another. Like him, we finally embrace the jolly passion of the racy boy who moves his gorgeous rear end in multitudinous directions while forming a beating heart with his fingers over his chest. We want to throw him kisses, or jump up and dance ourselves. The Grand Rapids Ballet's delightful embodiment of Ochoa's choreography somehow convinces us that we, too, have red undies on underneath.

Many thanks to Patricia Barker and the Grand Rapids Ballet for bringing their terrific troupe to Seattle. Come back soon and often!

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