RICHMOND BALLET: Studio Two New Works Festival 2018
An Extended Dance Review by Julinda D. Lewis
At: Richmond Ballet Studio Theatre, 407 E. Canal St. RVA 23219
Performances: March 20-25, 2018
Ticket Prices: $22.50-$42.50
Info: (804) 344-0906 or richmondballet.com
The Richmond Ballet first presented the New Works Festival in 2008 and the 2018 Festival is the sixth program offering new works by guest artists. Each of the four choreographers is given 25 hours to work with the company to set an original 10-minute work or portion of a larger work on the Richmond Ballet. This year, four extremely diverse choreographers created works that stretched the dancers with quirky new movement vocabularies and non-traditional choreography that challenges the audience to look at and think about ballet in new ways.
For Studio Two, four choreographers who have never created for Richmond Ballet were selected, and those who attended the Choreographer’s Club on Tuesday got to meet each of them. In order of their works on the program:
Tom Mattingly (freelance dancer, choreographer; Chicago, IL) was an apprentice with Richmond Ballet at age 17. Mattingly’s new work, Figure in the Distance is an earth-toned work set to music by Philip Glass (“Concerto for Violin and Organ”) against a backdrop of artist Taylor Am Moore’s original work, The Dancer. Deliberately ambiguous, I see it as a dance of opposition or perhaps duality would be a better word choice. There is opposition or duality in the use of the dancers’ arms and legs, in the choreography’s directional choices, and in the dynamics that shift swiftly from quick to sustained or waiting – and even in the dancers’ costumes. The women have long sleeves and short legs, the men have long legs and no sleeves.
There is even a duality in Moore’s painting, which could be figure in the distance or the pen – and energy – that drew it. There is a sense of striving and anticipation reflected in the slow deliberate walks that are graceful yet strong.
In the post-show talk, Mattingly indicated he likes a vague story line that doesn’t hit the audience over the head, but I suspect the work may be a bit autobiographical as well – a bit of a reflection of his ongoing transition from dancer to choreographer. He may be getting closer to seeing who that “figure in the distance” really is.
Bradley Shelver (born in South Africa; principal dancer with the Metropolitan Opera Ballet, NY) presented 2 Rooms, a work that depicts compartmentalized moments on segmented worlds. The first of two very quirky works on the program, 2 Rooms gives the audience options. There are alternative points of focus, provided by a set of moveable red panels that separate the space and the dancers. Dancers appear on either side of the panels, between the panels, and move around the panels. We see their feet moving below them, and they sometimes peak over the top.
Two memorable shapes are a wide-legged crab scrabble the dancers use to travel side-to-side and a waiting crouch that verges on a parody of a horror movie posture. There are also sudden falls and rolls, percussive gestures, tickling, an overly long kiss, and frantic shaking motions. There was one fall that appeared unplanned, when Elena Bello jumped onto her partner Matthew Frain, and an odd and awkward pause in the music that may or may not have been intentional. Nothing about 2 Rooms is predictable or ordinary.
Music is a big deal for Shelver, and 2 Rooms plays freely with the juxtaposition of “Ciaconna” (The Hilliard Ensemble, mixed with fragments of J.S. Bach) and “Adagio in G Minor” (R. Glazotto; Helmut Müller-Brühl/Cologne Chamber Orchestra) that complements the nuances of his quirky and fast-paced choreography. As much as I loved the quirkiness as a technique and an exercise, however, it did dominate the work, making the choreography seem somewhat unfinished. Given that this work was created in 25 hours, it would be interesting to see if a subsequent performance might have progressed to a different place in this compartmentalized world.
It’s probably just a coincidence that the first half of the program featured male choreographers, and the second half featured female choreographers.
Mariana Oliveira (born in Brazil; Artistic Director of The Union Project Dance Company, Los Angeles, CA) created My Lost Melody around the theme of falling in love, but the title, the predominantly black color palette, and the focus on some of the lesser known songs of Édith Piaf are a big clue that this is not all about the lighter side of love. Oliveira, the only choreographer of the four who said she comes to a new project with the work fully formed – right down to the costumes and lighting – created My Lost Melody on twelve dancers, with flowing permutations of three groups of four that guide the viewers’ eye across the stage.
Control and direction seem important in Oliveira’s work. A duet for Abi Goldstein and mate Szentes (in their fourth and third years with Richmond Ballet, respectively), reminded me of Fred Astaire, but rather than Ginger Rogers, Goldstein’s role was given a humorous twist that completed her phrases with a frivolous fold-over rather than an elegant fanfare. One brief trio (in white) was performed to the sound of rain. The darkest of the four works, My Lost Melody was also the most dramatic, and the one that came closest to telling a story.
Francesca Harper (Artistic Director of The Francesca Harper Project, NY) explored the role of gender and specifically strong women in The World of Sleeping Cats, set to the music of hip hop violinist Daniel Bernard Roumain. The movement is infused with bold walks and, like the work of Shelver, more quirky and breathtakingly unexpected phrases, while the music is infused with bold drum-line beats and electronic sounds that suggest we are in new and uncharted territory.
This work also uses a black color palette, distinguished by hilariously ridiculous wired tutus. Elena Bello’s tutu is the first to come off – where it occupies an unceremonious position in the spotlight, center stage. A work for ten dancers – five couples, The World of Sleeping Cats is nontraditional but grounded in tradition. The dancers wear toe shoes, but the partnering doesn’t follow traditional gender assignments. Harper’s title is intriguing. Sleeping cats make you think of softness, but cats have claws. Sleeping cats may alert and spring into action at a moment’s notice.
One acquaintance who tried to get me to talk about the performance shared that she was excited about this piece because it addresses gender issues. A long-time Richmond Ballet supporter, William (Billy) Hancock (Campaign Director and Major Gifts), shared that the New Works Festival is his favorite Studio production because, to paraphrase his words, where else can you see all this original work in one place?
The choreographers themselves gushed about their experience with Richmond’s dancers, calling them brilliant and easy to collaborate with as well as passionate and dedicated. While the company was excellent overall, special notice is due to dancers Elena Bello and Matthew Frain, Abi Goldstein and Mate Szentes, and Bello with Fernando Sabino who were featured in the new works. Lighting designer MK Stewart and costume designer Emily DeAngelis also earned well-earned kudos. For Artistic Director Stoner Winslett, the New Works Festival is not about competition, but about making The Richmond Ballet a safe place to be open and vulnerable – the best place to create a new ballet.
Keep in mind – these are not polished, full-fledged works. They are not meant to be finished and perfect. That is part of the appeal. All are different and challenging. All bring out the best in the dancers. All are worth seeing and talking about – but you can only do that if you go see them:
Tuesday, March 20th at 6:30pm (Choreographer’s Club) $65-$100
Wednesday, March 21st at 6:30pm
Thursday, March 22nd at 6:30pm
Friday, March 23rd at 6:30pm and 8:30pm (Club 407/Young Professionals) $35*
Saturday, March 24th at 6:30pm and 8:30pm
Sunday, March 25th at 2pm and 4pm
Club 407 For Young Professionals – Richmond Ballet is excited to offer discounted tickets, special events, and more through our new Club 407. Designed for a premiere group of ballet enthusiasts and novices alike under the age of 40, Club 407 provides exclusive experiences for Richmond’s young professionals. We invite you to become more involved with Richmond Ballet by attending performances, networking opportunities, and special behind the scenes access!
Studio Series – Club 407 tickets for our Studio Series shows include a pre-performance happy hour with food and drinks (cash bar) at Wong Gonzalez’s Beauty & Grace Room, a performance in the intimate Richmond Ballet Studio Theatre, and a post-performance beer and wine reception with the dancers.
Julinda D. Lewis is a dancer, teacher, and writer who was born in Brooklyn, NY and now lives in Eastern Henrico County.