Richmond Ballet Studio Two: The Moor’s Pavane & Figure in the Distance
A Dance Review by Julinda D. Lewis
At: The Richmond Ballet Studio Theatre, 407 E. Canal St., RVA 23219
Performances: March 26-31 @ 6:30pm Tuesday-Saturday; 8:30pm Friday & Saturday; 2:00pm & 4:00pm Sunday
Ticket Prices: Start at $25
Info: (804) 344-0906 x224 or etix.com
On Tuesday night Richmond Ballet’s artistic director, Stoner Winslett, reminisced on the theme “Looking Back, Looking Forward.” As an example of looking back, she gave us Ira White, once a “cute fourth grader” participating in the Minds in Motion outreach program at Mary Munford Elementary School. On Tuesday night, White danced the role of The Moor in José Limόn’s legendary ballet, “The Moor’s Pavane” choreographed in 1949. For looking forward, she brought us the Chicago-based choreographer Tom Mattingly and his new collaborative ballet, “Figure in the Distance,” based on a sketch he presented for the Richmond Ballet’s 2018 New Works Festival. Mattingly choreographed one of his early works for the Richmond Ballet trainees.
Mexican-born José Limόn (1908-1972) remains one of my favorite choreographers of all time, and “The Moor’s Pavane: Variations on the Theme of Othello” is probably his most well-known work. Set to music by Henry Purcell, the stately framework of the pavane – a courtly dance – contains and restrains the passion of the tragedy of Othello. On Tuesday The Moor was danced by Ira White, His Friend/Iago was Trevor Davis, Iago’s Wife was Lauren Archer, and The Moor’s Wife/Desdemona was danced by Sabrina Holland. On alternate programs, the roles are filled by Fernando Sabino, Matthew Frain, Maggie Small, and Cody Beaton. “Follow the hanky,” Winslett advised; that is the secret to uncovering the deception that results in Desdemona’s unfortunate death.
This is one ballet that does not set the women on pedestals. As the quartet moves through the figures of the pavane, they maintain a distant, courtly demeanor, but we see the women grasped tightly by an upper arm, pushed or pulled, and ultimately the Moor’s wife is killed. White and Davis were often at odds, sometimes even combative. Archer and Holland were treated like trophy wives, commodities more than true loves. The rich – and most likely heavy – costumes are constructed after the original design by Pauline Lawrence, with full, layered skirts for the women with puffy, detached sleeves (showing lots of bare shoulder), and princely robes or tunics for the men.
But even with all its historic status, “The Moor’s Pavane” was not the highlight of the evening. Rather, that honor goes to Tom Mattingly’s “Figure in the Distance,” a work inspired by the artwork of Taylor A. Moore – work Mattingly first encountered on Instagram. An even dozen dancers move through a succession of phrases and configurations. Some of the group phrases brought me to the edge of my seat, including a line of dancers that rippled from front to back, and a moment when the men lifted the women straight up in front of them, one by one. I was also intrigued by a couple walking offstage: the woman walking backwards while her partner mirrored her, walking forward. There was just something somewhat frightening or menacing about that, in contrast to another pair of dancers who shared a gentle caress. There was such a range of emotions, all backed by a series of paintings by Taylor A. Moore. First there was a blue painting of what appeared to be a lake with faint figures in the background. Most striking was a red painting with bold strokes that suggested both a forest and figures hidden in the trees. Another had the shape of a cat’s eye, but the slit of the eye could have been the opening to a cave, and a final had only faint brush strokes except on the far right where there was a large. . .limb? But all the bold, unidentifiable brush strokes could be interpreted as figures, hence, “Figure in the Distance.”
Emily Morgan designed the dark red body suits worn by both the men and the women. The fabric was richly yet subtly patterned, with sheer sleeves and back panels so that, at first glance, it seemed one dancer had a tattoo on her shoulder, and then I noticed more shapes and colors. It turns out that Morgan hand painted sections of the fabric to coordinate with the paintings. The work was set to the multi-layered music of Philip Glass: “Violin Concerto No. 1,” “Piano Etude No. 2” and “String Quartet No. 2” (also known as “Company”), and “Primacy of a Number.”
The lighting was designed by Catherine Girardi who has worked as assistant lighting designer for the Ballet’s “Nutcracker” performances. This was her first original design on her own for the Richmond Ballet.
What made this a collaboration more so than many other ballets is the communication that occurred between the artists (choreographer, painter, costumer designer and lighting designer) during the creative process. Mattingly was given three works to work with the company. Mattingly’s impetus was Moore’s paintings and Morgan had to dress the moving bodies in garments whose brush strokes would reflect the paintings at appropriate times, with Girardi’s lighting. All worked together to suggest what Mattingly conceived of as “an idealized version of yourself,” making the audience, in a sense, collaborators after the fact. “Figure in the Distance” is a beautiful work that is highly satisfying on many sensory levels.
Julinda D. Lewis is a dancer, teacher, and writer who was born in Brooklyn, NY and now lives in Eastern Henrico County.
Photo Credits: Photos to follow.