RICHMOND BALLET STUDIO ONE: GRACE IN THE RIVER CITY
A Dance Review by Julinda D. Lewis
At: The Richmond Ballet Studio Theatre, 407 E. Canal St., RVA 23219
Performances: November 5-10, 2019
Ticket Prices: $26-$46
Info: (804) 344-0906 x224 or etix.com
chiar·oscu·ro | \kē-ˌär-ə–ˈskyu̇r-(ˌ)ō\
- pictorial representation in terms of light and shade without regard to color
- a: the arrangement or treatment of light and dark parts in a pictorial work of art
b: the interplay or contrast of dissimilar qualities (as of mood or character)
The Richmond Ballet opened its 2019-2020 season (19/20 for short) with the theme “Grace in the River City.” The Studio One program, held at the company’s Canal Street studio, included Artistic Director Stoner Winslett’s “Ancient Airs and Dances” and Ma Cong’s “Chiaroscuro.”
“Ancient Airs and Dances,” set to three suites of 17th and 18th century Italian and French lute songs by Ottorino Respighi, was revived in honor of Winslett’s 40th anniversary with the Richmond Ballet. The work for four couples was Winslett’s first work for the professional company. Dressed alike, but in different colors (navy, purple, aubergine, wine) the four couples begin with a formal promenade, tracing figures on the floor. At the end of the introductory movement, they toss away their masks and begin to reveal their separate personalities.
First is Ira White and Eri Nishihara (purple). They appear to be the playful couple, moving lightly, teasing and skipping offstage. Next up, Abi Goldstein and Anthony Oates (aubergine) who present themselves as the romantic duo. They are more dramatic, and Goldstein is very strong, demonstrating a freedom of physicality as when she rolls across Oates’ back. When Cody Beaton and Mate Szentes (navy) dance, the woman’s skirt and man’s vest have been shed and the movements seem more contemporary and exploratory, less formal, and finally Melissa Frain and Marty Davis’ (wine) dance seems to be about reconciliation and commitment or longevity as they seem to linger in one another’s presence and movements. In the final section, the four couples gather in a folk dance and each couple briefly reprises their duet before ending in a rotating figure like a carousel, with the women held aloft, parts of a whole.
During her tenure at Richmond Ballet, Winslett has commissioned more than 75 works, by more than 35 choreographers (facts she revealed during her Tuesday evening Choreographer’s Club curtain talk). For Studio One, she brought back Ma Cong for his fifth new work in ten years.
“Chiaroscuro” is a collaborative work, with choreography by Ma Cong, Music by Ezio Bosso, costumes and set by Emma Kingsbury, lighting by Trod Burns, and photography by Sara Ferguson. The nine dancers – 4 women and 5 men – move through Bosso’s music illuminated by Burns’ lighting with Ferguson’s larger-than-life black and white images of themselves projected onto Kingsbury’s set. It might be a rock, or a cliff, but wait – what is that long, thin thing sticking up out of middle of it? “Nothing’s perfect,” was Kingsbury’s enigmatic response when questioned about it.
Images change subtly; where there were hands there is now a face; where there was a face, there are now two, no three! The costumes, in shades of black and gray, echo the chiaroscuro effect – the contrast of light and dark, the constantly shifting light and the movement of human sculptures. Hmmm, a Chinese choreographer; an Italian composer; an Australian designer; an American ballet company – was this, too, part of Cong’s vision, or was it serendipity?
The cast – Cody Beaton, Elena Bello, Melissa Frain and Eri Nishihara, Marty Davis, Trevor Davis, Fernando Sabino, Mate Szentes, and Ira White – seemed to enjoy performing this piece as much as the audience enjoyed watching it.
“Chiaroscuro” begins with Fernando Sabino (who has announced his retirement at the end of this season) o the floor. As he rises, his movements are strong, emotive, not all lightness and grade. As the other dancers enter, the women are lifted in swirling arcs, tracing figure eights in the air. When the men arc backwards, they turn their knees inward. This ballet is not technique as usual. A diagonal line turns inward and wraps around like a spiral segment of DNA. Dancers unite and separate. Elena Belo is lifted about a cluster of men and held aloft in a running pose. Three men intertwine, heads popping out and leaping through hoops made of arms like a game of whack-a-mole.
On the screen, a large white rose emerges; but the end of the dance it has wilted. On the stage, a white parasol weaves its way across the stage. I somehow felt the rose and the parasol were connected. Partnering in “Chiaroscuro” is intriguing. In one section the women shed their skirts, becoming de-sexualized. Dancers morph into oddly intriguing positions, finding new ways to connect. One may be held by an ankle, a toe, or back of the knee. Dancers’ arms and legs become hooks from which to suspend bodies and legs and thighs become step stools leading to higher dimensions.
Like previous works by Cong, “Chiaroscuro” encourages the viewer to explore new perspectives of human emotion, as he did with “Lift the Fallen,” a 2014 work in which he deals with the loss of his mother. But “Chiaroscuro” is even more immersive, more compelling. It is a beautiful work that elevates both the dancers and those watching them.
Julinda D. Lewis is a dancer, teacher, and writer who was born in Brooklyn, NY and now lives in Eastern Henrico County.
Photo Credits: Sarah Ferguson
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