TWELFTH NIGHT: Shakespeare on the Back Lawn

A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis

At: Agecroft Hall, 4305 Sulgrave Road, RVA 23221

Performances: July 8 – August 14, 2021

Ticket Prices: $33 ($28 for Seniors, $23 for RVA On Stage, $20 for Students)

Info: (804) 340-0115 or quilltheatre.org

For their first show at Agecroft Hall after “the plague that shall remain nameless” the Quill Theatre chose Shakespeare’s zany romantic comedy, Twelfth Night. The play takes its name from the Twelfth Night as it was created as holiday entertainment marking the Epiphany, or the end of the Christmas season. In addition to the shipwreck, unrequited love, deception, revenge, mistaken identities, cross-dressing, androgyny, and numerous other elements that Shakespeare wrote into the plot, Quill Theatre updated the play with colorful and whimsical costuming (e.g., Feste’s flower child ensemble, Malvolio’s bell bottoms and yellow stockings) and a sound score that featured 1960s pop hits (think the Beatles, the Monkees, and Elvis).

Meerovich, who plays the fool Feste as well as serves as musical director, opens the show with a lively serenade that sets the tone for the evening and Lucretia Marie who plays the minor but nonetheless important role of the sea captain, Antonio, who saves the shipwrecked Sebastian, reads the evening’s announcements. Before you know it, the play has begun, with some major characters popping up from amidst the audience from time to time. The show runs about 2.5 hours, with one intermission, but director Jan Powell established an easy, organic pace that complemented the casual layout, with the audience spread out over the back lawn under a clear sky, accentuated by a lovely sunset, a pastoral setting, and welcome breezes from the nearby river – as well as the occasional passing train.

For those who need a refresher – or an introduction – Twelfth Night recounts the tale of noble-born twins Viola and Sebastian who are shipwrecked off the coast of Illyria, a region of the Balkan Peninsula. The twins are separated, each thinking the other has drowned. Sebastian is rescued by Antonio, a sea captain, and the two remain peripheral for much of the play while Viola, after being saved by an unnamed rescuer, disguises herself as a boy, takes the name Cesario, and becomes a servant to Duke Orsino, who is in love with the fair Olivia, who is mourning her deceased brother. To complicate matters, Viola/Cesario falls in love with Orsino, and Olivia falls in love with Cesario who has come to plead the case of Orsino. While all this is going on, Olivia’s maid Maria, Olivia’s rowdy uncle Toby and his friend Sir Andrew conspire to convince Olivia’s household steward Malvolio that Olivia is in love with him. Feste, a court jester and roving musician, weaves between all the characters, collecting tips and keeping the audience entertained with musical divertissements.

Emily Berry and Mitchell Ashe played the shipwrecked twins, each believing the other had drowned until the final scene. Dressed identically, with Berry disguised as a boy, both become involved in relationships that bend and blend gender boundaries. Berry’s character is in a triangle with Olivia and Orsino while Ashe’s character inadvertently risks breaking the bonds of trust established with the sea captain who helped him at great personal risk. Both ultimately end up in conventional male-female couplings. Berry has a lot more stage time than Ashe, increasing the audience’s anticipation of their ultimate reunion – which drew cheers on Thursday night.

Michael Blackwood and Lucretia Marie, as the benefactors of the twins, provided solid dramatic counterpoint to the constant hilarity delivered by Cole Metz, Levi Meerovich, Foster Solomon, and Kurt Benjamin Smith, much of which was instigated by Erica Hughes’ character. Thanks to their unrelenting and often physical humor, it was easy to keep up with the flow of the action even when the sound system failed us. Sometimes, it seems depending on where the actors were standing, words and lines got lost, and for awhile there was a bit of static coming from some of the speakers. But this was a new configuration for the Richmond Shakespeare Festival, and I trust that these issues will be worked out during the run of the show.

A modest set (no credit given on the PDF version of the digital program I have) consisting of a simple wooden fence with a few green vines and some lovely rainbow colored lighting by BJ Wilkerson provided atmosphere without overwhelming the backdrop – Agecroft Hall, a Tudor mansion that, we were reminded, stood in England while Shakespeare was still alive. The audience saw scattered across the spacious lawn on lawn chairs and blankets, in clusters as close to others as you chose to be. I don’t recall seeing any masks, but you could certainly wear one if you want to. All in all, Twelfth Night delivered a delightful night of theater, and its utter nonsense provided a welcome sense of normalcy.

Twelfth Night

By William Shakespeare

Cast

Viola – Emily Berry

Olivia – Michelle Greensmith

Orsino – Michael Blackwood

Malvolio – Cole Metz

Feste – Levi Meerovich

Toby Belch – Foster Solomon

Andrew Aguecheek – Kurt Benjamin Smith

Maria – Erica Hughes

Sebastian – Mitchell Ashe

Antonio – Lucretia Marie

Direction & Design

Director:  Dr. Jan Powell

Assistant Director: Melissa Rayford

Stage Manager: Nata Moriconi

Technical Director: Ryan Delbridge

Lighting Design: BJ Wilkinson

Costume Design: Anna Bialkowski

Music Direction: Levi Meerovich

Sound Mixing: Todd Schall-Vess

Intimacy Director: Lucinda Piro

Assistant Stage Manager: Lane Woodward

Assistant Stage Manager: Hope Jewell

Julinda D. Lewis is a dancer, teacher, and writer who was born in Brooklyn, NY and now lives in Eastern Henrico County.

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Photo Credits: Dave Parrish Photography & Quill Theatre Facebook page

 

ELLA AND HER FELLA FRANK:

A Match Made in Heaven

A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis

At: The November Theatre Arenstein Stage. 114 West Broad Street, RVA 23220

Performances: July 9 – September 12, 2021 (Preview July 8)

Ticket Prices: $58. Discounted group rates and rush tickets available.

Info: (804) 282-2620 or www.virginiarep.org

The theme for opening night was “Richmond theater is back!” The occasion was festive, with a classic Rolls Royce convertible parked in front of the November Theatre, a ribbon cutting, and after the show, a ceremonial darkening of the lights in honor of the late Randy Strawderman, who first conceived of this heavenly duo.

The word heavenly is not thrown around lightly, as the premise of this show – more a concert than a play or even a musical – is a reunion in heaven of these two real-life friends and musical collaborators. The result is a nostalgic concert of classics and favorites.

Highlights of the evening (not counting being out at a live theater event) included Desirée Roots’ skillful and confident demonstration of Fitzgerald’s signature scatting technique on Duke Ellington’s “It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing) and Scott Wichmann’s nuanced and intimately articulated delivery of “One For My Baby and One More For the Road.” There was even a good-spirited vocal battle set off when Wichmann tried to sing Sinatra’s signature “New York, New York.” Roots threw every city or geographically related song she could think of at him before allowing him the pleasure of completing the song: “I Love Paris,” Girl From Ipanema,” “My Kind of Town (Chicago),” “Georgia on My Mind,” “Tale the A Train,” and more.

Roots is no stranger to the music of Ella Fitzgerald, having written and starred in a 2017 tribute, Ella at 100 (since renamed Forever Ella). Roots was both amusing and elegant, portraying “The First Lady of Song” in three elegant gowns – a blinding gold metallic number, a lime green satin ensemble, and an angelic white finale creation adorned with feathers and glitter – each with matching shoes and a color-coordinated handkerchief. Kudos to Sue Griffin and Keith Walker for the costume design. Wichmann was a natural choice for the popular singer nicknamed “Ol’ Blue Eyes.” Between the two of them, Fitzgerald and Sinatra earned 25 Grammy awards (13 for her and 11 for him), and sold somewhere in the vicinity of 200 million albums.

Seeing these two musical icons portrayed by two familiar theater stars would have been a treat at any time, but it was especially heart-warming as the inaugural show of the great re-opening. Too bad Friday night’s performance was marred by a wonky sound system. Both singer’s voices were under-amplified and at times distorted while singing, and much of their light banter was completely lost. (I understand this was not the case during the previous night’s Preview performance, and I hope it doesn’t affect any other shows.)

A live 7-piece orchestra was placed onstage – socially distanced – in a simple and elegant setting of white balloon-like globes that at times reflected different colored lights. The beautifully subtle lighting was designed by BJ Wilkinson. As at any good concert, the musicians got a chance to solo, and even the Overture (Count Basie’s “One O’Clock Jump) and the Encore (Harold Arlen’s “I’ve Got the World on a Strong”) drew enthusiastic applause. Larri Branch, the Music Director, was also the pianist – who had a single line, a long-drawn out “yep!” in response to questions like, “Are they (meaning us, the audience) real? There was even a bit of audience participation – some planned and some that I think was spontaneous.


Katrinah Carol Lewis’ direction was unobtrusive and organic – except when the two vocalists briefly paced around one another like caged cats. Their initial attempts to hug one another were hilariously rebuffed by an invisible force shield that prevented them from touching – another nod to COVID-19 conventions, yet highly unlikely to happen in heaven.

Written by Richmond-based playwright Bo Wilson and featuring nearly 30 songs, Ella and Her Fella Frank runs about 80 minutes, with no intermission. In accordance with Actors’ Equity Association COVID-19 Guidelines, face masks are required to be worn by all patrons while in the building and no food or drinks are being served at this time.

In honor of Randy Strawderman, who conceived of the original concept of this show, a moving tribute was held after the show, with Debra Wagoner singing from the balcony above the theater’s restored original entrance and a ceremonial darkening of the theater lights. A detailed tribute is available in the digital program – another COVID-19 theater convention that is likely to be around for awhile.

Ella and Her Fella Frank

by Bo Wilson

Based on an original concept by Randy Strawderman

Cast

Desirée Roots as Ella Fitzgerald

Scott Wichmann as Frank Sinatra

Direction & Design

Direction: Katrinah Carol Lewis

Scenic Design: Josafath Reynoso

Costume Design: Sue Griffin and Keith Walker

Lighting Design: BJ Wilkinson

Music Direction Larri Branch

Stage Management: Jocelyn A. Thompson

Julinda D. Lewis is a dancer, teacher, and writer who was born in Brooklyn, NY and now lives in Eastern Henrico County.

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Photo Credits: Aaron Sutten

Find these books by Julinda on Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing: https://kdp.amazon.com/en_US/bookshelf

WALLED IN WITH WALDEN

a new play by Andrew Gall with material adapted from Henry David Thoreau’s Walden

At: The Firehouse Theatre, 1609 West Broad Street, RVA 23220

Performances: May 27-June 26, 2021, live and streamed. May 27-29, previews. June 3 Premiere. June 18-20 live & live stream.

Ticket Prices: In-Person Tickets: $33 in person & live stream

Info: (804) 355-2001 or firehousetheatre.org

What is more appropriate as we emerge from more than a year of pandemic restrictions than a play based on the experiences of a man in prison (Andrew Gall’s fictional Lester Franklin) reading a book about a man who spent two years living in isolation in the woods (the American transcendentalist writer Henry David Thoreau)? Andrew Gall’s new play, Walled In, is, indeed, a play on Thoreau’s Walden, and while Gall liberally utilizes Thoreau’s words, his character, a MAGA-hat wearing Republican corporate lawyer who is in jail “taking one for the team” and wondering what happened to his promised pardon is very much a man of the twenty-first century. White, privileged, on the far side of middle age, Franklin is an angry, foul-mouthed, entitled creature whose own wife and daughter seem eager to sanitize their hands of his particular brand of filth. Whew. If that seems wordy, it’s just a hint of what to expect when you see Walled In.

“The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation. What is called resignation is confirmed desperation. From the desperate city you go into the desperate country, and have to console yourself with the bravery of minks and muskrats. A stereotyped but unconscious despair is concealed even under what are called the games and amusements of mankind. There is no play in them, for this comes after work. But it is a characteristic of wisdom not to do desperate things…” – Henry David Thoreau

The exact details of how Franklin landed in prison are not necessary. We first meet him having a hissy fit after being assigned to clean the prison toilets. It doesn’t take long for him to be assigned to a prison education program where his class is assigned to read and journal about Thoreau’s two-year social-spiritual experiment, Walden; or, Life in the Woods. Thoreau spent two years, two months, and two days living in a cabin he built near Walden Pond, a far shorter sentence than what our friend Franklin might expect.

Doug Blackburn plays the role of Franklin in this one-person play (although two other actors lend their voices as the unseen Instructor (Todd Labelle, who is also the Production Designer) and Hicks, a prisoner in an adjacent cell (Rudy Mitchell). I could say Blackburn is a strong presence, but the playwright doesn’t really give him any other option. Franklin is an angry man. He strings together lines of expletives as if he were training for an Olympic competition in obscenities. (The program includes the “WARNING: This play contains very strong language that some may find offensive.”) It comes as no surprise when Act One ends with Franklin collapsing on the floor after yet another round of screaming into the wall phone – a phone to which he apparently has unlimited access. But there are also beautiful if rare poetic interludes, as in the description of an old unwashed coat that smells of Old Spice and bonfires.

Act Two begins with Franklin lounging on his cot reading. Hicks, the closest thing he has to a friend, refers to him endearingly as Heart Attack, and the bean plant he had tossed into the toilet is inexplicably flourishing on his nightstand. Yes, Hicks says he replanted it, but how did he retrieve it from the toilet and get it onto Franklin’s nightstand? Hmm? I do not consider it a SPOILER to tell you that Franklin’s journey of self-discovery while reading Thoreau does not result in a magical transformation. It does not make him any more likable. In the end, he is not redeemed but instead released on house arrest after Hicks dies of COVID-19, which Franklin refers to as the “China virus.” The point is not the destination but the journey. There is a lot of kicking and screaming; the two hours (with an intermission at the 80-minute mark) must be exhausting for Blackburn. It certainly is not an easy ride for the audience. Still, it is timely and raw and for some, seeing the character Franklin, who represents so much of what we hate about politics and privilege, in prison and no longer able to call the shots, is smugly satisfying. In a recent interview with Jerry Williams on the “Curtain Call” podcast, Gall described Lester Franklin as “a sort of Ebenezer Scrooge,” yet I doubt Franklin achieved any real redemption. Lester Franklin is an awful person; Doug Blackburn is a wonderful actor (assuming he is nothing like Franklin).

Gall relocated to RVA from North Carolina during the pandemic, and this is his first offering as part of the local theater community. Gall wrote and directed Walled In. Blackburn has been seen previously in the Firehouse production of Wrong Chopped. The lights, projections, and sound score for Walled In are fabulous. Production Designer Todd Labelle and Composer/Sound Designer Mark Messing have created a simple set (a wall phone, a cell featuring a toilet, night table, and cot, and a single wooden school desk) that is beautifully enhanced with a soundscape featuring train whistles and bullfrogs, owls and whippoorwills and other sounds. Lights and projections effectively transform the bare walls into the woods surrounding Walden Pond, adding depth and dimension to an otherwise flat space.

Walled In is not the kind of play you leave smiling and telling everyone how much you liked it. It is a play that makes you angry. It makes you think. And you leave feeling that things have got to change. Redemption isn’t just for individuals; it’s for systems.

Production Team:

Written and directed by Andrew Gall

Performed by Doug Blackburn

Featuring the voices of Todd Labelle and Rudy Mitchell

Sound Designer – Mark Messing

Costume Designer – Colin Lowrey II

Production Designer – Todd Labelle

Assistant Director – Grace Brown

Production Associate – Claire Bronchick

Stage Manager – Kasey Britt

Performance Schedule:

Thu, May 27 @ 7:30pm / invited preview

Fri, May 28 @ 7:30pm / invited preview

Sat, May 29@ 7:30pm / invited preview

Thu, June 3 @ 7:30pm

Fri, June 4 @ 7:30pm

Sat, June 5 @ 7:30pm

Sun, June 6 @ 3:00pm

Thu, June 10 @ 7:30pm

Fri, June 11 @ 7:30pm

Sat, June 12 @ 7:30pm

Sun, June 13 @ 3:00pm

Thu, June 17 @ 7:30pm

Fri, June 18 @ 7:30pm (live + live stream)

Sat, June 19 @ 7:30pm (live + live stream)

Sun, June 20 @ 3:00pm (live + live stream)

Thu, June 24 @ 7:30pm

Fri, June 25 @ 7:30pm

Sat, June 26, 7:30pm

Tickets:

$33 live and live stream 

RICHMOND BALLET: STUDIO SERIES/MAY

BALLET CLOSES SEASON WITH GUEST CHOREOGRAPHER

A COVID-conscious Pandemic-appropriate Program

A Dance Review by Julinda D. Lewis

At: The Richmond Ballet, Canal Street Studios, 407 East Canal Street, RVA 23219

Performances: May 11-23, 2021, live and streamed.

Ticket Prices: In-Person Tickets start at $25 [most performances sold out]; Virtual Tickets $20. [NOTE: On the evening of Sunday, May 23rd, virtual ticket buyers will receive an email with information on how to access the performance recording, which will be available to stream for one week. Virtual tickets for Studio Series: May must be purchased by 11:59 PM on Saturday, May 22nd.

(Please note that due to music rights restrictions, we may be unable to stream this program in its entirety.]

Info: (804) 344-0906, etix.com, or richmondballet.com. See the Richmond Ballet’s website for their COVID-19 precautions and more.

REPERTORY:

some kind of peace

Choreography by Levi Philip Marsman

Music by Ólafur Arnalds and Nils Frahm

Costume Design by Emily Morgan

Lighting Design by Christopher Devlin Hill

World Premiere: May 11, 2021, Richmond Ballet Studio Theatre, Richmond, Virginia

sweet bitter love

Choreography by Carmen de Lavallade

Music sung by Roberta Flack and Donny Hathaway

Costume Design by Geoffrey Holder

Lighting Design by Chenault Spence

Costumes courtesy of Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater

World Premiere: December 7, 2000, Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, New York City Center, New York

Richmond Ballet Premiere: May 7, 2019, Richmond Ballet Studio Theatre, Richmond, Virginia

excerpts from who cares?

Choreography by George Balanchine

Music by George Gershwin Adapted and Orchestrated by Hershy Kay

Staging by Jerri Kumery

Costume Reconstruction by Tamara Cobus after Original Design by Karinska

Original Lighting Design by Richard Moore

World Premiere: February 5, 1970, New York City Ballet, New York State Theater, New York, New York

Richmond Ballet Premiere: November 14, 1986, Carpenter Center for the Performing Arts, Richmond, Virginia

            Concluding its ground-breaking pandemic season, The Richmond Ballet premiered a new work by its first and only guest choreographer of the year. Levi Philip Marsman, Artist-in-

Residence at the Boston Arts Academy, created Some Kind of Peace in response to the loneliness and isolation of 2020. It is a ballet about hope and connection, and the first two sections are fueled by a sense of anticipation and undergirded by the faint sound of a ticking clock. Much of the music comes from Ólafur Arnalds’ recent project of the same name, some kind of peace, and the rest was composed by Nils Frahm.

            The cast members all wear leotards in various shades of blue with darker blue sheer overlays. The women’s have slits that allow them to open partially before being shed entirely by the final section. I found the more awkward and less refined movement of the first half more interesting than the smoother, more lyrical phrases that evolved at the end. The social distance and quick stops of the ensemble in the “Personal Space” opening section and Khalyom Khojaev’s solo, “Panic,” which expresses the complexities of being home alone for an extended period of time, were directly influenced by the events of 2020.  One audience member summed up the work as being “impactful.”

Marsman’s work was followed by Carmen de Lavallade’s Sweet Bitter Love, conceived initially as a solo for the choreographer to a song by the same name sung by Roberta Flack. De Lavallade later added a song performed by Donny Hathaway, “For All We Know,” to incorporate the male perspective. This transformed the dance into a duet, and she then added and closed with a third song, also sung Flack, “Until It’s Time for You to Go.” Dramatically sustained movement and endless jazz hinges add visual interest to this tale of two lovers who were never meant to be. Cody Beaton and Trevor Davis met the challenge of this non-traditional duet. At times Beaton arched backward until she appeared to be folded in half, and the couple mastered movements initiated from a hip, an elbow, a wrist instead of from the core. But as visually striking as the movement vocabulary may be, the piece is tormentingly sad.

It was both a relief and somewhat jarring to move from two sober and introspective works to George Balanchine’s Who Cares? Balanchine choreographed this jazz ballet to 16 songs composed by George Gershwin between 1924 and 1931, and Richmond Ballet presented ten of them.  Bright and fun, the piece opened with the women dancing to “Somebody Loves Me,” followed by the men stepping up with “Bidin’ My Time.” There was a fun duet performed by Eri Nishihara and Ira White and some heel and toe action by Marty Davis before the ensemble finished up with “I’ve Got Rhythm.”

For the first time since returning to the stage last September, some of the dancers were allowed to take off their masks, thanks to vaccinations and the easing of some pandemic restrictions. Yes, it was wonderful to see some smiling faces, but I also felt what seemed like weariness or heaviness. Whether it was from the psychological impact of the first two dances or the physical strain of social distancing and dancing with masks for the past eight months, this program moved me, yet I left feeling oddly weighed down, connected yet concerned.

DOGTOWN PRESENTER’S SERIES: THE DANIEL NAGRIN CELEBRATION

Five Men, Six Dances:  A Concert of Solos by the Rebel of Modern Dance

A COVID-conscious Pandemic-appropriate Dance Review by Julinda D. Lewis

At: Dogtown Dance Theatre, 109 W. 15th Street, RVA 23224

Performances: On Stage April 30 & May 1, 2021.  Streaming beginning May 7, 2021.

Ticket Prices: $20 General; $15 for Students (no tickets sold at the door as part of COVID-19 precautions).

Info: (804) 230-8780, dogtowndancetheatre.com or www.dogtown.vhx.tv. See the theater’s website for their COVID-19 precautions.

I love watching the look on my undergraduate dance history students’ faces when I show them videos of dancers I watched and loved when I was their age — more than four decades ago. One that usually gets their attention is a video of solo dance artist Daniel Nagrin performing his signature work, “Strange Hero.” Created in 1948, the work is a caricature of and homage to the American gangster.

“Strange Hero” was the opening work of the Daniel Nagrin Celebration Concert at Dogtown Dance Theatre last weekend. Matt Pardo, an assistant professor of dance at James Madison University, performed the piece, dressed in all black, minus the tight-fitting, broad-shouldered blazer Nagrin often wore when performing it. Pardo seemed less menacing than I remember, but at the same time seemed to exhibit more technical control than Nagrin – if that is even physically possible. The dangling cigarette (unlit), the hand that mimics a gun, the syncopated stabbing motions, and the juxtaposition of smooth, sharp, and elongated movement phrases may be employed in reconstructing a dated stereotype but the solo is as compelling now as 73 years ago. “Strange Hero,” is, like many of Nagrin’s solo works, a deeply reflective character study that explores the human condition, and much, perhaps all, of his work reflects a love of rhythm, jazz music, and jazz dance. “Strange Hero” features music by Stan Keaton and Pete Rugolo, while “Man of Action” has music by John McCoy and Count Basie.

“Man of Action,” another work created in 1948, was performed by Shane O’Hara.  A professor of dance at JMU, O’Hara has worked closely with the Daniel Nagrin Foundation and has an intimate knowledge of Nagrin’s work. Dressed in a shirt, tie, slacks, dress shoes, overcoat, and hat, O’Hara adeptly demonstrated the humor and drama of Nagrin’s artistic vision. The work mines the simple beauty of walking, running, leaping, and skipping, but suddenly the dancer is suspended in the air, and you’re not sure how he got there. There is even a delightful resurrection of that old trick where someone pretends to walk down invisible stairs.

On a side note, O’Hara brought the Virginia Repertory Dance Company, a pre-professional ensemble made up of select JMU dance majors, to Dogtown a little more than a year ago. They were the last live company to perform there before the big shutdown. How appropriate that O’Hara would be instrumental in Dogtown’s return to live performances.

Another of Nagrin’s popular dances, “Spanish Dance” (1948), a nod to Flamenco, was performed by Donald Laney, a faculty member in the Department of Theatre and Dance at Western Illinois University and dance instructor at WV Governor’s School for the Arts. Chest thrust forward, arms lifted, Laney embodied the controlled power of the Flamenco dancer, in a black tank top and bare feet. Laney was the last dancer to learn “Spanish Dance” from Nagrin, who died in 2008 at age 91 after half a century in dance.

The second half of the program included some works that were new to me. Paul Dennis, a graduate of the Juilliard School and a former member of the José Limón Dance Company, performed “Indeterminate Figure” (1957). One of Nagrin’s works from that decade dedicated to finding self, “Indeterminate Figure” is filled with ambiguity and juxtaposition. For starters, the dancer wears a pair of silky pajamas that resemble military fatigues, and the sound score is filled with a variety of sounds from rain to exploding bombs, from footsteps to the sounds of a beating heart. The soloist sometimes dances gracefully with an invisible partner, sometimes moves as if scrambling to safety from the effects of a crumbling foundation. Nagrin’s evolving signature style is evident in the dance’s gestures and the use of core strength that smoothly lifts the dancer from a kneeling position and seamlessly returns him, all without using his hands.

“Path” (1965), performed by local artist and member of the RVA Dance Collective Desmin Taylor, is a rare minimalist work. Performed without music, the soloist traverses a diagonal path carrying a long wooden pole or beam perhaps 10 feet in length.  Step, step, cou-de-pied­, pas de bourree, pause, repeat. Step, step, cou-de-pied­, pas de bourree, pause, repeat. “Path” is simple and mesmerizing – the kind of piece where you find yourself exhaling at the end, not realizing you had been holding your breath.

On an interesting side note, I came across a contract housed in the Library of Congress that is signed by Bill T. Jones, but not Nagrin, granting Jones performing rights to this solo. Mysteriously, two conditions of this contract state that “the dancer will never divulge the inner meaning(s) of Path as confidentially represented to him by the Choreographer to anyone,” and “the Dancer will never divulge his personal thinking as to the meaning(s) of Path to anyone.” I don’t know whether Nagrin ever signed this contract, but Jones has choreographed several works for the Daniel Nagrin Dance Theater.

The Celebration concert closed with “Wordgame: A Cartoon” (1968), also performed by O’Hara, with a sound design by Nagrin. Created from the full-evening work “Peloponnesian War,” about the conflict between Sparta and Athens, “Wordgame” was made as a commentary on the Vietnam War. Dressed in a shirt, tie, and light gray suit, the dancer tosses cash and moves with passive-aggressive disdain against a background peppered with unintelligible text, dramatic organ chords, and pinball noises. As with many of his solos, the interpretation is left open to the viewer, but social commentary was not unique to Nagrin. He was married to and collaborated with Helen Tamaris, who was also known for her American-themed solo works, many of which addressed social issues like racism and war.

What a wonderful opportunity, a unique marriage of history and artistry, all in one neat hour-long package. It was both interesting and fulfilling to see a variety of male dancers – black, white, different ages, different sizes – performing these iconic works.

4000 DAYS

Soap-Opera Style Amnesia-Themed Play is Both Witty & Worrisome

A COVID-conscious Pandemic-appropriate Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis

At: Richmond Triangle Players at the Robert B. Moss Theatre, 1200 Altamont Ave, RVA 23230

Performances: On Stage and On Demand, April 29 – May 22, 2021. On Demand beginning May 8.

Ticket Prices: $35; $10 for Students. On Demand Edition: $25; $10 for Students.

Info: (804) 346-8113 or rtriangle.org. See the theater’s website for their COVID-19 precautions, digital programs, online drink orders, and more.

Michael wakes up in the hospital to find his mother sitting patiently by his side. “What happened to you?” he queries. “You’re so old.” We soon find out the reason for this odd exchange. Michael landed in the hospital as the result of a sudden and unexpected blood clot in his brain that left him in a coma for three weeks. When he wakes up, he has lost the last 11 years (4000 days) of his life – years that included a decade with his lover Paul, who is now a stranger to him.

The familiar plot is straight off the pages of the popular soap operas my grandmother used to watch. She called them “stories.” The plot came to prolific British playwright Peter Quilter in a dream and evolved into a three-person play that explores the themes of amnesia, the relationship between gay men and their mothers, and conflicts between lovers. The Richmond Triangle Players production stars Carlen Kernish as Michael, Jacqueline Jones as his mother Carol, and Todd Patterson as his lover Paul.

Kernish is suitably foggy and somewhat fluffy (like a life-sized teddy bear) throughout the two-act play. Jones digs in to her role as the cantankerous mother who doesn’t like her son’s partner. Making sure he knows that is one of her chief pleasures. After three failed marriages (some ended by divorce, some by widowhood), she has no other focus in life than her adult son. And Patterson shows a range of emotion as he navigates the complicated revelation that, as far as Michael is concerned, he never existed.

There is some witty dialogue that draws laughs at appropriate times, but on the first Friday night of the run, the trio of thespians had not yet reached that place where their characters seemed to be fully and organically at ease with one another. Additionally, they drifted in and out of British accents, which was mildly distracting. I don’t think any of the problems originated with the actors or the direction, however. Lucian Restivo kept the play moving along at a comfortable pace, but the script didn’t seem to flow effortlessly.

Other distractions came from the set. 4000 Days is supposed to be set in a private room in a British hospital, but the room’s proportions seemed off, and the perspective seemed forced. The room was too large. A window stage left was a focal point in several scenes but could not be seen by anyone sitting on the right side of the audience. The headboard or wall behind Michael’s bed seemed oddly out of place, and the door to the room, set dead center, was constructed with an asymmetrical crossbeam – or whatever you call the top of a door jamb. Anyone with the slightest OCD tendencies will find that door very distracting. (Okay, I looked it up. The horizontal beam at the top of the door frame is called the “head.” Only this head wasn’t truly horizontal.) I wasn’t sure if the design was accidentally off-center or intended to have a cartoon-like effect.

Given that the play, which premiered in 2016, takes place in current times, Michael thinks it is 2010 when he wakes up. In an attempt to jog his memory, Paul brings him stacks of newspapers. Then the audience is treated to two video montages that capture the highs and lows of the past 11 years. The flood of memories winds down with images of Megan Markle, the Coronavirus vaccine, and LGBTQ and BLM activity. Oddly, when Michael takes up the painting he abandoned to please Paul, he starts a mural on the wall of his hospital room. The resulting haphazard splashes of vibrant color may offer some insight into why Paul discouraged his partner’s painting.

On the creative team, Dasia Gregg is responsible for the production’s satisfying projections and the troubling scenic design. Restivo created an excellent sound design, and Nia Safaar Banks’ costumes added style and color. I wondered if some of Jones’ stylish asymmetrical peplum tops were taken from her personal wardrobe. Michael Jarett provided the lighting. Amanda Durst was the dialect coach (for the accents the actors sometimes forgot to use). Most curiously, Tippi Hart was the intimacy director. The need for an intimacy director was curious because, unlike the Triangle Player’s recent production of This Bitter Earth, there weren’t any genuinely intimate scenes in 4000 Days.

I left 4000 Days feeling as if some of the questions I had might resolve after another week or two of production. While it wasn’t one of the greatest plays I’ve ever seen, I did enjoy myself, and it was good to be out among people who aren’t confined to tiny rectangles on a screen. There is a 27 seat maximum per performance. All audience members wore masks.  (Oh, on an amusing note, the stagehand wore scrubs and a hospital mask or clear plastic face shield each time he emerged to modify the set or change the props.) Everyone I spoke to made sure to announce to their friends that they had been fully vaccinated, so a few cautious hugs were exchanged. Al-in-all it was a good evening – if I could only shake the image of that crooked doorway.

FIRES IN THE MIRROR: Crown Heights, Brooklyn and Other Identities

A Tightrope Take on a Tragic Accident

A Theater Review by Makai Walker

At: The Firehouse Theatre, 1609 W. Broad St, Richmond, VA 23220

Performances: March 26 – Sun April 25, 2021

Ticket Prices: $33 live and streamed

Info: (804) 355-2001 or firehousetheatre.org

[NOTE: This production was made Covid conscious with a severely limited seating capacity of a maximum of 10 audience members at each performance, as well as other safety protocols that can be found on The Firehouse Theatre website.]

Fires in the Mirrorfelt like a 2-hour stroll through 90s New York and considering the premise of the show I’d call that a good thing. The one-person play by Anna Deavere Smith is a series of monologues collected from Smith’s interviews with real people and directed by Katrinah Carol Lewis who stared in another of Smith’s one-person plays (Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992 at TheatreLab in 2017.

Fires in the Mirror tells the story of the Crown Heights Race Riots of 1991, the murder of Yankel Rosenbaum, and the car crash that started it all. It consists of 29 performed monologues taken verbatim from interviews with 26 subjects, some of whom were near or directly involved with the accident. In the first half of the play, we’re given context to the racial tensions roiling between the black and Hasidic residents of the Crown Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn, New York. This, unfortunately, is the weakest part of the play. Actor Jamar Jones puts his best efforts towards spinning an engaging and emotional story, but he is significantly hindered by the first act’s lack of focus and direction.

Act One involves various Black and Jewish people discussing the matter of identity. As a separate component, Act One is a highly informative and intriguing take on culture, but in the context of a play sparked by a specific event, Act One feels like an hour-long non sequitur.

As the second act begins, we take a deep dive into the fatal collision that claimed Gavin Cato’s life and the retaliatory murder of Yankel Rosenbaum. Unlike its precursor, Act Two is much more engaging. As the story unfolds, we peer into the perspectives of the people closely involved with the incident. The final two monologues, those of Rosenbaum’s brother and Cato’s father, are the highlight of the evening.

Jamar Jones evokes a playful and committed approach to the characters                that never feels too distasteful and is truly lived in. His embodiment of the interviewees is breathtaking and thrilling to watch.               In terms of themes, Fires in the Mirroris very open-ended about what it wants you to take away. As the play progresses, it hammers home the idea of an incongruous truth or the sense that no one knows what really happened. At times one feels an underlying rhythm of monologues that alternately dip into each “side” of the story. There is the Black side, the Jewish side, and then there are the elements of the crash that are added, embellished, or omitted. While watching, I kept getting flashes of Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon, in which four people take turns telling subjective or self-serving alternatives of the same story.

Anna Deavere Smith does a fantastic tightrope walk across the conflict and brings light to some of the more deep-seated racial issues in Crown Heights. The questions I kept asking myself was, “What is this play trying to say?” and “Who was right, who was wrong?” I agree with director Katrinah Carol Lewis; there is no winner or loser. This was a tragic accident and regardless of the fallout two lives were lost. That’s the “why” that needs examination.

K Dance

The 22nd Annual YES! Dance Festival: A Virtual Screening Event

At: The Firehouse Theatre, 1609 West Broad Street, RVA 23220

Performances: April 26-28, 2021 at the Firehouse; Remote stream April 29-May 13

Ticket Prices: $15

Info: (804) 355-2001, firehousetheatre.org, or https://firehousetheatre.org/e/yes-dance-festival/

Like just about everything else in life these past 13-14 months, K Dance company, under the direction of Kaye Weinstein Gary, pivoted into the new and produced the 22nd annual YES! Dance Festival as a virtual event. For those who wanted the experience of going to the theater, the program was available April 26-28 to live audiences of up to 10 people, followed by a post-performance conversation with Gary. Following the three large-screen showings, Gary and The Firehouse Theatre, her home base since becoming company-in-residence in 2019, also offered a remote stream of the program, available for two weeks.

For the past ten years the Yes! Dance Festival (formerly Yes, Virginia Dance) has hosted dancers and choreographers from Dance Magazine’s prestigious “25 to Watch” list, and this year was no different.

Boston Dance Theatre (BDT) (Boston, MA; Dance Magazine‘s “25 to Watch” January 2021) has been described as a company that has “appeal far beyond Boston’s city limits.” Their work, Surge Film Preview, was filmed on a sandy finger of land called Jeremy Point in Wellfleet in Cape Cod as part of the company’s Sea-Level Rise Project, a series of virtual events about the ocean, environmental activism, and a sustainable future. Accompanied by an urgent sound score, the five dancers shake, jerk, roll, and sometimes float or suspend just beneath the surface of the water. It is a beautiful and soul-stirring collaboration between choreographer Jessie Jeanne Stinnett, the dancers, oceanographer Larry J. Pratt, and the unidentified composer.

BDT also presented Shadows and Flame, a work originally commissioned for the Jewish Arts Collaborative for the Boston Museum of Fine Arts’ 2020 Hanukkah celebration. Envisioned as an exploration of light, shadow, and the dancing body, the opening scene, with five dancers lined up in a tight diagonal, and another section mid-way through where the dancers rise from the floor, remind me of those drawings that illustrate the evolution of mankind. Inspired by an 18th century Hanukkah oil lamp, the work has a grounded and ritualistic feel that is reminiscent of some of the works of Pilobolus – the unisex flash-toned tunics obscure the dancers’ individual identities and the dancers morph into and out of shapes, not emulating but rather embodying flames.

Paige Fraser (Chicago, IL, Dance Magazine‘s “25 to Watch” 2017 has performed in the YES! Dance Festival before. This time she offered a tiny solo, Silenced Cries, choreographed by Eric Bean, Jr., and set to “Le Jeune Fille et les Loups” (the maiden and the wolves) by Armand Amar. Set in a studio against a brick wall, the soft, spiraling lyrical phrases of Silenced Cries might well be one person’s response to the isolation and imposed loneliness of a year of pandemic restrictions. Fraser’s final gesture seems to be a plea for a time out. Fraser, a dancer with scoliosis (a sometimes disabling spinal curvature) is also founder of the Page Fraser Foundation, a safe space for dancers with (and without) disabilities.

slowdanger (Pittsburgh, PA, Dance Magazine’s “25 to Watch” 2018) described their work, for shadowing, as “created to embody the liminal space we are existing in, caught between two paralleling realities, a portal to the old world and a portal into shifted space.” Regretfully, the duo’s ethereal movement and original ambient soundscape was the one work of the evening that failed to move me or even leave much of an impression. I hope to have something more substantive to say after another visit by this group, consisting of Anna Thompson and Taylor Knight, who apparently constructed their name from a combination of road signs.

Marcat Dance (Jaén, Spain, Dance Magazine‘s “25 to Watch” 2017) was also a repeat visitor. The group’s work, Adama, choreographed by Mario Bermudez Gil, is a breath-taking trio performed in a patch of dirt in a large field backed by mountains. It is no coincidence that Adama is the Hebrew word for earth. As the dancers jump, turn, and interact with childlike simplicity, the work visually and viscerally connects with the earth and the natural landscape.

The program’s most provocative work was undoubtedly Jabberwock presented by LED (Boise, ID, Dance Magazine’s “25 to Watch” 2020). Lauren Edson’s color-filled and zany choreography partnered with nonsensical lexicon of Lewis Carroll’s poem, “Jabberwocky” to delightfully explore “themes of good versus evil, resilience, autonomy and truth.” The electric colors – like hot pink shoes and a brilliant blue jumpsuit – power a dynamic blend of flavors and genres. Imagine a world where break dance meets the blues, Kurt Jooss’ “Green Table” shakes hands with disco and the asylum is the penthouse of the dungeon.

Perhaps the intimate and intricate marriage of movement and musical genres is no surprise to those familiar with LED, but for us new to the group, they are described as much about music as they are about dance, with much of the company’s music begin created by Edson’s husband, composer Andrew Stensaas.

And what YES! Dance Festival would be complete without a work by K Dance’s artistic director, Kaye Weinstein Gary. Dressed in short coveralls, Gary danced the role of Kitty in a quirky and charming short written by Irene Ziegler. The little girl, sent to the corner for some unknown infraction, discovers that her imagination is her super power. She becomes so enmeshed in her meditation with her chair that when she is finally released she decides to stay.

Making the best of a challenging situation forced some dancers and artists to stretch beyond their comfort zone, embracing technology and finding new ways to create – because that is what artists do. None of these works seemed to have suffered for the effort and the intimate audience at the Tuesday evening performance seemed happy to be there. Given that many dance festivals often feature works created for film, we didn’t feel cheated, but perhaps the next step will be a hybrid program including a mix of live and video dance. Then all will be right with the world.

FIRES IN THE MIRROR: Crown Heights, Brooklyn and Other Identities

“American character lives not in one place or the other, but in the gaps between the places.” – Anna Deavere Smith

A COVID-conscious Pandemic-appropriate Theater Review – and some rambling thoughts – by Julinda D. Lewis

At: The Firehouse Theatre, 1609 West Broad Street, RVA 23220

Performances: March 26 – April 25, 2021, live and streamed

Ticket Prices: In-Person Tickets: $33 live & streamed

Info: (804) 355-2001 or firehousetheatre.org. See the theater’s website for their COVID-19 precautions, drink orders, and more.

August 19, 1991. Crown Heights, Brooklyn, New York. It had been a clear day, with temperatures in the 80s. The air resonated with the rhythms of Gil Scott Heron (BTW, he was wrong, the revolution WAS televised) and James Brown, occasionally punctuated by traditional Jewish melodies. LL Cool J’s mama advised him to knock somebody out and Public Enemy was fighting the powers that be. The aromas of Kosher kitchens and Caribbean cooking may have wafted in the air, reflecting the diverse heritage of the neighborhood. At about 8:30 PM, seven-year-old Gavin Cato and his cousin Angela, same age, same last name, were taking turns on Gavin’s bike, under the watchful eye of Gavin’s Guyanese-born father, when a car, part of a three-car motorcade escorting Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson home from a visit to his late wife’s grave, struck the children, killing Gavin and injuring Angela. Within hours a visiting Hassidic scholar from Australia was attacked and killed by a group of young black men, and just like that, the community was embroiled in a series of race riots that rocked the city for three days. David Dinkins, the city’s first – and only – black mayor, had taken office in 1990. The Reverend Al Sharpton was prominent in calling for justice. There were allegations of racism and favoritism. There were allegations that outside agitators were coming into the already tense community to fan the flames of discord. The evening news reports and the daily news commentary would resonate with familiarity to the pandemic-stricken populace some thirty years later.

In the aftermath of the incident that came to be known as the Crown Heights Riots, playwright, actor, and professor Anna Deavere Smith interviewed more than 100 people. Some, like an anonymous Lubavitcher woman, a rabbi, activist Rev. Al Sharpton, Crown Heights resident Henry Rice, and Carmel Cato, father of Gavin, were directly involved in or impacted by the events. Others, like playwright and poet Ntozake Shange, activist and scholar Dr. Angela Davis, MIT physicist Aaron M. Bernstein, and New York Shakespeare Festival director George C. Wolfe offered social, political, and even poetic perspectives. From these 100 or so interviews, Smith culled 29 monologues by 26 people (the Rev. Al Sharpton, Ms. Magazine founding editor Letty Cottin Pogrebrin, and Norman Rosenbaum, brother of the young Australian scholar who was murdered that fateful night each speak twice).

All the dialogue is in the words of those interviewed. The play – a totally inadequate word to describe this form of presentation – encompasses several themes. The first act includes the themes of Identity, Mirrors, Hair, Race, Rhythm, and Seven Verses (referring to seven biblical verses that seal the Old Covenant of the Chosen People). The second act focuses on the people and events of August 1991.

Smith conceived of this as a one-person play and performed all the roles herself in the workshop and original production. Onstage at Richmond’s Firehouse Theatre, Jamar Jones fills Smith’s metaphorical shoes – there aren’t many real ones, as most of the characters are portrayed in bare feet – under the more than capable direction of Katrinah Carol Lewis. Lewis, some may remember, starred in another of Smith’s one-person, verbatim plays, TheatreLAB’s 2017 production of Twilight Los Angeles, 1992, based on the Rodney King incident. For about two and a half hours, including the intermission, Jones held us spellbound to this all-too-familiar yet at the same time overlooked take on America’s troubled racial and religious history.  

The space is sparsely furnished with a few black tables, a chair, a stool. Prominent in the space are two clothing racks topped with wig forms holding a variety of hairstyles and headwear. Kudos to Production Designer Todd Labelle and Costume Designer Margarette Joyner. This production even required a Wig Maintenance position, skillfully filled by Delaney Theisz. A quick change of wig, headgear, shirt, jacket, or accessories, and Jones was fully transformed into another character. Jones, who has proven his skill and agility again and again in diverse roles in many different productions including, but by no means limited to, Passing Strange (Firehouse), Fences (Virginia Rep), An Octoroon and Topdog/Underdog (both at the newly named Conciliation Lab) danced his way through numerous costume changes. A headwrap, oversized hoop earrings, and bangle bracelets for Ntozake Shange, a majestic black and white African print jacket with matching headwear to capture LA rapper Monique “Big Mo” Matthews, a kippah and prayer shawl for a Lubavitcher resident, a full beard and wide-brimmed hat for the rabbi, different wigs and styles to define a black teenager and a Hassidic mother. Each character had its own costume as well as mannerisms and sometimes props. Prof. Angela Davis’ tangled tango with a corded phone inspired a verbal metaphor as well as some welcome laughter.

More humor was provided by Rev. Al Sharpton, explaining how his signature hairstyle was inspired by his mentor, James Brown, the Godfather of Soul. This was before Rev. Al lost weight, so Jones paired the good reverend’s signature gold chain with a wide-legged stance, leaning back and walking with a waddle. Jones and Lewis nailed the familiar characters, Prof. Davis, Rev. Al, activist Sonny Carson, Ntozake Shange, with a few accessories and physical attributes. For the less familiar, a hair toss, a speech pattern, the length of a skirt, or an accent or turn of phrase centered the character in Crown Heights, Brooklyn – not far from where I was living in Fort Green-Clinton Hill at the time these incidents took place.

Jones also applied mannerisms to each character. A Lubavitcher woman folded her laundry as she spoke. A man – it might have been George C. Wolfe – had an annoying habit of loudly tapping his sugar packets and vigorously stirring his tea. Some voices were soft, hesitant, while others were angry, sharp, caustic. The most memorable voices were those of Norman Rosenbaum and Carmel Cato, the two men who lost their son and brother respectively as a result of an accident and a retaliatory reaction that forever changed their lives and left a dark skidmark on American history. Jones delectably and respectfully embodied each of these people. These were not just characters but real lives he was entrusted with, and the weight of this responsibility was not light. Like them or not, likable or not, each speaker was given a stage, unrushed and without judgment. Oh, we, the audience, may have judged or taken a position, but Smith, and by extension Jones and Lewis, presented this cast of characters as honestly as possible, leaving us to ponder at our leisure. There was and is no final resolution, no closure that satisfies any of the affected parties. Charges may have been pressed, accusations may have been made, cases may have been given due process, but none of that addresses the humanity of why. Why did this happen? Why do we react the way we do? Why is there still racism and oppression? Why can’t we all get along? How did we get here, and when will it end?

In the end, Jones sheds the final costume. The clothing rack stands empty, relieved of its colorful burden. He heaves a huge sigh, releasing the weight of the characters he has inhabited for the past two hours, then symbolically turns the mirror he used for his transformations slowly, reflecting the audience. There was soft weeping behind me. No one moved right away.

Fires in the Mirror is not light entertainment. It is the sort of theater that stays with you long after the final curtain, long after the players have gone home. See it. Live or streamed. You must see it.

“These are the things I never dream about.” – Carmel Cato

—–

ADDENDUM: I am not one to follow conspiracy theories but I have to share this bizarre incident that occurred while I was watching Fires in the Mirror. One of the characters in the first half was Prof. Leonard Jeffries, then a professor of Black Studies at City College of New York. I do not know Prof. Jeffries (not then or now) and was not familiar with him or his work. During the intermission, I decided to check my messages and happened to look at my Facebook page, only to find Prof. Jeffries as a friend suggestion. He was wearing a dashiki and matching kufi (cap) similar to those Jones had worn only minutes before. Hmmm. . .

RICHMOND BALLET:

STUDIO SERIES/MARCH – BLOWS IN WITH BIGGER BALLETS

A COVID-conscious Pandemic-appropriate Program

A Dance Review by Julinda D. Lewis

At: The Richmond Ballet, Canal Street Studios, 407 East Canal Street, RVA 23219

Performances: March 16-28, 2021, live and streamed.

Ticket Prices: In-Person Tickets start at $25; Virtual Tickets $20. [NOTE: On Sunday, March 28th, virtual ticket buyers will receive an email with information on how to access the performance recording, which will be available to stream for one week. Only one virtual ticket is needed per household. Virtual tickets to Studio Series: March must be purchased by 11:59 pm on Saturday, March 27th.]

Info: (804) 344-0906, etix.com, or richmondballet.com. See the Richmond Ballet’s website for their COVID-19 precautions and more.

REPERTORY:

Paquita

            Choreography after Marius Petipa

            Music by Léon Minkus

            Staged by Judy Jacob

            World Premiere: 1983, American Ballet Theatre

            Richmond Ballet Premiere: April 6, 1990

Violin V.2

            Choreography by Val Caniparoli

            Music by Heinrich Ignaz Franz Biber

            World Premiere: March 21, 2006, Richmond Ballet Studio Theatre

            After setting the stage by being one of the first American ballet companies to return to live performances in 2020, the Richmond Ballet has taken the lead again by expanding from small works (solos, duets, short in length) to present two full-length ballets on its latest Studio Series program. While maintaining the pandemic precautions that have been in place since returning to the stage in September – dancers who partner are family members, married to one another, or members of the same household, and all dancers wear masks throughout their performance – the latest program included up to nine dancers onstage, and the ballets lasted about 20 minutes each instead of three to five minutes.

            Paquita was originally conceived by 19th-century French classical ballet master Marius Petipa as a ballet in two acts. It is more commonly performed today as a one-act divertissement that allows the dancers to display their technical skill and prowess. This performance was a vehicle for soloists Cody Beaton and Trevor Davis and a diverse ensemble including Kate Anderson, Lauren Archer, Eri Nishihara, Hannah Powell, Naomi Robinson, and Naomi Wilson.  Anderson and Robinson are currently members of RBII, and Powell is a trainee.

            The black lace tutus with white underskirts and touches of red in the hair for the ensemble and in the bodice for the soloist promoted the Spanish origin of the plot: a beautiful gypsy girl falls in love with one of Napoleon’s officers, only to discover that she, too, is of noble birth. Despite its traditional theme and style, Paquita is often light-hearted and fun. But make no mistake, this ballet is intended to be a showpiece for the soloists, Beaton and Davis, with some charming variations for Wilson, Nishihara, and Archer. Wilson shines with precise footwork and elegant flourishes. Nishihara shows off turns, and Archer exhibits control in balances and leaps. Beaton exemplifies beauty and grace, while Davis circles the stage with strength and bravado. Except for the fairy tale story elements – which have been omitted in this iteration – Paquita is the sort of ballet many of us envision when we first learn of ballet, and it lives up to all the expectations.

            The second half of the program, which was performed without intermission, was a reworking of Val Caniparoli’s Violin, re-envisioned via Zoom as Violin V.2.  The new version allowed the dancers to stay 6′ apart from one another most of the time because, as Caniparoli said via video feed, “The arts have got to stay alive.” This work also featured guest artists Colin Jacob and Joe Seaton.

            As in the original, the dancers begin in a circle, as if standing at the edge of a precipice, with a lone female dancer isolated in the shadows outside the circle. She soon fades away, and the large circle morphs into five smaller circles, the first of many iterations, leaving the men to interact in a series of quirky motifs, including an amusing scooting, sideways walk. Initially a men’s dance, the work begins to incorporate the women in trios, quartets, quintets until it crescendos with four men and four women dancing together. The overlapping and ever-changing circles of light and the cool green of the pared-down costumes enhance the unconventional surprises that occasionally spark this contemporary ballet that provides a satisfying movement experience that is at once intricate and uncomplicated.

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