Diversity and Mastery Bring Hope in Challenging Times
A Dance Review by Julinda D. Lewis
At: The Richmond Ballet’s Canal Street Studios, 407 E. Canal Street, Richmond, VA 23219
Performances: November 10-22, 2020
Ticket Prices: In-Person Tickets:$25-$101; Virtual Tickets: $20/One-week access to recorded performance, only one ticket required per household
Info: (804) 344-0906 x224 or etix.com
In September I was impressed by the precautions the Richmond Ballet had taken to make sure dancers, staff, and audience members felt safe to return to the studio. The November program is the company’s third COVID-conscious production, and it seems that experience and resilience have come together to make this the most moving show yet.
The collection of short works and excerpts began with the Romantic-era “Rachmaninoff Rhapsody” choreographed by Artistic Director Stoner Winslett, and concluded with a new work by the company’s newly appointed Associate Artistic Director Ma Cong, “To The End.” These two works, both of which premiered November 10, book-ended Salvatore Aiello’s introspective solo, “Extensions,” (a 1990 work that is also new to the Richmond Ballet) and an excerpt from William Soleau’s “Closing Doors” (2002). Clocking in at just under an hour with no intermission, this program was as near perfect as one could hope for.
The curtain came up on a stage lit entirely in blue, highlighting a corp of four ballerinas in the stiff, tulle classical tutus that fill little girl’s dreams. On Thursday night, Cody Beaton and Trevor Davis performed the pas de deux set to the modest pace of the score that allows the viewer to observe in detail the articulation of each step. Stoner’s choreography is a contrast in control and abandon that juxtaposes clean, simple lines, symmetry, and diagonal formations. The dancers linger in luxurious movement phrases that demonstrate virtuosity without conceit.
Ira White performed the Aiello solo. Dressed in practice shorts and a tank top, he stood silently, listening to pianist Douglas-Jayd Burn playing Alexander Scriabin’s score. These unhurried moments of stillness before the dance began were a poignant introduction to a work that highlights the choreographer’s intimate relationship with the music. Once inspired, the dancer returned to the barre and began to move reflectively, at one with the music, taking his time, warming up and exploring movement that brought the music to life. An unexpected plunge over the barre was breathtaking, and at the end I heard an audience member whisper, “he’s amazing!”
The section chosen from Soleau’s “Closing Doors,” was an amusing quartet (Kate Anderson, Eri Nishihara, Naomi Wilson, and Marty Davis on Thursday) performed to the ornamental Baroque deliciousness of Bach’s “Sonata in E Minor.” Davis’ part in this brief divertissement, lasting barely five minutes, consisted of him moving his chair from spot to spot while reading a book and essentially ignoring the three women (Kate Anderson, Eri Nishihara, and Naomi Wilson) in deep pink flowing dresses who were energetically dancing around him. The sound of a door shutting brought him out of his reverie, but, as in real life, it is too late, and he had missed his opportunity.
Ma Cong was born in China and has served as Resident Choreographer of the Tulsa Ballet for 12 years. I have been enamored of his work since I first saw the Richmond Ballet perform “Ershter Vals” in 2009. Since then, Stoner Winslett has commissioned Cong to create several more works, including including “Lift the Fallen, “Winter’s Angels,” and “Chiaroscuro.” This newest work, “to the end,” is a sort of companion piece to September’s “alone, beside me,” which taken together are described as works that pay “homage to society’s reactions to the pandemic and the hope for a brighter future.”
“to the end” was created as a double pas de deux. Cong taught the choreography in collaboration with the Tulsa Ballet to two couples simultaneously in Tulsa and Richmond, creating both live and virtual versions of the work. The Richmond dancers learned the piece entirely via Zoom.
Performed on Thursday by Cody Beaton, Eri Nishihara, Sabrina Holland, Marty Davis, Trevor Davis, and Ira White, the work explores post-pandemic adjustment in stages that, much like grief, range from confusion to survival to relief. The dancers’ black and white costumes (designed by Emily Morgan) are simple and stark, and at one point thin stripes of light on the floor (designed by Christopher Devlin Hill) reflected the pattern of the women’s tops. The small groups, limited contact (only dancers who live in the same household ever actually touch), and masks reflect the restrictions we have grown all too accustomed to living with these past eight months. But the purpose of this work is to inspire hope and invoke gratitude.
There are unexpected floor-sweeping movements, with hair freely flowing and tossed about. Body rolls engage the dancers from the soles of their feet to tops of their heads, while precariously off-center suspensions appear to reflect how many of us have been navigating the world of late. The work is sensual, but not sexual. An offering of white pillar candles in glass cylinders remind me of the candles at an altar. “to the end” was not so much about the dancer’s technique or even the sequences and construction of movement, as it was about the feeling. It’s public yet personal, and deeply moving. “Hope and love are gonna bring us together very soon,” Cong concluded in a video interview with Winslett.
Photos: Top – Eri Nishihara in “Rachmaninoff Rhapsody”; Ira White in “Extensions”. Middle – Naomi Wilson, Eri Nishihara, and Kate Anderson in “Closing Doors”; Ira White in “to the end”; Eri Nishihara in “to the end”; Bottom – Ira White and Abi Goldstein in “to the end” and Cody Beaton and Trevor Davis in “to the end”. Featured image at top of page – Ira White and Marty Davis in “to the end”. All photos by Sarah Ferguson. All Rights Reserved.
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