Don’t think of it as a ballet. Try “spectacle” instead. Or “extravaganza.” Or some word expansive enough to describe the delicious audacity of the Cincinnati Ballet’s closing performance series at the Aronoff.
It’s called “Infamous Love Songs.” And while there is plenty of dancing – three separate pieces, actually – this is a radical departure from your run-of-the-mill evening at the ballet.
What sets it apart is the ballet’s musical collaborator, the band Over the Rhine. A Cincinnati band with a global reach, OtR – onstage the entire evening – performs 19 pieces from different periods of its career. Equal parts rock, country, blues and gospel – there’s even a snippet reminiscent of Martin Denny’s Hawaiian exotica in there somewhere – the band and its enthusiastic fans make you feel that you’re witnessing a must-see piece of Cincinnati’s cultural history. And they may just be right.
It’s not a perfect production. Sometimes it’s such a three-ring circus on the stage that it’s hard to know what to look at. Lighting designer Trad A Burns does his best to help us. But as much as you want to see the dancers, you also want to keep your eyes on OtR principals Karin Bergquist and Linford Detweiler and their four sidemen.
But the usual rules don’t seem to apply to “Infamous Love Songs.” This is one of those larger-than-life productions where you’re content to sit back and let the whole thing just wash over you.
The subject of the entire evening is love; sweet love, raunchy love, playful love, troubled love, inadvisable love, lost love and downright tragic love. Plenty of dramatic territory for the three choreographers.
Devon Carney, the Cincinnati Ballet’s associate artistic director, leads off with “Thrive on Here.” The love in this piece seems to be newer – sometimes silly, sometimes curious, occasionally despondent. And sometimes, as in Anthony Krutzkamp and Jill Marlow’s duet, tender and poignant.
But it’s Carney’s finale – “Entertaining Thoughts” – that jolts the piece to life. Oğulcan Borova, Courtney Connor, Abigail Maruna and others are so unabashedly jubilant that it feels like they’ve popped the convertible top on a warm summer evening, cranked up the radio and hit the road for points unknown.
Seattle choreographer Donald Byrd, whose distinguished choreographic career spans more than four decades, opts for more complexity, both in his view of love and in his choreography. Love is more cynical in Byrd’s “Missed;” harder, colder and more emotionally damaging. But it offers a wonderful choreographic platform for several chilling performances; Dawn Kelly, Kelly Yankle, Liang Fu and Abigail Maruna, among others. Gema Diaz – partnered by Sam Jones – gives her strongest and most aggressive performance since returning from an injury that kept her offstage all of last season.
Byrd’s finale – “Bothered” – is the most transcendent section of the entire evening; dancers flood the stage. They’re alone at first, searching forlornly for . . . well, we’re not sure what. But Byrd is a master at manipulating the audience’s eye. Before you are aware that it’s happened, solitary dancers become pairs. And as the stage empties, just one lone dancer remains – Danielle Bausinger – a reminder that even when you have love, sadness is never far away.
The final work, “Burning Moon,” is choreographed by Missy Lay Zimmer and Andrew Hubbard, founders and artistic directors of Cincinnati’s Exhale Dance Tribe. As they have several times during the past several years, these two have managed to unleash the youthful vivaciousness of the company’s dancers in ways that seem to elude other choreographers.
Sassy, sensuous, angular, percussive and sexy, “Burning Moon” is the sort of dance you just can’t turn away from.
In the most memorable section, five women – Maizyalet Velázquez, Janessa Touchet, as well as Yankle, Diaz and Kelly – consume the stage with their movement. Belligerent, intimidating, undulating, they are, as the section’s title suggests, “Trouble.” These are femmes fatale on the loose and any man – or woman – who doesn’t want to play had better stay out of the way. It’s exhilarating, dazzling and sexy as hell.
Full-fledged artistic collaborations like this are risky, at best. Everyone involved has to make compromises, sometimes huge. But “Infamous Love Songs” has paid off for both groups, giving the audience an experience that is as rich theatrically as it is musically.
“Infamous Love Songs” will be performed at 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. today