9.12.11 -- Cincinnati Enquirer: Ballet's 'New Works' thoughtful, modern

Ballet's 'New Works' thoughtful, modern

Sassy, inventive, quirky and sometimes downright challenging - the Cincinnati Ballet's Kaplan New Works Series has evolved into one of the area's most adventurous season-opening enterprises.

The series is always filled with surprises. Not all of them are good surprises. But with so much of the traditional ballet repertory focused on 19th-century works, New Works is a refreshingly brash and unabashed paean to the modern age.

This year's New Works features five pieces - four world premieres and a local premiere. Unlike other seasons, where much of the work is persistently upbeat, several of these works are more reflective and introspective, at times melancholy. They're not morose, but they're thoughtful in a way that a ballet like "Nutcracker" will never be. New Works is the other side of ballet.

Much of the recent work by Adam Hougland, the company's resident choreographer, has been epic in proportion, ballets like "Firebird"and "Mozart's Requiem." But his New Works piece - "To the Fore" - is much more straightforward. No mammoth, installation-like sets, no costumes that dare you to understand them. Not coincidentally, this is the finest work he's done for the company for several years.

With a choreographic pace as frenetic as the music - John Adams' "The Chairman Dances" - Hougland's ballet is audacious, edgy, and at times, deliciously romantic.

The one element that could have come off as a cheap gimmick - using shop lights tethered by long extension cords as the primary lighting - becomes a legitimate choreographic element, manipulating the images in ways that traditional stage lighting never could.

It is with pieces like this that we see the true worth of Hougland as a resident choreographer; someone who knows the dancers' abilities intimately and choreographs in ways that both challenge and showcase them. He uses eight of the company's best in this work.

James Kudelka the former artistic director of the National Ballet of Canada, is a global choreographic power. And with "The Man in Black," an homage to Johnny Cash, we get an inkling of why.

Set to six songs by an aging Cash, it is a remarkably simple piece. Like Cash's wonderfully unadorned voice, the four dancers' movements show almost no overt emotion, but somehow the result is a passion-filled dance. Built on stylized variations of a host of country-style dances, Kudelka has crafted a comforting, probing and exhausting tribute to Cash.

Missy Lay Zimmer and Andrew Hubbard, artistic directors of Cincinnati's Exhale Dance Tribe, were a late addition to New Works. "Barre et Trois," set to a score by Cincinnatian Dianne Dunkelman, isn't much more than five minutes. Featuring just three dancers - Jacqueline Damico, Maizyalet Velázquez and Liang Fu - the dance is like three cryptic choreographic studies. Reminiscent of Edward Gorey's(CQ) animated intros to PBS' "Mystery"(CQ) series, each character is played so broadly, you're never quite sure if the dancers are being mysterious or peculiarly whimsical.

The company's senior ballet mistress, Johanna Bernstein Wilt, who celebrates 30 years with the company this season, has created an affectionate tribute to the late Richard Collins, whose career as artistic director of the Cincinnati Ballet was cut short by an auto accident in 1991.

Set to an instrumental quartet by Cincinnati composer Rick Sowash, "A Hero's Prayer" is a big-hearted, program-opening showcase of the company's dancers, particularly in its muscular dances for the men and a sweeping pas de deux for Janessa Touchet and Cervilio Miguel Amador. But the dancers still feel tentative with it; they occupy space together and do all the right steps, but they feel oddly disconnected from one another.

A similar problem is evident in Heather Britt's "Blind Man's Map."

Britt, best-known from her wildly popular Rhythm & Motion classes, has taken on a different challenge from anything in her previous New Works choreography. Rather than create an upbeat closing work, she has teamed with spoken word artist JaHipster and a pair of composers - Peter Adams and Gabriel Gaffney Smith - to create a work that is as poignant as it is energetic.

Though highly entertaining, the three separate elements - poetry, choreography and music - did little to enhance the power of one another.

The notable exception was "Black Man I Wish You a Better Death," an affecting and impassioned duet between JaHipster and dancer Josh Bodden. Painfully pointed and challenging all at the same time, "Black Man" offers one of those rare moments where ballet and contemporary issues work hand in hand.

 

Written by
David Lyman
Enquirer contributor