by Amy Falls
Ballet West produces Innovations each spring as a platform for the company’s dancers to explore their own choreographic pursuits alongside more established guest choreographers. While a great opportunity, it is still rare nationally to find full evening programs devoted to dancers’ own choreography. Ballet Arizona, Ballet Arkansas, Ballet Idaho, Ballet West, and Kansas City Ballet are a handful of companies that present such a program in their annual season.
Innovations inspires initial expectations for me as a viewer: that the evening’s works will innovate in some way: structurally, choreographically, musically – in any or all of these ways – diverging from the typical classical, neo-classical, or contemporary ballet. Some work diverged more than others from these existing categories, but all presented mastery in their crafting.
Emily Adams’ Homage is a narrative work, inspired by Salvador Dali’s “Homage to Terpsichore.” A conflict between the dancers in flowing pink and their shadow-like counterparts emerges both through emoting and a sharp contrast in movement qualities: Adams’ choreography lends itself well to storytelling. While Homage falls more under the classical umbrella, Adams (somewhat of an Innovations veteran) shows that she is capable of producing a full act ballet that understands narrative arc. Adrian Fry’s Pulse, which draws inspiration from qualities of the human heart and a commercial for Google Play, is abstractly movement-centric. The dancers weave in and out amongst each other to create a pulsing quartet. Abandonment of narrative, alongside the Dvorak score, feels in this case neo-classical , and the choreography stays within the realm of classical ballet. However, Fry’s choreography does prove a deft vehicle of expression in Pulse, even if not one of exploration.
Katlyn Addison’s The Hunt was the most successful piece in terms of risk-taking and divergence from familiar forms. Addison places live drummer Cameron Hodges onstage, which contributes to a heightened sense of urgency and more physical abandon. The dancers place emphasis on both elevation and groundedness, a certain qualitative divergence. Structurally, Addison does not provide a rigid narrative, but the dancers engage in constant movement dialogue with each other and the drummer. Addison’s choreography draws from a variety of influences, both modern and African dance forms; this reinforces The Hunt’s sense of purpose to convey a new idea.
Professional guest (and resident) choreographer Nicolo Fonte’s Presto is shorter and features a smaller cast than much of his other work in Ballet West’s repertoire. Yet even in this distilled format for four dancers, Presto is an iteration of what has become a contemporary ballet stereotype: mostly classical movement with affectations (a flexed foot, a tilted pelvis, a claw-like hand), a minimalist score (Ezio Bosso, in this case), an exposed lighting grid, and “futuristic” costuming (silver lamé). Presto is clearly distinct from and more contemporary by definition than the likes of Petipa, Nijinsky, and Balanchine; however, it exhibits ideas that have become so familiar in the Era of The Contemporary Ballet that I question if these qualities of a work continue to exhibit innovation on their own.
Professional guest choreographer Garrett Smith’s world premiere Facades could be described as “Jiri Kylian meets Phantom of the Opera.” Facades combines Baroque aesthetic and music with elements found in classical ballet, contemporary ballet, and even commercial dance. The costumes have Baroque and classical silhouettes, yet are flashy and made of non-traditional materials (the men’s “waistcoats” were sheer, tutus were red and sparkling). The canvas drop painted like an ornate gilded mirror provides an interactive visual aid for the exploration of reality and its reflections or distortions. Smith draws upon classical choreographic devices, yet strays from conventions. The entire women’s corps de ballet, though in classical tutus, appear kneeling in profile and continue lying down for a gestural sequence highlighting body-halves. Male/female partnering sequences employed head tics and quick parallel swivels that were more wind-up doll than pas de deux. Use of a narrative thread is ballet at its most familiar, but the other layers of Facades are Smith’s own innovation.
All the works in Innovations show excellence in crafting of movement or narrative. But the works that stand out and stood up to my expectations of innovation drew upon many influences to create a unique statement. Recognition of tradition may always be important to ballet as a form, but ballets that feel truly “contemporary” will continue to defy definition.
Photo by Luke Isley of BW artists in Garrett Smith’s Facades
Amy Falls used to be a bunhead, and is still a ballet enthusiast. She coordinates loveDANCEmore’s Mudson series. This review is published in collaboration with loveDANCEmore.