Sunday, September 8, 2013

Indianapolis City Ballet's 'Evening With the Stars' turns five

As if to mark the end of toddlerhood, Indianapolis City Ballet's annual "Evening With the Stars" celebrated its fifth birthday Saturday night at the Murat Centre.

In the slow march to maturity, the organization has projected a "world dance competition" and choreographic institute for 2014, plus hosting unannounced major companies to visit Indianapolis. These steps should put the ICB in the position to form the resident troupe that has been the founders' dream from the beginning (2009), just about the time when the Great Recession put a crimp in its progress toward that goal.

Of course, there was lots of brilliance to spare in the 2013 "Evening With the Stars," and concerns about the ICB's long-range viability as a professional company based here could be put aside — especially given the size and enthusiasm of the audience.

One piece raised for me questions about the appropriation of musical sources outside their context, however. It's fitting for choreographers to put their mark on the music that inspires them, but it's axiomatic that they will draw particular  strength when music with sung words lifts and inspires what they call upon dancers to do. For example, Diane Talbot's "New York State of Mind," the next-to-last piece on the program, was danced with bravado and airborne flair (including easy leaps up onto and off of an upright piano and stool) by Aaron Smyth. Certainly much of its meaning came from Billy Joel's words.

Melissa Hamilton and Eric Underwood
In contrast, it was a little disconcerting to have the second part of "Rest, Beloved,"  a tender, romantic duet for Tiler Peck and Robert Fairchild, set to the Bach cantata aria whose joyful feeling is centered on the first line, "Ich freue mich auf meinen Tod," which can be fairly translated as "I rejoice in my death." That sentiment recurs often in Bach's cantatas, in which expectation of the eternal heavenly home is contrasted to the sorrows of earthly life.

Unless we grant choreographer Cherylyn Lavagnino the latitude to repurpose Bach's joy as an individual's gladly dying in his/her isolation in order to take on a new identity with the beloved, the newly commissioned piece doesn't really work.  Except for the fact that both the music and the dancing (by Tiler Peck and Robert Fairchild) were beautiful, the significance of "Rest, Beloved" went in two incompatible directions.

No wonder that sometimes one is glad to take in a short piece without any accompaniment, as in Fairchild's solo in the first half of the program, a piece called "Toccata,"  the work of Jiri Bubenicek.  This was a compact exhibition of strength and vulnerability, wide-openness contrasted with a drawing-in of the body, all nicely counterpointed in Fairchild's performance.

And often a score created specifically to be danced— whether the musical source is Tchaikovsky or the manipulated industrial sounds of Itzik Galili's "Mono Lisa" — doesn't allow any doubts about suitability to emerge. The latter piece put some of the evening's edgiest choreography to a collage of "industrial" sounds, chiefly manipulated manual-typewriter input. Alicia Amatriain and Jason Reilly partnered in a work full of jaw-dropping spins, with Amatriain seeming almost double-jointed at the hip amid a steady display of strength from Reilly.

So many variations on how one man and one woman can be put into balletic relationship presented themselves in the course of "Evening With the Stars" that generalization seems impossible. Perhaps the most electrifying partnership, where two-way rapport was absolute and the affinity between two embodiments of individual virtuosity was most fruitfully exploited, was that of Melissa Hamilton and Eric Underwood of the Royal Ballet.

In the first half, they were sensuously entangled and reconfigured in "Lieder," with a considerable degree of pull to the floor in Alistair Marriott's choreography. After intermission, they returned for Christopher Wheeldon's "Tryst," outlining a meeting of two people more furtive and guarded than most pas de deux, to a piercing score by James MacMillan.  The difficulty of the piece lay in part in its refusal to make the interaction gratifying or tender, while remaining mutually engaged.

For partnerships of a more tender sort, verging onto an ethereal plane,  there was much to savor in Gillian Murphy (later close to sensational later in the Black Swan pas de deux from "Swan Lake") and Cory Stearns in "Depuis le jour," set to the well-known Charpentier aria by Gemma Bond. Also of this sort, while carrying its own distinction, was Jessica Lang's "Among the Stars," with Yuan Yuan Tan and Damian Smith of the San Francisco Ballet. That work made imaginative use of across-the-stage barriers and well as intermittent linking of  the dancers, thanks to a long, diaphanous cloth that was held, shifted, traversed and resisted at various moments.

The Smith-Tan partnership had appeared earlier in "Distant Cries," with choreographer Edwaard Liang on hand to introduce the work. It started quite effectively without music as Tan showed continual flow and flexibility in a solo introduction, to be joined by Smith in wide-ranging interaction that seemed more involving than Liang's other pas de deux, Wonderland Pas de Deux, a dignified piece that didn't seem to pack much of an emotional charge, perhaps carrying with it too much of the expressive neutrality of the Philip Glass piece Liang used.

Something for all ages without ambiguity as to its meaning was the colorfully costumed "Two Boys in a Fight,"  a schoolyard tussle from the folk-based imagination of Igor Moiseyev, danced as a comical faux pas de deux and, of course, turning out to be a small masterpiece of illusion —  totally a matter of the droll, hidden body language and virtuoso extremities of Andrij Cybyk.

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