Saturday, February 1, 2020

At Clowes, Louisville Ballet offers program of high contrast, high achievement

As part of the JCA Signature Series, in which visiting artists' educational side is combined with public performance,  Butler University Friday night welcomed the Louisville Ballet to Clowes Hall for a program of three of the company's works.

The opening piece, "Models," stood out for me, though each of its companions had distinctive charms.
Freedom or other-directed mastery?: A scene from "Models"
Somewhat put off by Cornelius' music though I was, Tim Harbour's choreography built upon its variety of hard-driving electronic sounds to achieve a perfect, yet often surprising, blend of how it all looked and how the dancers moved. Alexandra Ludwig's costume designs offered a unisex version, with matching scarfs and caps, of the Australian Boy Scout uniforms the choreographer recalled from his youth.

The closely measured duet in "Models."
Daniel Perez's lighting sometimes "grayed out" forms and colors of the uniforms subtle tints, and at other times made them keenly sculptural. Above the stage were three abstract shapes designed by Matt Weir. They hovered, sheltered, and perhaps exerted control over the figures, particularly in ensemble. That last quality was a matter of suggestion, prompted by Harbour's program note, indicating the dancers' "maneuvers being controlled like puppets, as though from an external force."

But most striking is that such an interpretation is required to sit among images of freedom and such individualism as the romantic love expressed in a central, slow duet. For the most part, however, "Models" presented ensembles, from eight to more than twice that number. Sometimes regimentation overtook them, quasi-martial drills. At other times, the repetitive movements seemed to come from the assembly line. Angular postures, with arms jerked upward, conveyed the feeling of a marionette show.

There was more than a hint that such close-order drill and mechanized movement were being tested and resisted, but also celebrated as a bonding device. "Models" had something to be enthralled by at every moment. At the end, the music stopped and just before the curtain descended, we saw two groups of  hunched-over figures dashing from one side of the stage to the other — a neat image with which to represent the ambivalence of people treated like dolls, dolls treated like people.

The well-ordered training of the company was highlighted in the finale, Stanton Welch's "Velocity," in which classic ballet techniques are combined and repurposed, sometimes with parodic intent. There was textbook presentation  of positions and admirably controlled delineation of what is often presented with a *narrative scenario in the classic ballets. In "Velocity," though, we see a nicely linked abstract embodiment of elements with modernistic touches. Arms may suddenly vary from a graceful carriage to a wrenched position, palms up, elbows in, with the head thrown back. A tutu-clad dancer executes leg beats while being carried horizontally. The building blocks of dance, from illusions of weightlessness to grounded athleticism, are smoothly juxtaposed. Welch set it all to a couple of movements from the synesthetic American composer Michael Torke; the music comes out of Stravinsky and Philip Glass, with lavish orchestration suggesting Richard Strauss — quite suitable in its eclecticism to what "Velocity" seems to be about.

In the middle was Andrea Schermoly's "at High," a poignant piece of lamentation and adjustment drawing heavily on the spirit of its music, the lengthy "Ruhevoll (Poco adagio)" from Mahler's Symphony No. 4 in G major. A boyish central figure enters a confusing scene of people, well suited to one another but leaving him to make his own way. One physically statuesque male dancer helps him, seeming a sort of Virgilian guide to the young man's Dante. This may be importing too much to Schermoly's scenario, but then there emerges a figure, finely mediating between the two men and perhaps representing an ideal, a Beatrice. A plain white structure, a kind of mesa, is at one side of the stage to suggest a position from which the central figures get a kind of overview before they join the group. This is not Dante's more well-known view of a horrifying Inferno, but rather (echoing the meaning of the Mahler symphony) a glimpse of an inviting Paradiso. The earnestness, steady pathos, and absence of bizarre touches in this work made it a fitting companion between "Models" and "Velocity."

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