Ballet Memphis – 25th Anniversary Tour Program


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Ballet Memphis dancers in Steven McMahon's "Being Here With Other People". Photo by Brandon Dill.

Presented by DANCECleveland
PlayhouseSquare Center – Ohio Theatre
Cleveland, OH
March 11, 2012

Reviewed by Steve Sucato

For its 25th anniversary season tour Ballet Memphis assembled a program of repertory works popular to its fans, showcasing the 12-member troupe’s versatility as artists.

The program, presented by DANCECleveland and performed at PlayhouseSquare Center’s Ohio Theatre in Cleveland, featured six works beginning with Ballet Memphis dancer/choreographic associate Steven McMahon’s Being Here With Other People (2009).

Set to music by Beethoven, McMahon’s choreography for the neo-classical ballet was light and bouncy with quick turns and springy jumps. The ballet’s 8 dancers (3 male, 5 female) frolicked about the stage with inviting “come dance with me” body language. The dancers shrugged their shoulders and bobbed and wiggled their heads as they zipped through nicely constructed movement phrases and patterns. The ballet’s playful antics, which included several dancers sporting sheepish grins and waving at the audience, was an outpouring of joy that drew one in to its infectious merriment.

Next, dancer Kendall G. Britt Jr. performed choreographer Robert Battle‘s Takademe (1999). The athletic, energetic and mildly humorous solo based on deconstructed Indian “kathak” dance rhythms and set to British singer Sheila Chandra’s often used song “Speaking in Tongues I”, had Britt rifling through a succession of rapid-fire jumps, turns and body undulations that matched the pace and inflection of Chandra’s lyrical vocal gymnastics in the quirky tune. The brief solo, and Britt’s performance in it, burned white hot like a flash fire leaving a lasting impression on the viewer.

Pulitzer Prize-winning author Eudora Welty’s short story “A Curtain of Green” provided the inspiration for Ballet Memphis artistic associate/choreographer Julia Adam’s contemporary dance work Curtain of Green (2007). Welty’s story tells of a young widow in the segregated South who haunted by the accidental death her husband isolates herself from the outside world by engrossing herself in her garden. The woman, her garden and her complicated relationship she has with a black servant boy in the story, suggest parallels between her isolation and the isolation inherent in racial segregation and the fear whites had at that time toward desegregation.

Set to music by Philip Glass, Adam’s abstract contemporary dance work with its purposefully rigid movement language captured nicely the emotional arc of Welty’s story. Dancer Crystal Brothers was wonderfully emotive in the role of the young widow. Adam’s choreography was less effective however in advancing the relationship between the story’s characters; especially that of the widow and the young black boy danced by Britt.

Switching gears, Jane comfort and company’s 2010 work S’epanouir (French for “to blossom or open up/out”) set to jazz music by Kirk Whalum told of a woman caught in the throes of emotional turmoil who was coaxed out of it by a community of seemingly spiritual folk that came to her aid. The work’s clichéd theme of religious salvation, although uplifting and delivered joyously by Ballet Memphis’ dancers, was mired in banal and repetitive choreography that disappointed.

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Happily, the program concluded on a high note with choreographer Trey McIntyre’s gem In Dreams (2007). The former Ballet Memphis resident choreographer’s beautifully constructed dance work set to a suite of Roy Orbison hits including “Dream Baby”, “Crying” and “In Dreams”, featured five of the company’s dancers (3 girls, 2 guys) in neat and tight choreography.

The work’s opening section had the dancers starting and stopping in brief, slick-looking tableaus. Its second section duet had a country line dance feel to it with sharp turns and little hop steps, while a pas de deux danced to the song “Crying” showed its dancers moving in stiff poses a la Vaslav Nijinsky’s L’après-midi d’un faune (or The Afternoon of a Faun) adding to the work’s multi-textured choreographic brilliance.

A fitting tribute to the iconic Orbison, In Dreams proved that masterful choreography well-matched to its dancers can make a very good dance company look like a great one.

This review originally appeared on exploredance.com
Copyright 2012 Steve Sucato 

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