With ‘MOVEMEDIA’ Grand Rapids Ballet pushes boundaries and audience expectations


Grand Rapids Ballet dancers in Sagi Gross' "One Charming Night."

Grand Rapids Ballet dancers in Sagi Gross’ “One Charming Night.”

Grand Rapids Ballet
MOVEMEDIA Program One
Peter Martin Wege Theatre
Grand Rapids, MI
March 13, 2015

Reviewed by Steve Sucato

For the first installment of Grand Rapids Ballet’s annual MOVEMEDIA series for the 2014-2015 dance season at their Peter Martin Wege Theatre, GRB artistic director Patricia Barker chose a mix of choreographers new to the contemporary dance series with one familiar to it and Grand Rapids Ballet audiences.

The boldest of the lot in terms of stretching both the dancers’ and audiences’ comfort level was newcomer Gross. The Israeli/Dutch choreographer and artistic director of Amsterdam-based Gross Dance Company had two works on the program beginning with the U.S. premiere of “One Charming Night” (2012). The work’s title taken from a passage in Henry Purcell’s opera The Fairy-Queen that reads: “One charming night gives more delight, than a hundred lucky days,” ironically was not about delight, but rather the emotionally charged feelings of those on either side of a military conflict.

Set to music by Purcell, Oum Kulthoum and Max Richter, the work began with eight dancers in street clothes moving as a unit briskly walking about the stage. The choreography was a mix of stylized pedestrian movement and gestures. It had its dancers jutting their heads forward like chickens, posturing like apes and hopping backwards all to a vibrant tune by late Egyptian singer Kulthoum.  Gross’ choreography was at once similar in movement quality to other contemporary Israeli choreographer’s works, but also managing to be unique in its organization and delivery.  Projected behind the dancers like a moon in the night sky, was a small circular projection of the infrared shelling of a military target that grew larger and more defined as the work progressed.

Soon dancer Cassidy Isaacson was singled out from the group.  She stood center stage looking nervous as the others circled her like predators.  Isaacson’s gaze followed them occasionally snapping her head round to keep track of all of them.  Gross’ simple yet highly effective choreography along with Isaacson’s demeanor and facial expressions created a palpable sense of danger. Isaacson was then joined by dancer Yuka Oba, both under the scrutiny of the others.  The quietly powerful and engaging work then shifted gears turning its attention outward at the audience with Oba now circling the stage intensely glaring out into the audience with an expression of indignation as electronic music a la England’s The Prodigy hastened her pace.

GRB’s dancers were capable and marvelous in Gross’ work which resonated a kind of understated brilliance that echoed long after the curtain fell on its final images of the circular projection grown to immense size showing the flashes of explosions accompanied by sounds of gunfire and chaos, the  dancers with their backs to the audience clustered staring at it. And as the cacophony of sound began to fade, Oba once again took to circling the stage piercing the audience with an accusing gaze.

Grand Rapids Ballet dancers Ednis Gomez and Yuka Oba in Sagi Gross’ “Strings.”

Whereas Gross’ “One Charming Night” dealt with emotions caused by global events, the world-premiere of Texas-based choreographer Gina Patterson’s “To the River” explored images of personal introspection. The somewhat surreal contemporary ballet for eight men and seven women set to music by singer-songwriter Peter Bradley Adams poured forth fleeting scenes of interpersonal relationships. Some of the ballet’s dancers fluctuated between being characters in the scenes and being scenery elements for them. In one section involving a pas de deux between Oba and dancer Isaac Aoki, the other dancers formed a hill of boulders upon which Oba stood staring out into an imaginary river contemplating her life.

Patterson’s choreography for the dancers was for the most part graceful and pretty within an atmosphere that oozed melancholy.  Another scene playing into that mood was that of Isaacson in a struggle with dancer Ednis Gomez.  As Gomez tried to corral Isaacson to him she pulled away and repeatedly dropped to the floor as they walked side-by-side he lifting her to have her fall again.

The ballet culminated in a ghostly final scene danced to Adams and Caitlin Canty’s haunting song “To the River” in which Aoki stood atop a hill of dancers gazing outward to a sad Oba as several female dancers lifted by their male partners into backward layouts spun in a circle like the pieces of a slow moving  mobile.

For the premiere of Gross’ second work on the program “Strings,” the choreographer said prior to its performance that he had as its inspiration the idea of a ballerina being electrocuted.  The duet danced by Oba and Gomez played into that imagery with Oba en pointe being held in place by Gomez and violently shaking one leg as she raised it and quickly lowered it back to its start point.  In between repeating that movement, she sharply snapped her head to one side and back and shot one arm into the air and down in a similarly sharp fashion.  Oba’s deadpan facial expression and arms and hands extended down in front of her mimicking her taut legs made her look robotic.  Gomez then got into the act shaking one hand violently as if also being electrocuted.  The pair then moved off their stationary start point and began producing rigid contemporary movement that had one or both of them crab walking, swooshing like a speed skater and bending into stretching exercises all to the music of Franz Schubert.  The brief and quirky duet ended with the emotionless Oba returning to her opening pose and coming down from pointe and abruptly marching off stage which sent chuckles through the audience.

The program closed with the world premiere of Andrew Bartee’s “People are disappointing thank you” set to music by Alva Noto, Peter Hansen and Nils Frahm.  In front of three flat panels, thirteen dancers all in white moved like malfunctioning “fembots” from the Austin Powers film series to a soundscape of noise dotted with dropouts as if listening to it through a moving fan.

Bartee’s choreography for the piece ran through various dancer groupings and was sharp and angular, sprinkled with repeating phrases such as a step, shimmy and stare. And like the bright lines and geometric shapes that began to crawl along the back panels populating them like a computer screensaver, the work became mesmerizing.

In the end, MOVEMEDIA Program One proved a most interesting and diverse program danced splendidly by GRB’s dancers; one that pushed the growth of the company and audience expectations of it.

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