Tag Archives: Edwaard Liang

Benz a Consummate Juliet in BalletMet’s Superb ‘Romeo and Juliet’


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BalletMet’s David Ward and Adrienne Benz in Edwaard Liang’s “Romeo and Juliet.” Photo by Jennifer Zmuda.

BalletMet with Columbus Symphony Orchestra – Romeo and Juliet
Ohio Theatre
Columbus, Ohio

April 28-30, 2017 

Reviewed by Steve Sucato

Since taking over BalletMet’s artistic leadership in 2010, Edwaard Liang has molded the company into more of a contemporary ballet powerhouse with ballets by himself, Christopher Wheeldon, Gustavo Ramirez Sansano, Ma Cong and others. With the Columbus premiere of his Romeo and Juliet, April 28-30 at the Ohio Theatre however, Liang asserted BalletMet’s might in classical story ballets as well with a next-level production usually reserved for ballet companies twice its size.

Originally created on Tulsa Ballet in 2012, the 3-act production had opera house-style sets and costumes by David Walker to go with the rich playing of Sergei Prokofiev’s iconic score for the ballet by the Columbus Symphony Orchestra conducted by Peter Stafford Wilson and some of the best classical dancing I’ve seen from the company. In the ballet’s final performance on April 30 however, one light shone above the rest, that of retiring company star Adrienne Benz whose moving performance as Juliet stands with any given anywhere in recent years.

True to Shakespeare’s play and the storyline structure found in most high-level ballet productions of Romeo and Juliet, Liang’s adaptation moved briskly in choreography that was engaging and descriptive. The ballet’s scenes not only told the star-crossed lovers’ familiar story, but captured nicely the atmosphere of Shakespeare’s fictional Verona, Italy setting and its colorful renaissance-era inhabitants.

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(L-R) BalletMet’s Andres Estevez, David Ward and Kohhei Kuwana in Edwaard Liang’s “Romeo and Juliet.” Photo by Jennifer Zmuda.

In typical fashion, Act I introduced us to the feuding Capulet and Montague families including male protagonist Romeo (David Ward), his friend Mercutio (Andres Estevez) and his cousin Benvolio (Kohhei Kuwana) as well as to Juliet’s cousin and antagonist Tybalt, portrayed with icy malice by first-year company member Austin Moholt-Siebert.

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(L-R) BalletMets’ Sarah Wolf, Karen Wing and Kristie Latham in Edwaard Liang’s “Romeo and Juliet.” Photo by Jennifer Zmuda.

Frivolity, swordplay and the flirtations of young men and women made for a vibrant opening scene. Most interesting were Liang’s use of three gruff but sexy harlots danced by Kristie Latham, Karen Wing and Sarah Wolf who, when they weren’t pushing around the villagers, fawned over Romeo and his compatriots and even engaged in some of the sword fighting.

Later in the Act, the ballet shifted scenes to Juliet’s bedroom were we get our first glimpse of Benz as Juliet being playful with her nurse and confident (Leigh Lijoi) while making preparations for that evening’s masked ball. Benz appeared to have leapt from the pages of Shakespeare’s play. Her youthful exuberance and joy made you fall in love with her character instantly and her acting skills and technical prowess were stunning.

As in most Romeo and Juliet ballets, the ball was a lavish affair with the aforementioned costumes and sets to match. The trio of Romeo, Mercutio, and Benvolio looking to crash the ball were a bit like the three musketeers in their cocky, cavalier attitudes toward those arriving for the ball. Ward as Romeo appeared straight out of central casting. His princely looks and adroit dancing seemed to charm the audience almost as much as it did Juliet in the scene which played out as most do with the two meeting and falling for each other instantly and Romeo and cohorts clashing with Tybalt and Juliet’s would-be suitor Paris, danced with nobility by BalletMet dancer Attila Bongar who was also making his final appearance with the company.

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BalletMet’s David Ward and Adrienne Benz in Edwaard Liang’s “Romeo and Juliet.” Photo by Jennifer Zmuda.

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BalletMet’s David Ward and Adrienne Benz in Edwaard Liang’s “Romeo and Juliet.” Photo by Jennifer Zmuda.

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BalletMet’s David Ward and Adrienne Benz in Edwaard Liang’s “Romeo and Juliet.” Photo by Jennifer Zmuda.

Bathed in golden light and dreamlike, the famous “balcony scene” that followed to end Act I dripped with romance which Benz and Ward let wash over them as the two lovers who then got drunk on each other’s company.  Within this beautiful setting Liang choreographed a beauty of a pas de deux that contained a wellspring of fabulous lifts and carries to go with the character’s unbridled joy which Benz and Ward captured to perfection in their exquisite dancing of it.

Act II opened with us back in the village’s marketplace with the requisite frolicking and celebrations. Wing, as the village’s most brazen harlot, once again made her presence felt strutting about with the kind of aggressiveness she displayed in the lead role of Carmen in Sansano’s Carmen.maquia in 2016. The act continued with Romeo, Mercutio and Benvolio playfully teasing Juliet’s nurse who came to marketplace to deliver a note to Romeo from Juliet about meeting in secret with Friar Lawrence (David Spialter) to wed.  It was another charming scene in a ballet full of them that provided a wonderful counterpoint to the ballet’s drama and tragedy.

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(Center) BalletMet’s Karen Wing in Edwaard Liang’s “Romeo and Juliet.” Photo by Jennifer Zmuda.

As with any great tragedy, happiness comes at a cost and in one of the ballet’s most climactic moments Estevez as Mercutio, who was also making his final appearance with BalletMet, delivered a wonderfully acted and danced performance where he was both hero and jester battling and ultimately perishing at the hands of Tybalt in a swordfight. For his part, Moholt-Siebert as Tybalt nearly stole the scene with a “Joffrey Baratheon” from Game of Thrones kind of contemptibility.

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(Center) BalletMet’s Austin Moholt-Siebert and David Ward in Edwaard Liang’s “Romeo and Juliet.” Photo by Jennifer Zmuda.

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(Center) BalletMet’s Carly Wheaton and Austin Moholt-Siebert in Edwaard Liang’s “Romeo and Juliet.” Photo by Jennifer Zmuda.

The act then ended with Romeo taking revenge on Tybalt over Mercutio’s death in an unconscious fit of rage, and then guilt, as Lady Capulet (Carly Wheaton) crazed and bereft, stormed the stage and whipped her headdress into the wings in a somewhat over-the-top reaction to Tybalt’s death; suggesting perhaps there relationship was much more than just aunt and nephew.

The ballet’s third act continued the familiar tale with Romeo and Juliet waking in Juliet’s bedroom after assumingly consummating their secret marriage with Romeo still haunted by Mercutio and Tybalt’s deaths and Juliet not wanting Romeo to go. The pair engaged in another marvelously-crafted and passionate pas de deux.  Later in the scene, after Romeo’s departure, Juliet’s parents forced the issue of her marriage to Paris and Benz showed more of her brilliance conveying in her every step, gesture and heartbreaking tear, the very essence of Shakespeare’s words on the young heroine’s torn state of emotion.

After seeking solace from Friar Lawrence who gave her a potion to fake her own death, Juliet returned to her bedroom where she was visited by the ghosts of Mercutio, as sort of an angel one shoulder telling her not to take the potion, and Tybalt, the devil on her other shoulder urging to take it, which she does.

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BalletMet’s David Ward and Adrienne Benz in Edwaard Liang’s “Romeo and Juliet.” Photo by Jennifer Zmuda.

The ballet’s final scene at the Capulet family tomb brought the tragic tale to its inevitable conclusion as Romeo and Paris faced off in a knife fight at the alter Juliet’s seemingly lifeless body lay with Romeo the lone survivor. Liang then wrapped up the story and the lover’s fates with a rarely used ending in U.S. productions where Romeo sees Juliet wake up from her fake-death coma seconds before he succumbs to the very real poison he just drank to be with her in the afterlife. What must he be thinking in that brief moment? Ward gave us both elation and resignation in seconds it took for that reunion to play out. Benz then true to her character’s grief and determination to forever be with Romeo grabbed Paris’ knife and ended her own life.

A triumph by most any standard of measure, BalletMet’s Romeo and Juliet with its brisk pacing, easy-to-follow story progression and relatable characters would surely resonate with even the most neophyte dance goer. Add to that finely constructed, world-class choreography, perhaps the best ballet score ever written played with heart by the Columbus Symphony Orchestra, rich looking sets and costumes and great dancing led by the spellbinding performances of Benz and Ward, and even the most persnickety of balletomanes would have a hard time resisting the production’s allure.

Steve Sucato is a former dancer turned arts writer/critic. He is Chairman Emeritus of the Dance Critics Association and Associate Editor of ExploreDance.com.

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The Skinny on Second Companies: Benefits, Logistics and Costs


By Steve Sucato

Second companies are nothing new in dance. Some, like Ailey II and Hubbard Street Dance Chicago’s HS2, have been around for decades while others like Joffrey II have long gone by the wayside. In recent years, however, more and more dance organizations are seeing the value of adding a second unit to bolster their dancer ranks as well as provide an invaluable learning experience for talented young dancers to bridge the gap between student and professional.

Like their professional counterparts, second companies can come in a variety of shapes and sizes with varying goals and missions. To take a closer look at what makes a second company tick, five dance organizations with old and new second companies — BalletMet, Boston Ballet, Houston Ballet, Hubbard Street Dance Chicago, and Kansas City Ballet — weighed in about the benefits, costs, logistics, and concerns involved with starting and maintaining one.

“One thing we have to understand is that what one company calls a second company, another calls something else,” says Boston Ballet artistic director Mikko Nissinen. “San Francisco Ballet apprentices are like our second company [Boston Ballet II] and our trainees are like Houston Ballet’s second company. It’s a little confusing.”

Whatever the moniker, “second company,” “studio company,” or some other variation, dance organizations give several common reasons for having one.

Education Through Performance

One main reason to build a second performing troupe is to provide talented young dancers, not quite ready for a main company contract, a place to hone their stagecraft and learn what it is like to be a professional dancer. Typically those dancers fall between the ages of 18 and 22. Some can be as young as 16, or as old as 24 if joining from a college dance program.

“The most important thing in bringing out greatness in a dancer is to put them on stage and put them on stage often,” says Hubbard Street 2 (HS2) director Terence Marling. “This … alters a person’s dancing more than anything that happens in the studio.”

In most second companies dancers augment the main company in corps de ballet roles. “A long time ago ballet companies hired inexperienced young dancers and after a few years they became well-functioning company members,” says Nissinen. “Today financial resources are so tight that nobody can afford to do that anymore, not even in Europe. So everybody needs dancers who are ready to dance. When they come from a school, they naturally don’t have professional experience and the likelihood they will survive in a company is less. If they go through a second company program, whether it is one year or two, they actually get all that experience and then when they join the company, they excel versus just get in.”

Kansas City Ballet artistic director Devon Carney, whose career began in the late 1970s as a member of Boston Ballet II (BBII), knows what being in a second company can mean to a young dancer. “It’s an invaluable internship to work in a professional company environment for a young dancer who has the ability but doesn’t have the experience yet,” says Carney.

Houston Ballet II (HB II) fields one of the largest and most successful second-company programs in the country, giving its 12 to 16 dancers from all over the globe the opportunity perform locally, regionally and nationally. They have even toured internationally to Canada, China, Hungary, Mexico and Switzerland. Houston Ballet artistic director Stanton Welch says he patterned the program after The Dancers Company, Australian Ballet’s second troupe, which his mother created when she was artistic director.  “I gained so much both as a dancer and choreographer through that company that I wanted to have the same for us in Houston.”

Dance organizations with second company dancers performing main company corps roles also benefit because it gives more opportunities for main company dancers to do soloist and principal roles says Carney. This “trickle up” effect is good for the entire company, allowing more dancers more opportunities to dance better roles and the added dancers can also allow the main company to do larger ballets.

In the case of HS2, which is essentially a second professional troupe with its own touring schedule, their dancers can be called up to the main company when needed, much like a farm club to a Major League Baseball team or the NBA’s D-league.

While in practice second company dancers are a source of cheap labor, all those I spoke to were adamant they not be treated as such, especially to the detriment of their careers. To that end, all those artistic directors I talked to limit the time a dancer can spend in their organization’s second company to one to two years. That time limit benefits both the dancer and the organization.

After one to three years, if a director will not offer a second company dancer a main company contract, “It is important to push them out of the nest,” says BalletMet artistic director Edwaard Liang. “We don’t want to them to feel complacent in a company they cannot stay in forever. It is crucial around age 21 or 22 that they go out and find a job.”

An additional benefit of the dancer turnover for the organization is it allows opportunities for other talented young dancers looking to join the second company.

Some organizations like BalletMet build in another safeguard against the unfair use of their second company dancers. If they are used in a main company leading role more than once, they automatically receive a first-year main company dancer contract.

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A former dancer turned writer/critic living in Ohio, Steve Sucato studied ballet and modern dance at the Erie Civic Ballet (Erie, Pa.) and at Pennsylvania State University. He has performed numerous contemporary and classical works sharing the stage with noted dancers Robert LaFosse, Antonia Franceschi, Joseph Duell, Sandra Brown, and Mikhail Baryshnikov. His writing credits include articles and reviews on dance and the arts for The Plain Dealer(Cleveland, Ohio), The Buffalo News, Erie Times-News (Erie, Pa.), Pittsburgh City Paper as well as magazines Pointe,Dance Studio Life, Dance Magazine, Dance International, Dance Teacher, Stage Directions, Dance Retailer News,Dancer and webzines Balletco, DanceTabs, Ballet-Dance Magazine/Critical Dance, and Exploredance.com, where he is currently associate editor. Steve is a chairman emeritus of the Dance Critics Association, an international association of dance journalists.  

Photos:
First image: Hubbard Street 2 Dancers Jade Hooper, left, and Elliot Hammans; photo by Todd Rosenberg, courtesy of Hubbard Street Dance Chicago.
Second image: Boston Ballet II’s Desean Taber and Boston Ballet’s Albert Gordon in Viktor Plotnikov’s Colloquial Dreams; photo by Liza Voll, courtesy of Boston Ballet.

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BalletMet and Cincinnati Ballet Joint Production a Delectable Treat


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BalletMet dancers in Edwaard Liang’s “Age of Innocence.” Photo by Jennifer Zmuda.

BalletMet and Cincinnati Ballet – Inspired
Ohio Theatre
Columbus, OH
March 11-13, 2016

Reviewed by Steve Sucato

Extoling the latest joint production of BalletMet and Cincinnati Ballet is like lauding the pleasures of chocolate; everyone knows them. But for those who sadly missed Inspired, March 11-13 at Columbus’ Ohio Theatre, let me unwrap some of its velvety goodness for you.

Opening night’s performance on March 11 began with BalletMet performing artistic director Edwaard Liang’s signature ballet “Age of Innocence.” Set to music by Philip Glass and Thomas Newman, the ballet, originally created on Chicago’s Joffrey Ballet in 2008, was inspired by the late 18th century and early 19th century romantic fiction of English novelist Jane Austin.

The ballet for eight women and eight men had the pedigree of one created for an elite troupe like the Joffrey.  The understated, yet rich looking backdrop of crimson drapes along with costume designer Maria Pinto’s modern take on period formalwear (both courtesy of Joffrey Ballet), presented the viewer with a contemporary vision of a bygone era of formal balls, arranged marriages and women as second class citizens.

As if taking part in one such ball, BalletMet’s dancers streamed onto the stage, males to one side, females to the other, lined up across from and facing one another in preparation to dance. The men bowed and the women curtsied.

With “Age of Innocence” Liang captured the prim and proper demeanor of those depicted in Austin’s novels. The regimented group choreography had a geometric beauty and grace to it. Male and female rows of dancers crossed lines, came together to hold hands and then moved apart in an elegant courtship ritual. Dancers’ sweeping arms and scooped hands wrapped around their heads, bodies cocked to one side at odd angles and legs shot out into arabesques. As intricate as Liang’s group choreography was, the ballet shone brightest in several scrumptious pas de deuxs contained within it.

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BalletMet dancers in Edwaard Liang’s “Age of Innocence.” Photo by Peter Mueller.

The first, danced by Karen Wing and Michael Sayre, built in momentum like the music to which it was danced.  Dense with partnered lifts, Wing was wrapped around Sayre’s waist like a fanny pack and then dipped into a “Fish” pose.  The second, and the ballet’s finest, came in its penultimate 4th movement. Caitlin Valentine-Ellis and David Ward dazzled in a breathtaking display of grace, power and daring.  Valentine-Ellis appeared to float on air in Liang’s spellbinding choreography that produced a wow lift where she executed an arabesque penché at Ward’s side and was grabbed by her extended leg from behind Ward who pulled her upside down and over him as he bent forward to land seated on his now flattened back. The clever move elicited gasps from the delighted audience that resonated throughout the theater.

“Age of Innocence” drove home once again how fortunate Columbus dance audiences are to have a world-class choreographer leading BalletMet. The level of ballets and dancer talent Liang has assembled since his arrival in 2013 far exceeds the company’s mid-size budget.

Next it was Cincinnati Ballet’s turn to shine in choreographer Trey McIntyre’s brilliant and funny “Wild Sweet Love.” Originally created for Sacramento Ballet in 2007, “Wild Sweet Love” was a delightfully quirky and athletic work set to disparate music by The Zombies, Roberta Flack, Felix Mendelssohn and others, and featured principal dancer Sarah Hairston as a downtrodden woman unlucky in love. Looking like a depressed Mary Katherine Gallagher, the fictional Saturday Night Live character portrayed by comedienne Molly Shannon, Hairston wonderfully sulked around the stage creating sad, but endearingly humorous moments throughout the ballet.

Delivered as a series of adroitly danced vignettes that included multiple costume changes, “Wild Sweet Love” explored the range of emotions being in love and lacking love in your life can bring.

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Cincinnati Ballet’s Sarah Hairston in Trey McIntyre’s “Wild Sweet Love.” Photo by Peter Mueller.

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Cincinnati Ballet’s Sirui Liu and Romel Frometa in Trey McIntyre’s “Wild Sweet Love.” Photo by Peter Mueller.

Highlighting the ballet was the effervescent and spunky performances of corps de ballet dancer Jaqueline Damico and principal dancer Cervilio Miguel Amador in a duet danced to The Partridge Family’s 1974 hit “I Think I Love You.” All smiles, Damico and Amador blazed through playful choreography that had them darting about, twisting and turning in an infectious groove that the viewer couldn’t help but be swept up in.

Also of note was a trio in which an envious, somewhat vengeful Hairston looked on as soloist Sirui Liu and senior soloist Romel Frometa engaged in a bizarre pas de deux in which Liu took swings at Frometa with clenched fists in-between fondly embracing him.

After another depressingly funny solo by Hairston, who pulled her shirt over her face, the ballet concluded with the cast (including a few BalletMet 2 dancers as extras) coming together in a rollicking group dance to Queen’s 1976 anthem “Somebody to Love.”  In it, Hairston, encircled by the others was triumphantly lifted skyward like a cheerleader only to come back down to earth literally and figuratively disappearing into the middle of the crowd of dancers, her tutu having been pulled up over her face.

The stellar program ended with a joint performance of George Balanchine’s 1970 masterwork “Who Cares?.”

Set to seventeen Broadway musical songs by George Gershwin, orchestrated by Hershy Kay, including “Strike Up The Band!,” “‘S Wonderful” and “I Got Rhythm,” the high-stepping, high-energy neo-classical ballet was Balanchine at his Broadway-esque best.

The two companies meshed perfectly in it, and unlike their last collaboration in Balanchine’s “Symphony in C” in 2014, the much improved BalletMet was every bit the equal of Cincinnati Ballet in classical technique and artistry.

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BalletMet and Cincinnati Ballet in George Balanchine’s “Who Cares?” Photo by Jennifer Zmuda.

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BalletMet and Cincinnati Ballet in George Balanchine’s “Who Cares?” Photo by Jennifer Zmuda.

Standouts included BalletMet’s Grace-Anne Powers and Attila Bongar dashing back and forth across the stage to Gershwin’s “Oh, Lady Be Good!,” and Valentine-Ellis with Miguel Anaya performing flawlessly in an emotionally dramatic pas de deux to “The Man I Love.”  The pas, first performed by New York City Ballet stars Patricia McBride and Jacques d’Amboise, had the feel of an old Hollywood movie production number and proved a real gem.

Also of note was the performance of Anaya, as a debonair ladies’ man, in several other pas de deuxs with different partners including he and BalletMet’s Adrienne Benz twirling to “Embraceable You,” and with Jessica Brown in a leisurely game of tag to the song “Who Cares?.”

The carefree ballet was a fitting end to a deliciously decadent evening of dance teeming with tasty performances to satisfy any ballet lover’s sweet tooth.

 

Steve Sucato is a former dancer turned arts writer/critic. He is Chairman Emeritus of the Dance Critics Association and Associate Editor of ExploreDance.com.

 

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