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‘Wild Sweet Love’ to usher in Sofranko-Era at Grand Rapids Ballet


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(L-R) Grand Rapids Ballet dancers Matthew Wenckowski, Isaac Aoki, Gretchen Steimle and StevenHouser rehearsing Penny Saunders’ “Ghost Light”. Photo by Jade Butler.

By Steve Sucato

For Grand Rapids Ballet’s season opening program, the first under new artistic director James Sofranko, the company will present Wild Sweet Love, October 19-21 at GRB’s ’ Peter Martin Wege Theatre. The diverse program including ballets by George Balanchine, Trey McIntyre, GRB resident choreographer Penny Saunders and a world premiere by Sofranko has audience-pleaser written all over it.

The production will also be the first opportunity for area audiences to see several new dancers Sofranko added to the company. They are former Nashville Ballet dancers Alexandra Meister-Upleger (Aurora, Ohio) and Nathan Young (Little Rock, Arkansas), Emily Reed (Monee, Illinois) formerly with Minnesota Ballet, Israel Garcia Chenge (Mexico), Nicholas Gray (Milwaukee, WI), William Shearstone (Atlanta, Georgia) and Cuban Josue Justiz a former dancer with National Ballet of Cuba.

Just a few months into the job, Sofranko says moving from being soloist with San Francisco Ballet for 18 seasons to now running a fulltime ballet company has been a bit of a shock to the system.  “There are a lot more demands on my time. You are needed in the studio, in meetings, in marketing discussions, dancers need to talk to you, choreographers need to talk to you, it’s a constant information overload,” says Sofranko. “You are the guy everyone wants to talk to so you have to be ‘on’ all the time.”

While balancing his time has been big challenge, Sofranko says he was surprised by the dancer in him still wanting to be in the studio to take class. “I wasn’t sure if I was going to be able to just let that part of me go,” he says. “Being in the studio are the moments I cherish. The more I can be in there the better.”

Another hurdle Sofranko is facing that other former dancers turned artistic directors have also faced is coming to grips with not being one of the gang anymore. “You are the boss now and that is a different dynamic than being colleagues. That will definitely take some getting used to,” says Sofranko.

Also, like many new directors, Sofranko has had little time to do anything but prep for Wild Sweet Love since the dancers returned in September from their summer layoff. That includes creating his debut ballet for the company, “Ballade,” a 9-minute lighthearted classical piece to excerpts of Antonín Dvořák’s four “Romantic Pieces, Op. 75” for violin and piano (1887). In keeping with the love theme of the program, it features new dancers Meister-Upleger and Young along with Ednis Gomez and Gretchen Steimle as couples in more mature love relationships; one couple is awash in romance while the other has a more contentious relationship.

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Grand Rapids Ballet dancers Josue Justiz and Yuka Oba rehearsing George Balanchine’s “Allegro Brillante”. Photo by Jade Butler.

Prior to “Ballade,” the company premiere of Balanchine’s “Allegro Brillante” (1956) will open the program. The choreographer said of his vibrant and expressive ballet for 10 dancers, “It contains everything I know about the classical ballet in 13 minutes.” Danced to Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 3, Op. 75, Sofranko sees the ballet as good test for the company and a great way for him to better get to know the dancers.

After a short intermission, the program will continue with Saunders’ “Ghost Light” (2014). Originally created on Kansas City’s Owen/Cox Dance Group, the work for 4 dancers (1 woman, 3 men) costumed in formalwear follows the mischievous antics of a group of theater ghosts inspired by famous figures Maria Callas, Harry Houdini, Fred Astaire and Duke Ellington at play after the living have gone home.

Saunders is familiar to GRB audiences having choreographed several of the company’s more popular ballets during Patricia Barker’s tenure as director including last season’s The Happy Prince & Other Wilde Tales. “Ghost Light” taps into the theatrical superstition that every theater is haunted and that the light or lights left lit onstage meant to keep stage hands and performers from falling into the orchestra pit when the theater is dark, also provides theater ghosts a spotlight to perform in once again.

Danced to an eclectic music mix from composer Alexandre Desplat, Devo’s Mark Mothersbaugh, David Hirschfelder, J. S. Bach and Traffic Quintet, the 18-minute work is a comedic romp tinged with a bit of melancholy.

Bravura classical dancing then follows in the bold, high flying pas de deux from the ballet Le Corsaire. Danced to music by Riccardo Drigo, the pas de deux made famous by Rudolf Nureyev will showcase company members Justiz and Meister-Upleger.

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Grand Rapids Ballet dancers Ednis Gomez and Yuka Oba rehearsing Trey McIntyre’s “Wild Sweet Love”. Photo by Jade Butler.

After another brief intermission the program will close with its title work, McIntyre’s “Wild Sweet Love” (2007). Originally created for Sacramento Ballet, “Wild Sweet Love” is a delightfully quirky and athletic work set to disparate music by Queen, Lou Reed, Roberta Flack, Felix Mendelssohn, The Zombies and others.  It explores the range of emotions being in love and lacking love in your life can bring. Played out in a series of dance vignettes that follow a central female character, the ballet is full of humor, heartache, and songs like The Partridge Family’s 1974 hit “I Think I Love You” that will leave you smiling.

Eager to begin this next chapter in his career and the next in GRB’s 46-year history, Sofranko says of Wild Sweet Love: “I am feeling good about the show. I am happy where we are at and how the dancers and the pieces look.”

Grand Rapids Ballet performs Wild Sweet Love, 7:30 p.m., Friday, October 19 & Saturday, October 20 and 2:00 p.m., Sunday, October 21. Peter Martin Wege Theatre, 341 Ellsworth SW, Grand Rapids. Tickets are $52 each. For tickets or more information visit grballet.com or call (616) 454-4771 x10.

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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Royal New Zealand Ballet’s 2018 line-up revealed


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RNZB dancer Abigail Boyle. Photo by Ross Brown.

By Jeremy Brick

Choreographic mastery, cinematic vision and New Zealand’s pioneering spirit define the national ballet company’s 65th anniversary year announced today. 2018 promises audience favourites and landmark repertoire from New Zealand, Europe and America alongside expanded choreographic opportunities and continued commitment to education as the company tours to 16 centres nationally.

RNZB Artistic Director Patricia Barker is honoured to lead the company as the second female director in its history. “My vision is for the Royal New Zealand Ballet is to be celebrated for commissioning works by the brightest young choreographers, while meticulously maintaining the highest standards of traditional classics. The RNZB will continue to embody the elegance, grandeur, grace and strength that I have already seen in New Zealand’s landscapes and the people that I have met. We are a cultural ambassador and an important artistic export, sharing the spirit and creativity of our country at home and beyond our borders.”

The Piano: The Ballet:  The 2018 season begins with the world premiere of a work inspired by Jane Campion’s award-winning quintessentially New Zealand film that captured audiences worldwide. This newly re-imagined full length work by Jiří Bubeníček, is presented in association with the New Zealand Festival and the Auckland Arts Festival. Ada’s story is given a powerful new voice in dance and is accompanied by musical excerpts from Michael Nyman’s iconic film score and works by classical music masters.

Dancing with Mozart: Choreographic titans George Balanchine and Jiří Kylián find inspiration in the music of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart as the RNZB presents the first New Zealand performances of Balanchine’s Divertimento No. 15 and Kylián’s Petite Mort and Sechs Tänze, alongside a new commission by Christchurch-born, UK-based choreographer Corey Baker.

Strength and Grace: Women: To mark the 125th anniversary of women’s suffrage in New Zealand and the RNZB’s own 65th birthday the company looks to the future of dance, with a series of new commissions from female choreographers, curated by RNZB Artistic Director Patricia Barker.

The Ryman Healthcare Season of The Nutcracker brings a rich offering of seasonal cheer and fabulous music to audiences of all ages as the RNZB tours a new, traditional staging of the work nationally for the first time since 2010.

RNZB Executive Director Frances Turner says “We are thrilled to present such diverse programming of works that will be a choreographic feast for our dancers and a visual feast for our audience.”

Outside the three main stage seasons, the RNZB will continue its much-loved and popular Tutus on Tour and Ballet in a Box programme planned for seven centres throughout the year: Gore, Tauranga, Oamaru, Hamilton, Taupo, Whanganui and Kerikeri. The RNZB will also present the Harry Haythorne Choreographic Award with the support of the Ballet Foundation of New Zealand Trust, to provide opportunities for emerging choreographers to create short works for studio performance by dancers of the RNZB.

Details 

The Piano: the ballet: 

Inspired by the film The Piano with permission kindly granted by Jane Campion, Jan Chapman and Saddleback Productions.

22 February – 7 April

Touring to Wellington, Napier, Auckland, Dunedin, Christchurch, Palmerston North, Rotorua

Choreography: Jiří Bubeníček, Set and Video Design: Otto Bubeníček, Costume Design: Elsa Pavanel

Music: Otto Bubeníček, Michael Nyman, Debussy, Arensky, Stravinsky, Schnittke, Brahms and Shostakovich arranged by Otto Bubeníček, Staging: Jiří Bubeníček and Otto Bubeníček

Lighting Designer: Jeremy Fern

Dancing with Mozart: Balanchine – ­Kylián  –  Baker

31 May – 8 July

Touring to Wellington, Christchurch, Invercargill, Dunedin, Blenheim, Palmerston North, Rotorua, Napier, Auckland.

  • Petite Mort: Choreography: Jiří Kylián, Assistant to the choreographer: Stefan Zeromski, Music: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Piano Concertos K488 and K467, Costume design: Joke Visser, Set design: Jiří Kylián, Light design: Jiří Kylián (concept), Joop Caboort (realisation),Video registration: Hans Knill, Technical adaptation (lights/set): Joost Biegelaar
  • Sechs Tänze: Choreography: Jiří Kylián, Assistant to the choreographer: Stefan Zeromski, Music: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Deutsche Tänze K571, Costume and set design: Jiří Kylián, Light design: Jiří Kylián (concept), Joop Caboort (realisation), Video registration: Hans Knill, Technical adaptation (lights/set): Joost Biegelaar
  • Divertimento No. 15Choreography: George Balanchine © The George Balanchine Trust, Repetiteur: Francia Russell, Music: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Divertimento No. 15 in B flat major, K287, Design: Barbara Karinska, Orchestras: Orchestra Wellington, Christchurch Symphony Orchestra, Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra, Conductors: Marc Taddei (Wellington), Hamish McKeich (Christchurch and Auckland)
  • New work: Choreography/Design: Corey Baker, Music: Duncan Grimley, after Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Requiem in D minor K626, Lighting Design: Paul O’Brien

Strength and Grace: Women: New commissions curated by RNZB Artistic Director Patricia Barker

17 – 18 August

Opera House, Wellington

To mark the 125th Anniversary of women’s suffrage in New Zealand we look to the future of dance, with a series of new commissions curated by RNZB Artistic Director Patricia Barker.

The Ryman Healthcare season of The Nutcracker

31 October –  20 December

Touring to Wellington, Blenheim, Invercargill, Dunedin, Christchurch, Palmerston North, Napier, Auckland (Auckland City and Takapuna), Rotorua

Choreography: Val Caniparoli, Music: Pyotr IlyichTchaikovsky, Set design: Michael Auer and Andrew Lees, Costume design: Assisted by Patricia Barker, Lighting Design: tbc, Orchestras: New Zealand Symphony Orchestra, Dunedin Symphony Orchestra, Christchurch Symphony Orchestra, Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra, Conductor: Hamish McKeich

Tutus on Tour with Ballet in a Box

Gore 15 March, Tauranga 4 April, Oamaru 17 June, Hamilton 9 July, Taupo 11 July, Whanganui 13 July, Kerikeri 12 December.

Repertoire may vary from centre to centre and will be announced in advance of each mini tour.

On sale dates for 2018 shows:

Renewing subscribers 2 October 2018; New subscribers 16 October 2017; Public 1 November 2017.

For booking info see www.rnzb.org.nz

The Royal New Zealand Ballet

The Royal New Zealand Ballet (RNZB) was founded in 1953 by Danish dancer Poul Gnatt, as a touring professional ballet company for all New Zealanders. Now based at Wellington’s St James Theatre, the Royal New Zealand Ballet is an intrinsic part of New Zealand’s national heritage, and has the largest following of all New Zealand performing arts companies. The Royal New Zealand Ballet continues to invest in live music, performing with the Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra, New Zealand Symphony Orchestra, Orchestra Wellington, the Christchurch Symphony Orchestra and the Dunedin Symphony Orchestra. The RNZB enjoys a reputation for strong and unique interpretations of full-length dramatic works. To this base the RNZB have added many masterworks and major ballets of the 20th century, such as Balanchine’s works and the Stravinsky ballets. The company has an enviable track record in commissioning new works from New Zealand and international choreographers. The RNZB regularly represents New Zealand on the international stage, with recent tours to the UK, Australia, China, USA, Italy and Hong Kong.

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Leaving Neverland – Film Review of ‘Restless Creature: Wendy Whelan’


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A scene from Got The Shot Films Production “Restless Creature: Wendy Whelan.” Photo courtesy of Paul Kolnick.

Reviewed by Steve Sucato

A single file line of female corps de ballet dancers in silhouette shuffles across the back of the stage at Lincoln Center’s David H. Koch Theater. Accompanied by the haunting string music of composer Philip Glass and looking like some cliché of automaton factory workers, the line of dancers is suddenly juxtaposed by New York City Ballet’s Wendy Whelan lifted by partner Tyler Angle soaring across the stage like some goddess exalted.  The scene out of Jerome Robbins’ Glass Pieces played out like a metaphor for the charmed career Whelan, and few others have attained, basking in the spotlight of stardom for decades while the all but anonymous line of corps dancers trudge along in the background, for most, their careers never to see such heights.

But Linda Saffire and Adam Schlesinger’s 90-minute documentary Restless Creature: Wendy Whelan (2016) isn’t about the fickle nature of stardom nor so much about Whelan’s ascent to it, but rather what she feels is her impending descent from it and the loss of her identity. It’s a very personal, somewhat inner circle, glimpse into her coming to grips with aging, injury and what happens next.

Filmed beginning in 2013 when she was 46, the documentary takes us through her battle with a painful hip injury, her inner battles over her career, and through her final performance with NYCB and the beginnings of a new chapter in her life.

Like any great athlete that has self-realized or been told that they have lost a step and subsequently see the finish line to their careers is in sight, early on in the film Whelan is knowingly rather fatalistic about her future.

“’If I don’t dance, I’d rather die’—I’ve actually said that,” recalls Whelan in the film. “I feel the ticking clock.”

Shattered and heartbroken at times in the film, Whelan’s penetrating and sometimes mournful expressions harken back to anguished images of runner Mary Decker after falling in the women’s 3,000m final at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, watching in tears as her dreams of Olympic gold ran away from her.

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A scene from Got The Shot Films Production “Restless Creature: Wendy Whelan.”

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A scene from Got The Shot Films Production “Restless Creature: Wendy Whelan.”

Born and raised in Louisville, Kentucky, Whelan’s early training at the Louisville Ballet Academy led her to New York and the School of American Ballet. In 1984, she was named an apprentice with NYCB and in 1986 she joined its corps de ballet. One of the first post-Balanchine stars of the company, Whelan went on to spend a record-setting 30-years at NYCB, 23 of them as a principal dancer.

Says current NYCB Ballet Master in Chief Peter Martins about his hiring of Whelan, “It’s not rocket science, when somebody pops up with that gift it’s very easy to identify, you just grab it.”

Unlike other dance documentaries about a single artist, Restless Creature: Wendy Whelan isn’t filled with film/video clips of her dance oeuvre which includes works by choreographers William Forsythe, Alexei Ratmansky, Twyla Tharp, Christopher Wheeldon and her performing most every major Balanchine role, instead the focus is on getting to know the affable waif during a most crucial intersection in her life ─ career reinvention or permanent retirement from the stage.

Cognizant of her gifts as a dancer and her stardom, Whelan says in the film, “I had the world in my hands. I was getting every part under the sun…it was like gold streaming into my world.”

Having worked closely with Jerome Robbins twelve years, originated more roles at NYCB than any other dancer in its history, guested with the Kirov Ballet and The Royal Ballet’s, received numerous awards including the Dance Magazine Award (2007), the Jerome Robbins Award (2011) and a 2011 Bessie Award, Whelan is considered by many as one of the modern era’s most important ballerinas.

It is perhaps that fear of falling from such great heights that seems to haunt Whelan most in the film ─ adulation and stardom are but holes in your parachute once they disappear.

Unusual in its approach to revealing Whelan as a person and an artist during a time of personal crisis, Saffire and Schlesinger’s documentary is a powerfully engaging, wonderfully choreographed and edited film that like any great dance work or film, speaks passionately to the human condition.

The documentary moves through scenes of Whelan reminiscing with the recurring male dance partners she has had in her career (Jock Soto, Craig Hall, Tyler Angle), shows her discussing and rehearsing a new ballet with Ratmansky and Wheeldon for her final performance at NYCB, and details a few somewhat uncomfortable encounters with boss Martins.

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A scene from Got The Shot Films Production “Restless Creature: Wendy Whelan.” Photo courtesy of Paul Kolnick.

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A scene from Got The Shot Films Production “Restless Creature: Wendy Whelan.” Photo courtesy of Paul Kolnick.

Particularly engaging are scenes of Whelan discussing her hip surgery with Dr. Marc Philippon of Colorado’s Vail Valley Medical Center, who says to her “Ballerinas are probably God’s best athletes,” and operation room footage of  Whelan’s hip surgery, from prepping her to the first scalpel incision with Whelan awake during it.

The most thoughtful and riveting scenes of the film however are of Whelan’s final performance with NYCB on October 18, 2014. Saffire and Schlesinger masterfully intercut her backstage routine with Whelan dancing onstage for the final time. The soundtrack to these scenes bounces between audio from a backstage hallway monitor and from the performance hall. Cameras  from seemingly every angle capture Whelan’s movements. Especially poignant are the silent, reflective and distant stares of Whelan feeling what that ending is like; a different Wendy leaving Neverland knowing she has to grow up.

At films end, Whelan comes to realize that this is not the end for her and dance. That she can take her dancing, career, and stardom to new places and new heights, which we see she has already begun to do.

Abramorama presents a Got The Shot Films Production Restless Creature: Wendy Whelan, directed and produced by Adam Schlesinger and Linda Saffire, executive producer, Diana Dimenna, edited by Bob Eisenhardt, A.C.E., director of photography, Don Lenzer with original music composed by Philip Sheppard. Running time: 1h 30min, WW Dance, LLC © 2016. www.restlesscreaturefilm.com

Abramorama will release Restless Creature: Wendy Whelan in New York at the Elinor Bunin Theater and Film Forum today, May 24, 2017.

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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