Tag Archives: Grand Rapids Ballet

ARTS AIR EXCLUSIVE: Patricia Barker Named Artistic Director of Royal New Zealand Ballet


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By Steve Sucato

Former Pacific Northwest Ballet star and current artistic director of Grand Rapids Ballet, Patricia Barker will become the Royal New Zealand Ballet’s twelfth artistic director and only the second female director in its 64-year history. She takes over from current RNZB artistic director Francesco Ventriglia on June 19, 2017. Ventriglia will stay on as a choreographer for the company.

Barker says the application process involved her submitting a strategic overview with a sample production plan. She met with RNZB’s search committee via  video conference calls and spent three days at the company’s home in Wellington where, in addition to meeting and talking with the organization’s board and staff ─  including fellow American executive director Frances Turner ─  she had a question and answer session with RNZB’s dancers.

“It’s exciting, they have an excellent reputation, wonderful reviews and a great spirit and energy in the studio,” says Barker.

According to Barker, RNZB was looking for a unique identity for their 36-member company and she feels she can create that for them. “All the works I did at Grand Rapids Ballet definitely gave us a unique identity. I look at each transition as an exciting change, building on an organization’s successes that came before while looking toward the future. We did that in Grand Rapids and I think I can do that here.”

With a 13-million dollar budget and a history of international touring, Barker says she is ready to apply what she has learned in her career at Pacific Northwest Ballet, as a dancewear entrepreneur and at Grand Rapids Ballet  to moving RNZB forward.

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Patricia Barker in the studio with Grand Rapids Ballet dancers. Photo by Michael Auer.

With their 2018 season already set, Barker says she will be initially working on programming for 2019 as well as getting to know the dancers and the organization. With that advanced planning in place along with seasonal differences in when RNZB performs, it will allow Barker to also stay on as artistic director at Grand Rapids Ballet during the coming 2017-18 season.

“It’s nice because their [New Zealand’s] summer is our winter and there will be opposite weeks of work,” says Barker. “I can do a lot remotely and be in Grand Rapids for the opening of productions.” She also says she still plans on staging a few ballets on the company.

GRB’s 2017-18 season, which includes a program of highlights from Sleeping Beauty, Swan Lake, Giselle, Esmeralda and Don Quixote; their annual The Nutcracker production re-imagined by Polar Express author Chris Van Allsburg; two repertory programs celebrating diversity with world-premiere works by some of today’s most influential choreographers; and the world-premiere of choreographer Penny Saunders’ Oscar Wilde inspired ballet The Happy Prince and other Wilde Tales, will now act as a farewell celebration of Barker’s 7-years with the GRB, taking it from a relatively unknown regional troupe to one with a national presence.

On moving to the other side of the world the 54-year-old Barker says: “I am an adventurous individual with one more adventure in me. I am so proud of what we created at Grand Rapids Ballet, the platform for choreographers, especially women choreographers and the prolific amount of works we have done has been incredible. Also, the development of talent, including local talent, has been wonderful to be a part of. The fun thing about going somewhere else is bringing all that I have learned and experienced here and applying it there.”

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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Curiouser and curiouser: Grand Rapids Ballet’s “Alice” overcomes early flaws to delight


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Grand Rapids Ballet’s Cassidy Isaacson and Levi Teachout in “Alice in Wonderland.” Photos by Eric Bouwens.

Reviewed by Steve Sucato

For a long time, it’s been a common speculation that iconic novel “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” was the product of mind-altering drugs. The world premiere of Grand Rapids Ballet (GRB)’s production of “Alice in Wonderland” Friday night based on that tale by Lewis Carroll’s (the pseudonym for Charles Lutwidge Dodgson), feeds into that notion. The mind-blowing visual spectacle has the feel of a cross between 1960s psychedelia and Disney’s “Fantasia.” But where award-winning Argentinian visual artist Luis Grané’s colorful and cartoon-like costumes and scenic design was a highlight of the production, slow character development early on in the ballet proved problematic.

Known for his illustration work on such films as “The Matrix” (1999), “Ratatouille” (2007), “Hotel Transylvania” (2012) and “The Boxtrolls” (2014), Grané’s bold visual effects and projections acted as a moving scenic backdrop to the 90-minute multimedia production choreographed by Brian Enos. “Alice” was the first ever full-length story ballet Enos has choreographed. He was up to the challenge for the most part, employing a strategic blend of movement styles that helped illustrate each of the ballet’s characters. The artistic director of St. Louis’ The Big Muddy Dance Company, local audiences may remember Enos from his other ballet created on GRB, 2013’s Scottish-flavored “Nae Regrets.”

Family-friendly (although skewing more toward younger audiences), the ballet was set to a well thought out score of existing music by composers Alfred Schnittke, Dmitri Shostakovich, Sergei Prokofiev and others compiled by Brendan Hollins. Although not set in the usual Victorian era in favor of a more contemporary look, for the most part Enos followed Carroll’s universally known storyline.

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Grand Rapids Ballet’s Innovative ‘MOVEMEDIA’ Series Delights Yet Again


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Grand Rapids Ballet’s Steven Houser and Yuka Oba in Penny Saunders’ “In Frame.” Photo by Eric Bouwens.

Reviewed by Steve Sucato

Perhaps the best and most revealing showcase of Grand Rapids Ballet’s dancers’ talent and versatility, the company’s annual MOVEMEDIA contemporary dance series added yet another successful chapter March 10-12 at the company’s Peter Martin Wege Theatre in Grand Rapids.

In this latest iteration, MOVEMEDIA: World Premieres, artistic director Patricia Barker called on two of the series’ most celebrated choreographers, former Hubbard Street Dance Chicago dancers Robyn Mineko Williams and Penny Saunders as well as MOVEMEDIA first-timers Robert Dekkers and Vanessa Thiessen to create new works.

Opening the performance on March 11 was Dekkers and Thiessen’s ballet “Dear Light Along the Way to Nothingness.” Titled after a line from James Merrill’s poem Log, the ballet for 21 dancers was set to Caroline Shaw’s unconventional 2013 Pulitzer Prize-winning composition, “Partita for Eight Voices.” The 26-minute ballet had an intriguingly bizarre sci-fi feel to it driven home by costume designer Christian Squires’ scaly sea creature meets Medieval-period garb.  The dancers in the ballet vacillated from YouTube “mannequin challenge” stillness as a collective, to individual dancers or pairs of dancers, tossing off hyper-convulsive fits of movement.

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Grand Rapids Ballet in Robert Dekkers & Vanessa Thiessen “Dear Light Along the Way to Nothingness.” Photo by Eric Bouwens.

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Grand Rapids Ballet in Robert Dekkers and Vanessa Thiessen “Dear Light Along the Way to Nothingness.” Photo by Eric Bouwens.

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Grand Rapids Ballet’s Grace Haskins in Robert Dekkers and Vanessa Thiessen “Dear Light Along the Way to Nothingness.” Photo by Eric Bouwens.

A bit more show than go, Dekkers and Thiessen’s choreography for the ballet appeared to rely more on quirkiness over substantive dancing. That being said, the piece at times took over your interest like whatever force caused dancers to suddenly shake violently or twitch a leg uncontrollably and then dissipate. There was something to these characters/creatures and to this fantastical world, however intangible it was to discern. Standout performers included: Grace Haskins, Cassidy Isaacson, Nicholas Schultz, Matthew Wenckowski and Caroline Wiley who each danced with a level of energy, commitment and fervor that accounted for much of the ballet’s appeal.

Next, Williams’ “Gleam,” set to music by Chopin and others recalled the dreamlike atmosphere of her 2013 work for the company “One Take.”  A contemporary ballet for three male/female couples seemingly at different stages of the same romantic relationship, “Gleam” showcased Williams’ preferred choreographic movement style in which the dancers moved as if poured onto the stage; merging together, then apart, like flowing streams of liquid.

On a dimly lit stage to the sounds of rain, company trainee Adriana Wagenveld and partner Nicholas Schultz began a push-pull pas de deux along a band of white light. One dancer’s touch of a limb the other into motion as they gazed intently at one another conjuring up a sense of the beginning, “feeling out” stage of a romantic relationship. Soon Wagenveld and Schultz were replaced by dancers Cassidy Isaacson and company rising star Matthew Wenckowski in a more aggressive take on Williams’ sophisticated choreography perhaps suggesting the occasional turmoil that often comes in a relationship. The dramatic work concluded with a longer transition to a third couple as dancer Isaac Aoki’s entrance onstage overlapped Wenckowski’s exit. The two men danced to a scratchy recording of late 19th century Italian superstar tenor Enrico Caruso singing “Mi Par D’udir Ancora” from Georges Bizet’s opera I Pescatori Di Perle. Then veteran company star Yuka Oba joined Aoki onstage as composer Michael Galasso’s haunting “Angkor Wat Theme Finale” from the 2001 film In the Mood for Love began.  The pair was perhaps representative of a mature relationship, one that has lasted a lifetime. The dancers gave in fully to Williams’ heartfelt choreography that at work’s end left Oba standing alone struck by the apparent loss of Aoki.

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Grand Rapids Ballet’s Cassidy Isaacson and Matthew Wenckowski in Robyn Mineko Williams’ “Glean.” Photo by Eric Bouwens.

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Grand Rapids Ballet’s Yuka Oba and Isaac Aoki in Robyn Mineko Williams’ “Glean.” Photo by Eric Bouwens.

With “Gleam,” Williams created a surreal, dreamlike world of memory where characters appeared only in close-up and around them, like our own distant recollections, lay darkness and the fuzzy edges of details all but forgotten.

Having seen Williams’ works on other dance companies, it is clear she gets the best out of GRB’s dancers and vice versa. The same holds true for Saunders who produced another gem in “In Frame” to close the program.

Set to Max Richter’s reworked version of Antonio Vivaldi’s “The Four Seasons” and using projected images of ink and watercolor paintings by artist (and Hubbard Street Dance Chicago dancer) Alice Klock, Saunders, along with lighting designer Matthew Taylor and digital designers Sam Begich and Michael Auer, created a the look and feel to the work of an interactive art gallery where the artwork, as well as those viewing it, were alive with motion.

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Grand Rapids Ballet dancers in Penny Saunders’ “In Frame.” Photo by Eric Bouwens.

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Grand Rapids Ballet’s Caroline Wiley in Penny Saunders’ “In Frame.” Photo by Eric Bouwens.

Said by Saunders to be about “the universal realities of love, life and death, creation and destruction, to the beauty and vulnerability of the creative process,” the work blended contemplative moments of reflection with rapid-fire bursts of movement. Those coupled with the aforementioned atmospheric lighting and projections, cultivated a look and mood to the work that proved mesmerizing. Nowhere was this more pronounced than in a quiet solo by Wiley in the work’s “Autumn” section. Crouched in a deep knee bend over a floor projection of one of Klock’s paintings, Wiley appeared to gather to her unseen elements from her surroundings and ball them up with her hands. A second year company member, Wiley, like Wenckowski, impressed throughout the program.

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Grand Rapids Ballet’s Caroline Wiley in Penny Saunders’ “In Frame.” Photo by Eric Bouwens.

Grand Rapids Ballet will next present the world-premiere of Brian Enos’ Alice in Wonderland with designs world-renowned visual artist Luis Grané. April 28-30 & May 5-7, 2017 at GRB’s Peter Martin Wege Theatre, 341 Ellsworth SW, downtown Grand Rapids, MI. Tickets are $44 and can be purchased by calling (616) 454–4771 ext. 10 or at grballet.com.

Copyright Steve Sucato – 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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