Tag Archives: James Sofranko

Grand Rapids Ballet’s ‘Extremely Close’, Extremely Good [REVIEW]


Alexander Meister-Upleger in James Sofranko's The Sweet By and By. Photo by Scoot & Kate Rasmussen 500px

Alexandra Meister-Upleger (center) in James Sofranko’s “The Sweet By and By”. Photo by Damion Van Slyke.

Grand Rapids Ballet – Extremely Close
Peter Martin Wege Theatre
Grand Rapids, MI
April 12-14, 2019

Reviewed by Steve Sucato

In the company’s first season under new artistic director James Sofranko, Grand Rapids Ballet appears to be continuing on the path of upward trajectory begun by former artistic director Patricia Barker now the director of The Royal New Zealand Ballet.

The company’s program Extremely Close, on Saturday, April 13 at their in-house Peter Martin Wege Theatre, was varied, well-balanced and top notch. GRB’s dancers never looked better with adroit performances rivaling some seen in the finest dance companies in North America.

The program opened with veteran dance maker Val Caniparoli’s “Ibsen’s House” created for San Francisco Ballet (where Sofranko was a soloist) in 2008.

Caniparoli, one of the most consistently brilliant dance-makers working today, created with “Ibsen’s House,” a choreographic jewel.  The ballet was inspired by five female characters taken from Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen’s plays; A Doll’s House (1879), Ghosts (1881), Rosmersholm (1886), The Lady from the Sea (1888), and Hedda Gabler (1890). Said Caniparoli, in an interview about the ballet, “Ibsen’s radical ideas about marriage, gender roles, and family relations shocked and outraged many of his contemporaries, and still hold resonance today.”

Cassidy Isaacson and Steven Houser in Val Caniparoli's Ibsen's House. Photo by Ray Nard 500px

Cassidy Isaacson and Steven Houser in Val Caniparoli’s “Ibsen’s House”. Photo by Ray Nard.

Danced to excerpts of Antonín Dvořák’s “Piano Quintet in A Major, Op 81” played live, the ballet had as a partial backdrop a large window frame with the dancers costumed in rich-looking, buttoned-up Victorian dresses for the cast’s five women and equally stiff suits for its five men by designer Sandra Woodall that suggested persons of privilege.

The ballet, an amalgamation of the aforementioned Ibsen plays’ themes and attitudes towards their heroines, unfolded as a series of vignettes expressing the emotions and attitudes each of the women with regard to the important personal relationships written about in the plays they appear in.

While it might be helpful in knowing these women’s stories in Ibsen’s plays, in some ways, it may also have been better not to as to not bring to the ballet expectations of the women’s character portrayals and those of others in the ballet.  Caniparoli’s choreography spoke volumes on its own.

Cassidy Issacson in Val Caniparoli's Ibsen's House. Photo by Ray Nard 500px

Cassidy Issacson in Val Caniparoli’s “Ibsen’s House”. Photo by Ray Nard.

“Ibsen’s House” began with a series of solos introducing each of the five women and laying out their particular demeanor starting with dancer Cassidy Isaacson as Hedda Gabler from Ibsen’s play of the same name.

Isaacson was riveting as the cold and callous Gabler who appeared determined to fight back the boredom and disappointments in her life. Costumed in a mauve and black dress, Isaacson performed Caniparoli’s sharp, illustrative ballet choreography with soul withering intensity. Her deliciously superior attitude then gave way to the worried nervousness of Yuka Oba as Nora Helmer from A Doll’s House.  Oba’s solo, like Isaacson’s, was expertly-crafted with a high level of technique and phrasing. Caniparoli, who choreographed GRB’s The Nutcracker, creates the types of ballets that GRB and its dancers can only benefit from in taking the company to the next level in its upward trajectory.

Alexander Meister-Upleger in Val Caniparoli's Ibsen's House. Photo by Ray Nard 500px

Alexandra Meister-Upleger in Val Caniparoli’s “Ibsen’s House”. Photo by Ray Nard.

Next, newcomer this season, Alexandra Meister-Upleger portrayed Helene Avling from Ibsen’s “Ghosts”.  The former Nashville Ballet dancer moved a bit like a prancing horse in a gesture-laden solo that the veteran dancer performed superbly. She was followed by Connie Flachs as the unfulfilled Ellida Wangel from “Lady of the Sea” in a swooping and swaying solo and GRB up and comer Madison Massera as the manipulative Rebecca West from “Rosemersholm”.

Yuka Oba and Nathan Young in Val Caniparoli's Ibsen's House. Photo by Ray Nard. 500px

Yuka Oba and Nathan Young in Val Caniparoli’s “Ibsen’s House”. Photo by Ray Nard.

The second half of the ballet paired the women with their male counterparts and sources of consternation in Ibsen’s plays. A series of dark and troubled pas de deuxs then further fleshed out the relationships between these characters. Most memorable was that of Oba and Nathan Young as the stern Torvald Helmer, her character’s husband in “A Doll’s House” who has found out she has been secretly stealing from him. The perfectly danced pas de deux filled with tension and peril left one  gripping at their seat watching it unfold.

Switching stylistic and emotional gears, the world-premiere of Sofranko’s “The Sweet By And By,” danced to lively jazz music by New Orleans’ Preservation Hall Jazz Band, was a charming spirit-lifter.

Levi Teachout, Nathan Young, and Adriana Wagenveld in James Sofranko's The Sweet By and By. Photo by Scott & Kate Rasmussen 500px

Levi Teachout, Nathan Young, and Adriana Wagenveld in James Sofranko’s “The Sweet By and By”. Photo by Scott & Kate Rasmussen.

The ballet followed main character Steven Houser as a carefree, life-of-the-party gent in a parade of bubbly dances with his large group of friends to the songs “When the Saints Go Marching In,” “Down by the Riverside,” “By and By” and others.

Looking like frolicking characters from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, Sofranko infused the ballet’s choreography with an energy and bravura that was pleasing.

Interjected into this world of glee were moments of melancholy. Houser’s flirty and infectiously positive character was, underneath that exterior, quite lonely for companionship and a meaningful romantic relationship. After several tries in the ballet, he found that companionship in a female friend portrayed by dancer Gretchen Steimle.

Steven Houser and Gretchen Steimle in James Sofranko's The Sweet By and By. Photo by Scott & Kate Rasmussen 500px

Steven Houser and Gretchen Steimle in James Sofranko’s “The Sweet By and By.” Photo by Scott & Kate Rasmussen.

Truly a vehicle for Houser’s wide-ranging talents as a dancer, he simply killed it and received a rousing ovation at ballet’s end.

The program concluded with its namesake work “Extremely Close” by former Hubbard Street Dance Chicago dancer and resident choreographer, Alejandro Cerrudo.

Choreographed in 2008 (and making the rounds to several regional ballet companies next season), the contemporary dance work was Cerrudo’s second-ever and smacked of a young dance-maker looking to make a big impression — He did.

Emily Reed and Isaac Aoki in Alejandro Cerrudo's Extremely Close. Photo by Scott & Kate Rasmussen 500px

Emily Reed and Isaac Aoki in Alejandro Cerrudo’s “Extremely Close.” Photo by Scott & Kate Rasmussen.

Set to music by Philip Glass and Dustin O’Halloran, the work began in silence with white feathers slowly drifting down from the rafters and piling up on the stage floor like fluffy snow. A cast of 8 dancers in socks cut paths in the feathers with their dancing, launching into prolonged slides across the floor as if ice lay below the surface of feathers. Into this scenic dreamland, Cerrudo also added door-sized moving walls that the dancers then appeared and disappeared from behind as they glided in lines across the stage. GRB’s dancers were brilliant in their timing pulling off these visual effects.

Yuka Oba and Matthew Wenckowski in Alejandro Cerrudo's Extremely Close. Photo by Damion Van Slyke 500px

Yuka Oba and Matthew Wenckowski in Alejandro Cerrudo’s “Extremely Close”. Photo by Damion Van Slyke.

Led by dancers Yuka Oba and Matthew Wenckowski, GRB’s dancers performed Cerrudo’s grounded movement language that is so associated with his works and that of Hubbard Street, marvalously. The breathtaking work ended with Wenckowski at the front of the stage pulling up the stage floor over his head and running toward the rear of the stage a la the billowing fabric effect used in choreographer Jiri Kylian’s masterwork Petite Mort.

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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‘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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