Tag Archives: Patricia Barker

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


1-LeSIKPJuJ0YJnCELGIxstw

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.

Click here to read on…

Leave a comment

Filed under cultured.GR, Dance Reviews 2017

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


17191269_10154962276136597_1318178048448506147_n

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.

17202895_10154962429766597_8953429348633024448_n

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

17200951_10154962276696597_5963166559295150753_n

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

17201197_10154962283526597_5680210161696083233_n

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.

17203120_10154962274896597_7703670086738395388_n

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

17201358_10154962428411597_4688595925931037981_n

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.

17218624_10154962427456597_4319065931305233535_o

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

17191269_10154962278766597_7458466199513078613_n

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.

17191138_10154962280801597_7306164546311766350_n

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.

Leave a comment

Filed under Dance Reviews 2017

Grand Rapids Ballet’s Michael Auer creates theatrical magic behind the scenes


1-NTetI5fq1FJ01OmyW9BUYA

Michael Auer, creative director at Grand Rapids Ballet. Photo credit Eric Bouwens.

By Steve Sucato

“Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain,” said the Wizard of Oz after being caught for the elaborate stagecraft he presented to Dorothy and her compatriots in the 1939 movie classic of the same name. It’s a desire for anonymity Grand Rapids Ballet (GRB) creative director Michael Auer, the organization’s own multitalented and multifaceted wizard, can identify with as well. When it comes to helping others find the courage, heart and smarts in their creative endeavors for the 46-year-old ballet organization, Auer stays behind the scenes.

Born in Vienna, Austria, Auer studied ballet at the Vienna State Opera Ballet and then at New York’s School of American Ballet. He went on to a professional dance career with North Carolina Dance Theatre, Eliot Feld Ballet, Frankfurt Ballet and at Pacific Northwest Ballet. With was there that he met wife Patricia Barker, a prima ballerina with the company. They’ve now been together for 33 years.

After his career as a dancer, Auer’s second career was as a self-taught computer software engineer. He has worked at Microsoft, Boeing, Carnegie Mellon and others—creating software, developing early virtual reality technology, and doing market research.

Click here to read on…

Leave a comment

Filed under cultured.GR