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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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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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