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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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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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Grand Rapids Ballet’s 2015-2016 home season a mix of favorites and soon-to-be favorites


Photo courtesy of MLive.com

Yuka Oba and Stephen Sanford in a scene from “The Nutcracker.” Photo courtesy of MLive.com.

By Steve Sucato

After a successful tour this past week to artistic director Patricia Barker’s old stomping ground Seattle, Washington, where she was a star at Pacific Northwest Ballet for two decades, Grand Rapids Ballet returns to the “Furniture City” this weekend to kick off its 2015-2016 home season. As in Barker’s past five seasons as GRB director, local audiences can expect a mix of top flight contemporary and classical works danced by one of the nation’s most rapidly rising dance companies.

Here’s a look:

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October 16-18, 2015 @ Peter Martin Wege Theatre

A reprise of popular GRB repertory works, Pacifica includes choreographer Annabelle Lopez Ochoa’s “balloon-tastic” Written & Forgotten (2014), a humorous, sometimes poignant look at childhood memories, and Penny Saunders’ illuminating Slight (2015) of which Barker says: “The whole thing is how light and shadows change the look of the body, movements and mood. It’s quite eerie and quite cool.”  Also on the program will be choreographer David Parsons’ clever masterwork The Envelope (1984), a delightfully zany commentary on human social structures, and excerpts from Mario Radacovsky’s turbulent Beethoven (2015) that closed last season.

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December 11-13 & 18-20, 2015 @ DeVos Performance Hall

Last year’s spectacularly re-imagined holiday classic returns with a few minor tweaks. The magical production with choreography by Val Caniparoli and set design by Polar Express author Chris Van Allsburg and Eugene Lee, brings with it Broadway-style production values, a legendary Tchaikovsky score played by the Grammy-nominated Grand Rapids Symphony and some great dancing. One of the best regional The Nutcracker productions to come along in years, it is surely the stuff childhood memories are made of.

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[World Premiere] February 12-14 & 19-21, 2016 @ Peter Martin Wege Theatre

Not to be confused with her 2013 production of Dangerous Liaisons for Augsburg Ballet, choreographer Annabelle Lopez Ochoa creates a brand new telling the tale of scheming French aristocrats The Marquise de Merteuil and the Vicomte de Valmont. The two rivals and ex-lovers use seduction to humiliate and degrade others all-the-while boasting of their cruel and manipulative talents. Of the new 80-minute production in two acts Ochoa says it will more closely follow the plotline of the 1989 movie adaption starring Glenn Close and John Malkovich rather than author Durand Neveu’s original 1782 book series.

The characters in Ochoa’s new Dangerous Liaisons come out of a time period in the French aristocracy where the powerful and wealthy became bored with parlor games and turned to more sinister games of the heart. Their intrigue and eventual comeuppance should make for a rather unique dancegoer experience.

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March 18-20, 2016 @ Peter Martin Wege Theatre

The Best of MOVEMEDIA will revisit some of the most popular works presented in the annual cutting-edge dance series that began five years ago. They include Brian Enos’ Nae Regrets, Thomas Dancy’s You Gotta Be Kiddin Me and others, plus a brand new work by choreographer Penny Saunders.

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[World Premiere] – May 6-8 & 13-15, 2016 @ Peter Martin Wege Theatre

Closing out the season is will be a new ballet adaptation of Charles Perrault’s classic fairytale Cinderella. Choreographed by former Boston Ballet resident choreographer Bruce Wells and set to Johann Strauss II’s “Aschenbrödel” (Cinderella), the classical ballet will be a lighter take on the timeless tale.

“It is very important for our company and school to come together and have a collaborative look,” says Barker. “Cinderella is another production like The Nutcracker we can do that. Having it be like a second Nutcracker to us is one of our big goals.”

Audiences will notice several new faces this season as ten new dancers join GRB’s ranks. They are: New Jersey-native Branden Reiners, Illinois-native’s Julia Turner and Matthew Wenckowski, Missouri’s Thomas Seiff, Seattle’s Grace Haskins and Georgia’s Nigel Tau. The company’s new trainees are: Charlotte Logeais (Paris, France), Elise Gillum (San Jose, CA), Derek Brockington (Holland, MI) and Adriana Wagenveld (Bayamon, Puerto Rico). Promoted from apprentice or trainee to company member are: Morgan Frasier, Emily Rose, Caroline Wiley, Jack Lennon and Hannah Potter. Departures from last season include dancers Leah Slavens, Jessica Smith, Keely Lytton, Vanessa Cielle, Yassui Mergaliyev and audience favorites Hannah Wilcox, Kyohei Giovanni Yoshida, Monica Pelfrey, and Stephen Sanford.

For more information and tickets visit grballet.com or call the Grand Rapids Ballet box office at (616) 454-4771 ext. 10

All graphics courtesy of Michael Auer, Grand Rapids Ballet

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