What’s more invigorating than one boundary-pushing ballet company? Three!
Wednesday’s audience at the Kennedy Center’s Ballet Across America series was treated to a varied and impressive, though uneven, evening with Nashville Ballet, Jeremy McQueen’s Black Iris Project, and Complexions Contemporary Ballet.
Curated by American Ballet Theatre’s Misty Copeland, the program began with a lovely short film, Now More Than Ever, directed by dancer-turned-filmmaker Ezra Hurwitz and featuring Stella Abrera, Isabella Boylston, Marcelo Gomes, Calvin Royal III, and James Whiteside. It was a visual appetizer, placing the dancers in and around the Kennedy Center, on terraces, in hallways, and moving about the peripheries of the empty Opera House before eventually finding their way to the stage. Accompanied by an effervescent electronic score by Aaron Roche, it suggested a supernatural summoning to Washington of dancers throughout the land — apt for the occasion of this ambitious series, which will also feature a program selected by New York City Ballet’s Justin Peck. At once elegant and airy, the movie made for a charming welcome.
Nashville Ballet followed with artistic director Paul Vasterling’s Concerto, danced to a superb three-movement work for piano and orchestra by Ben Folds — yes, that Ben Folds, who in addition to being an indie-rock star and multi-instrumentalist has a serious and appealing classical vocabulary. Pianist Joel Ayau performed the sweet, sly, jazzy concerto with the Opera House Orchestra conducted by Nathan Fifield, Ayau on stage with the dancers.
Vasterling’s staging is simple and graceful. His costume color schemes and Scott Leathers’ lighting mirror the three movements’ shifts in mood. In the first, the spritely soloist Judson Veach leaps in and out of duos and trios, the corps swirling about him, until a ring of women happily and amusingly surrounds him. The movement’s palette is black and white and the music has a retro aura echoing Gershwin, with sections reminiscent of Ravel’s Concerto for the Left Hand. The sensibility is that of a summer evening on the town with young friends and cliques interacting and flirting.
The lithe Kayla Rowser is featured in the more mysterious pastel-hued second movement. And the sunny and powerful Mollie Sansone shines in the third, with subtle light projections on the backdrop behind her and Ayau at one point standing at the piano as he plays a rhythmic clumped-chord pattern with his right hand while muting the strings with his left. The dancers’ ensemble work frayed a tad toward the very end. And the piano downstage right blocked some audience members’ view of the mid- and back-stage corps. But it’s a tradeoff — probably a worthwhile one — because Ayau’s performance is itself a worthy spectacle.
The Black Iris Project’s Madiba, choreographed by McQueen, is a stirring story ballet about Nelson Mandela to a score by Carman Moore. It stars the astonishing Andile Ndlovu as Mandela, Daphne M. Lee as Winnie Mandela, and Alex Aquilino as Mandela’s prison guard.
Moore’s music, again conducted by Fifield, passes varied heartbeat-like rhythm patterns and colliding melodic fragments from instrument to instrument, with mallet percussion motifs stirred into the propulsive mix.
Mandela, established in the opening scene as a proud Xhosa clan member (Madiba was his tribal name) is too preoccupied with books and romance to pay much mind to the oppression around him. When he awakens to it and becomes politically active, he’s arrested and thrown in prison. There he establishes a grudging cooperative relationship with his guard, who allows him pen and paper. And when Mandela is freed, he rallies his nation.
If this summing up of an extraordinary life sounds woefully accelerated and pat, so too is the ballet, which feels like a work in progress. What we see looks like a fast-motion preview of what could, and perhaps should, be a full-evening project four or five times larger in scope. At this scale, the proportions are off, the fascinating prison sequences cut short and the upbeat ending premature and unpersuasive. The man, after all, spent 27 years behind bars!
There are so many wonderful facets here for McQueen to expand on: the street-life dances; the strange love-hate symbiosis pas de deux of prisoner and guard; the innovative officer duos moving in fascist angularities, one hoisting another like a piece of artillery; a deepening of the Xhosa heritage element.
A longer version could elaborate further on the young Mandela’s running and boxing; the evolution of his thoughts, dreams, and horrors while shut away at Robben Island; his complicated (to say the least) marriage to Winnie. It could build on the wonderful and whimsical natural elements embodied here by Christina Spigner’s and Amanda Smith’s delightful blue cranes.
If McQueen does amplify the work, he might consider too whether his depictions of South Africans’ clashes with the military are too balletically “pretty,” though their meaning is clear. Making them more realistically raucous and ugly, in contrast to the romance and the nature elements, would widen the already impressive dramatic range he’s established. In addition to Moore, McQueen has the right collaborators here, with Alan C. Edwards’s lighting and fog particularly effective in establishing the forbidding prison, and Montana Levi Blanco’s costumes quickly conveying place and circumstance (I also love the cranes’ tutu feather tails).
In short, Mandela’s life is a brilliant subject for a ballet and McQueen is approaching it in a visionary way. But he could take it much further, and I hope he will. Yeah, I know — easy for some critic to suggest a months’ long, maybe years’ long, expansion of a project that’s probably already run McQueen ragged. It would, however, be time and effort exceptionally well spent.
The evening’s third act was Complexions’ Star Dust, choreographer Dwight Rhoden’s David Bowie-inspired odyssey. The typical critical knock on Complexions is that despite its explicit and accomplished emphasis on dancer diversity, its choreographic diversity is nil, with pieces tending toward superficial razzmatazz. That take generally feels stick-in-the-muddish to me — as if gorgeous, splendidly trained, and scrupulously rehearsed bodies bounding joyously about were a scourge of, and threat to, civilization.
Still, I get it, and Star Dust is a helpful case study.
In Michael Korsch’s ravishing tapestry of top- and back-lights, flattered by Christine Darch’s psychedelically rouged and purpled shimmering cut-away costumes, the company is beautiful, sensuous, and — that three-letter quality that dare not speak its name on the serious ballet stage — fun. But the voyage through nine Bowie songs doesn’t nearly live up to its potential. “Lazarus,” featuring Terk Lewis Waters, is absorbingly spectral. “Space Oddity,” with Addison Ector and company slowly strutting, unisex, en pointe, is imaginative. But many of the other numbers have a sameness to them, rows of taut boogying bodies sliding in from stage right and stage left like players in a customized glam-rock foosball game. The semi-regular lip-syncing, moreover, has got to go. It instantly reduces the ambiance to that of a tacky nightclub act.
Again, there’s nothing tragic about what amounts to an incredibly intricate dance party. But with troupe members this good, it’s a waste, and a somewhat mystifying one given the Bowie theme. Who more than Bowie begs for an innovative narrative arc and a set at least a bit more ingenious than a sparkly cabaret curtain? It’s like a Stagecraft 101 assignment. Pick your personae: Ziggy, Thin White Duke, and/or Swiss Recluse. Pick your set themes: Space, Mars, Spiders, and/or Androgynous Swingtown. Employ your backstory about the lad from Brixton. Circle back to the end story as he musically anticipates his death and ushers himself into the Melancholy Stardom Beyond. So many possibilities unexplored.
Rhoden and Complexions co-artistic director Desmond Richardson have done the hard part: assembling an incredible group of dancers and finding an accessible semi-pop niche for themselves. All good. It’s time for them to take it to the next artistic level, proving the fuddy-duddies wrong while maintaining their wowed crowds.
Ballet Across America continues at The Kennedy Center thru Sunday, April 23, 2017. Details and tickets.