Ballet West celebrates the expressiveness and versatility of its individual dancers this month with two contemporary works: Jerome Robbins’ original choreography for Philip Glass’ Pieces of glass; and directed by Nicolo Fonte of Carl Orff Carmina Buranawhich had its world premiere with this company in 2017.
During Friday night’s opening performance at the Capitol Theater, both plays contained some interesting moments, especially from outgoing company stars Beckanne Sisk and Chase O’Connell. But the strength of this program was to highlight the power of the whole.
Pieces of glass relies heavily on the innate characteristics of Glass’s music – dynamic arpeggios, mathematical repetition and melodic fluidity. This balance between elegance and rigidity found its best expression on Friday in the work’s opening movement: a handful of micro-sets weaving between impromptu duets with airs of urban bustle and mechanized disorder reminiscent of Jacques Tati’s film from 1967, Break. Along with the art-deco stage colors and stark graph paper staging, this move made the best case for Pieces of glass like an optimistic ballet, although fragile, for the best of worlds, the dancers moving in jerks and wanderings that evoked the rolling of a car factory.
This dazzling ecstasy only appeared as glimpses in the less thrilling follow-up moves. The second movement provided the technical climax of the whole evening, a silhouetted hieroglyphic march, but then morphed into a duet dance that relied too much on fluidity and wallowed inside Glass’ angular score. . The third movement brought back the liveliest ensemble for a mating ritual influenced by the drums of war, an invigorating finale that still hadn’t reached the ecstatic heights of the piece’s opening.
The organized chaos honed so tightly in the first movement of Pieces of glass found greater coherence in the breathtaking spectacle of Carmina Burana. Here, the attraction between poise and recklessness was explosive, with Fonte creating an exaggerated depiction of the battles between love and pain, life and death, fate and will. Fonte’s choreography exploits Orff’s epic cantata to its fullest, addressing humor, irony, sentimentality and fear in its already unique textual-musical relationship. It began with a flurry of limbs wobbling and slipping like souls of the damned, the pitiful fatalism of “O Fortuna” happily accompanying the horror.
The choreography’s emphasis on the angularity and flexibility of its dancers gave many scenes a chilling and eerie sense of stillness: the dancers frequently froze in improbable contortions, balancing against each other. . The best of these miniature tableaux vivants appeared in Orff’s dark lament on aging, “Olim lacus colueram”. Lead artist Sisk took on the role of the metaphorical swan, cascading between four other dancers as if pushed by gravity. Tenor soloist Christopher Puckett stood to the side with a watchful eye, watching without interfering.
The staging of the three soloists – Puckett, soprano Melissa Heath and baritone Christopher Clayton – gave an eerie fourth-wall feel to the stripped-down Brecthian staging, with the chorus in the risers and scaffolding lighting moving in and out of sight. As the dancers performed these poetic fables, the soloists stood indifferent and often uninvolved, totems of the audience’s state of spectacle.
Between the ballet’s chilling freeze-frame moments, the choreography focused heavily on direct action: people being thrown, grabbed, dropped, dragged and held. In the ensemble-laden numbers “Ecce gratum” and “Chramer, gip die varwe mir”, bodies dipped and ricocheted like puppets and bouncing balls. ‘In trutina’, a poetic ode to forbidden desire, provided the work’s most invigorating collaboration: a romantic duet between dancers David Huffmire and Joshua Shutkind. Mirroring each other’s movements and occasionally – briefly, hesitantly – kissing and caressing, the pair delivered a heartbreaking display of near-connection.
When the ballet looped back to the sadness and darkness of ‘O Fortuna’, moments like ‘In trutina’ lingered, turning the heavy metal fireworks of the opening frame into a more contemplative sober from fate and misery. In the final pose, the cast arranged themselves into a puzzle of intertwined pieces – an almost shocking image that lasted long after the curtain fell. Pieces of glass and Carmina Burana shone brightest in those moments, when the ensemble felt in harmony with itself as a unique and complicated being.
The Ballet West program runs until April 9. balletwest.org