Grand Rapids Ballet Pushes the Envelope

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Five years ago, former Pacific Northwest Ballet icon Patricia Barker took the helm of Michigan’s Grand Rapids Ballet. She transformed the company’s focus, invigorating their repertoire and attracting new local and international talents. For their recent tour to Seattle, the company’s 31 dancers performed a new version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, commissioned from Olivier Wevers, on October 7-9 and MOVEMEDIA, a mixed bill of contemporary ballet and modern works dedicated to incorporating multimedia elements, on October 10-11 at the Cornish Playhouse. Since the inception of their MOVEMEDIA dance series in 2012, Grand Rapids Ballet has commissioned numerous new works by both emerging and established choreographers, over half of whom have been women.

Grand Rapids Ballet Company's MoveMedia II
Annabelle Lopez Ochoa’s Written & Forgotten
Photo courtesy of Grand Rapids Ballet

The first work on the docket for MOVEMEDIA was Penny Saunders’s Slight, a stunning piece that featured a constantly fluctuating lighting design by Matthew Taylor. The dancers’ sleek leotards and black vests, along with their frenetic movements and legs extending in every direction evoked a Kylián-esque aesthetic. The dancers paired off into exquisite duets, their socks enabling them to slide along the floor, sequencing up and down rapidly and seamlessly. The frequent changes in lighting and set design illuminated slices of the stage from different perspectives, effectively touching on many ideas and then abandoning them. A particularly arresting section materialized directly downstage, when a tier of lights descended to within inches of the dancers’ heads and torsos, spotlighting an oscillating gestural section on the floor. The dancers executed flawless unison, rolled over and under each other, and reached toward the audience, as if they were bombarded by different ideas but unable to settle on one for long.

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Penny Saunders’s Slight
Photo courtesy of Grand Rapids Ballet

After an intermission came Beethoven Excerpt by Mario Radakovsky. Set to the composer’s well known and forceful 5th Symphony, 21 dancers sat in as many chairs grouped in sections to resemble an orchestra. As the familiar musical phrases sounded, the dancers of each unit performed their own movement phrases that responded to the score exactly, their stanzas layering as the musical themes grew in complexity. The audience made much of silly moments in which the dancers adjusted their long tuxedo jackets’ tails, or performed tiny, inane gestures with overly dramatic flair. Just as the piece seemed to be finally beginning to break free of its constrained structure with a massive rippling cannon that involved the dancers moving their chairs from their stationary orchestral positions, the work concluded. When in the end the chairs returned to their original locations, the dancers sat back down, presenting the audience with bored facial expressions, perhaps a casualty of over-rehearsal or because the dancers were unconvinced by the work’s aim.

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Beethoven Excerpt by Mario Radakovsky
Photo courtesy of Grand Rapids Ballet

David Parson’s seminal 1984 work, The Envelope, an allegory for the individuality-quashing hierarchical structure of office life, rounded out the evening’s second act. The dancers fought over and passed around an envelope containing some important or intriguing information that controlled their actions and attitudes. This missive took on an onus of its own as it twined between the dancers’ legs, was handed off mouth to mouth in the manner of a dog, and rattled them to the bones. Rather than erasing their identities, the dancers’ uniform of black hoods and round sunglasses served to highlight their distinctiveness in roles as King and his minions in the modern workplace. The personalities of the four Spies, played by Therese Davis, Connie Flachs, Cassidy Isaacson, and Steven Houser, stood out in their quirky, sneaky physicality. Unlike the previous piece, Parson’s musical choices sometimes reflected the familiar orchestral overtures by Rossini and sometimes deliberately broke with the pattern, creating more unexpected and witty movement jokes. Parsons’s skills as a choreographer show in his multifaceted patterning and decision-making skills that clearly move past the initial impulse. The Envelope is a composition worth studying, and a piece that can be performed for decades yet still be enjoyed by contemporary audiences.

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The Envelope by David Parsons
Photo courtesy of Grand Rapids Ballet

Written & Forgotten, a 2014 creation from Annabelle Lopez Ochoa, closed the evening after another intermission. A helpful program note explained that this work was “an exploration on returning to the long-time memories of childhood.” Written & Forgotten contained a series of unrelated vignettes investigating that theme: animals crawled through a balloon forest, a duet emerged hindered by a balloon attached to a woman’s head, clown noses took on lives of their own, and the work devolved into an unstructured dance party in men’s underwear. Wearing ballet slippers underneath their socks, the movement vocabulary ran the gamut of genre, containing shades of ballet through to contemporary, a muddled mélange that failed to make a clear statement of either purpose or method. At the least, this work functioned as a vessel to showcase the dancers’ pristine technique and apparent ease in multiple styles.

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Annabelle Lopez Ochoa’s Written & Forgotten
Photo courtesy of Grand Rapids Ballet

Barker’s initiative in the MOVEMEDIA series indicates the tantalizing prospect of fostering the creation of new, innovate works on her talented company members. Saunders’s and Parsons’s choreography stood out in this evening of pieces disparate in both theme and form, but the GRB’s well-trained and evocative dancers shone through in each. Noticeably, Grand Rapids Ballet has emerged as a world-class company and one to watch as a curator of inventive works, thanks to Barker’s efforts and vision. For more about the company, please visit HERE.