Whenever possible, I prefer walking over driving. This is due to my incredibly terrible sense of direction, claustrophobia on the road, and the fact that tires are not as dependable as my feet. Yes it is slower but I feel as though I am in control of the situation (impending blisters) and know that I’ll get there eventually. Sometimes I prefer the security of knowing exactly what I’m getting in to.
This is usually the attitude that I have towards recent productions from Saint Louis Ballet. I know that I will see very talented artists with beautiful bodies and high extension. I know that when I go to see them in one of their full-length classical productions such as Swan Lake that it will be presented with all of the bells and whistles while still keeping the time-honored traditions and historical significance of ballet afloat. It’s more the idea of ‘contemporary’ that felt like stepping into the unknown. The past weekends ‘Contemporary Series’ at the Touhill proved that it was only my idea of them that needed the update.
The show opened with a world premier choreographed by Artistic director Gen Horiuchi. ‘More Morra’ featured a large ensemble cast of the professional company as well as a few students of the school, bold lighting by Don Guy, and of course, music from Joe Morra over three movements. This piece seemed uneven; the music had quite an exotic flair but the costumes- particularly the women in black leotard and tights- were akin to classroom attire. The choreography had some interesting use of partnering, and even gymnastics but the third section didn’t quite live up to the frantic drama of the music. I was impressed with the extension across the board but noticed a few dancers that seemed to lose the connection to their core strength as stamina faded. The men looked pretty strong but the women lacked clarity in the group work. Art can serve as transportation or escape but with the mixed messages from simple costume, high-energy music, and mostly classical vocabulary it was unclear where this piece was really going.
The next piece was another premier, this time from third-time guest choreographer Christopher d’Amboise. Set to popular favorites from Beethoven, Chopin, and Prokofiev, ‘Volatizing the Esters’ is named for the act of swirling your wine glass to activate hidden aromas, bringing oxygen to the fruit. This piece brings a true contemporary feel and breathes life into old perceptions about Saint Louis Ballet. Each of the nine dancers brought a unique personality to movement that ranged from identifiable ballet steps, a grounded and fluid modern quality, and funny imaginative things that can only be described as movement. There were so many moments of sheer technical brilliance; six or seven pirouettes (I lost track) followed by an a la second turn from Michael McGonegal, an arabesque that defies all hip sockets from Audrey Honert, brilliantly articulated footwork from Eric Hoffman and Lauren Lane. This range of character and music in this piece allowed these masters of craft to really shine as artists; funny, whimsical, heart-stopping artists.
‘Volatizing the Esters’ turned the theatre into a different world. Every element of stage craft was put to extraordinary use with the atmospheric, sometimes intimate sometimes sunny lighting again by Guy, costumes from Norah Worthington that were neither gender neutral nor specific, pedestrian but not indicative of character, light but not without an earthy tone. The clever use of staging, the addition of the shadowed curtain, the white chairs, and the movable rug added a scenic element that made the imagined world feel that much more grounded in the reality that all of us have sat on a chair and also dreamlike in that not many of us have stood on a rotating fabric platform. Everything contributed to a relatively simple concept, exquisitely and intricately executed. Besides the fact that the music selections (think Moonlight Sonata) are just beautiful, they were that one familiar key element that made the piece not overwhelmingly different. These well-placed selections made it possible to feel like we the audience were simply re-experiencing a favorite but with our eyes newly opened and suddenly impossible to shut. Great art can make us see the world anew, and I don’t think I will see a glass of wine without remembering this piece. It was simply a masterpiece and my favorite thing I have ever seen this wonderful company bring to the stage, changing, informing, and living on in the catalogue of memory and experiences. Talk about reinventing the wheel.
Two more pieces followed after intermission- a short pas de deux ‘William Tell Duet’ choreographed by Dance St. Louis Artistic Director Michael Uthoff and ‘La Vie’ choreographed by Horiuchi. The duet, danced by Erin Swinney and Alberto Rodriguez, was an entertaining romp through ballet parody without too much technique. It did exactly what it was supposed to do, which was lighten the mood and provide a chuckle for the fans of slapstick. Who doesn’t love a highly trained artistic male shoved into a tutu?
‘La Vie’ hit a lot of the high-notes that Saint Louis Ballet does so well. There was a Balanchine-esque feel surely inspired by Horiuchi’s past as a New York City Ballet Principal, even a bit of a jazz tone. The costumes were lovely, it was entertaining and fun, and the dancing was quite wonderful. There were some fantastic moments with the group of men in entrechat six, individualized flashy jumps and tours, and very good fouettes done together by two girls (I will say that it took one girl longer to get quite on the beat, but she caught up by the end and then it was stunning).There were more than a few discrepancies in timing from the shorter group of girls but the three taller girls had not only similar leg height and line, but attack and musicality. They were quite enjoyable, especially in a tricky series with pirouettes in attitude devant. It might have been the bright red dress, but lead dancer Pamela Swaney is the one that you just can’t help but watch. She somehow manages to be composed, technical, and elegant while still having an enticing charm under the calm exterior, something akin to the Grace Kelly of ballerinas. New company member Takahito Kamimura is also a welcome addition to the company, bringing flashes of athletic brilliance to tricks amongst the technique.
With the new dancers, new works, and new styles infiltrating this already strong group, Saint Louis Ballet is going to new places and new heights. I just hope to keep up.