60th Anniversary Celebration

By Kathi E.B. Ellis.

Entire contents are copyright © 2012 Kathi E.B. Ellis. All rights reserved.

This weekend’s celebration of the Louisville Ballet’s first sixty years also serves as a reminder of the flowering of arts and cultural institutions during the mayoral tenure of Charles Farnsley – not only this company, which has become the seventh oldest ballet company in the country, but also the Fund for the Arts, the first public radio station licensed to a library, the Orchestra, etc. Six decades on, when many arts and cultural organizations around the country are going out of business or downsizing significantly, it is a joy to celebrate an organization that is artistically strong, creating new work and sustaining the classics – growing its company not just in size but in overall quality, and reaching out to the community with classroom and in-studio dance experiences for all ages.

Dancer Wendy Whelan. Photo courtesy of Louisville Ballet.
An especial treat for Louisville audiences was the appearance of Louisville native Wendy Whelan, together with Craig Hall, in a Christopher Wheeldon piece, After the Rain, set to music by Arvo Pärt. For me, this was the jewel of the evening. One of two parts of this work, the pas de deux has become a stand-alone staple since the ballet’s New York City Ballet premiere in 2005. And what a creative way to bring the work of one of the world’s top choreographers to Louisville: inviting Ms. Whelan to dance in a work he created for her.  After the Rain is short, intense and luminous. At times the illusion is of sculpture, so deliberative are the images created by the two bodies intertwining with each other. Ms. Whelan and Mr. Hall dance as if they are one; even when there is space between them, an invisible umbilical cord connects them – a hand or foot reaches out and the other is precisely there, making tangible the connection between them. Pärt’s music is deceptively limpid, suggesting the intermittent drops of water that continue after a rain storm; and Wheeldon has set a series of movements, tableaux and gestures to this music that suggests both intimacy and isolation, a closeness that still allows individuality. The exquisite muscularity and grace of Ms. Whelan and Mr. Hall brought Friday evening’s audience to their feet as the final moments of this piece relaxed into an image of intimate rest.

Despite the luster of unveiling a world premiere during such a significant anniversary, Adam Hougland’s Unyielding Radiance was the slightest piece of the evening. Maybe its placement, coming immediately after Wheeldon’s piece, did it a disservice. As principal choreographer of the company, Mr. Hougland has created five other pieces for the Louisville Ballet:  four short works and the full-length Rite of Spring. Representing Mr. Hougland’s contribution to the Ballet over the past seven years is a must – however, I would have rather seen one of his earlier, more compelling, creations as part of the middle section of this program. Kateryna Sellers and Ben Needham-Wood were the principal pair in this piece, discovered on stage, with a burst of energy, as their upper bodies and arms whirled and punched the air in a kinetic Chinese puzzle. Ms. Sellers and Mr. Needham-Wood were supported by five pairs of dancers in a variety of paired and ensemble combinations to music by John Adams. Dan Fedie’s costumes suggested the glitter of diamonds with belt and collar accents against neutral tights and unitards.

Representing the burgeoning talent of in-company choreographers was Mikelle Bruzina’s Sansei, created for the company in 2009. Ms. Bruzina’s elegant and elegiac choreography was supported by the (live) music of Ben Sollee and his musicians, a composition set on her work at the time of its creation. The relationship between Erica de la O, Amanda Diehl and Emily Reinking O’Dell is deftly suggested through the costuming of Ms. Bruzina and Pam Hulen from the dancers’ first moment on stage. The subtitle of Ms. Bruzina’s work, “Celebrating the endurance of family,” is borne out through the fluid combinations of pas de deux and pas de trois between the three generations of women. The heart of the work is the journey of Ms de la O, representing the oldest generation at the end of her life. The hope of this work is the final moment when the fourth generation enters the world, under the protective watch of the ancestors as well as the mother and now grandmother. The four men (Rob Morrow, Ben Needham-Wood, Douglas Ruiz and Kristopher Wojtera on Friday evening) provided a subtle and solid counterpoint to the women’s journey.

The evening’s program was bookended with Balanchine’s 1947 Theme and Variations (staged by Eve Lawson of the George Balanchine Trust) and Val Caniparoli’s Lambarena (1995). Originally choreographed for what became American Ballet Theater five years before the Louisville Ballet came into existence, Theme and Variations is a sparkling tribute to the great Petipa-Tchaikovsky legacy of the nineteenth century and, at the same time, an indicator of American twentieth century neo-classicism. Lambarena, in juxtaposition, is a testament to the resilience of the ballet form as it embraces other dance forms and cultural traditions. Over this weekend the full company (including several trainees) will dance in both these ballets. On Friday evening the company seemed more at home with Caniparoli’s choreography than Balanchine’s – maybe because the former has been performed more recently than the latter. Friday’s principal pair in Theme and Variations was Natalia Ashikhmina and Kristopher Wojtera. Mr. Wojtera, always an elegant dancer, found moments when he seemed suspended en l’air during an early solo, a quintessential illusion of this form. Ms. Ashikhmina’s dancing was hindered by some muddled footwork in her solo and, at times, the partnering of Ms. Ashikhmina and Mr. Wojtera seemed tentative. The female corps is showcased with, for the period, innovative combinations which the eight ladies embraced. The male corps of the Louisville Ballet continues to strengthen and deepen as more men have been added to the company in recent years. On the stage of the Brown Theatre, the final grand pas filled the stage with grandeur – a moment in which audience and company alike can take pride. The fun and exuberance of Lambarena was a fitting climax to this evening of celebration. Combining the classical clarity of Johann Sebastian Bach with arrangements of traditional African songs (Pierre Akenduegé and Hughes de Courson), Mr. Caniparoli (with African dance consultants Naomi Gedo Johnson-Washington and Zarariya Sao Diouf) marries the earthbound and ancestor-connected traditions of African dance to the long-lined, ethereal traditions of classical ballet. Whether the divertissements included a larger ensemble or one or two dancers, the full company clearly embraced this hybrid dance form, body language and smiling faces inviting the audience into this elemental world. At the risk of excluding other excellent performances, Mr. Ragland, Ms. de la O and Ms. Daigle were a delight to experience.

Artistic Director Bruce Simpson spoke briefly at the beginning of Friday evening’s performance, recognizing the tremendous support of the company’s ongoing and brand new sponsors in this 60th anniversary season – a very real necessity for the ongoing health of any arts organization. He also welcomed to the stage Representative John Yarmuth, whose reception was almost as enthusiastic as that of Ms. Whelan. Representative Yarmuth spoke eloquently and passionately about the role of the arts, not just as an economic driver, but also as the basis for academic achievement and effective citizenship. With this kind of affirmation, the support of businesses and individuals, and an increasingly varied repertoire (another new ballet is slated for the 2012-2013 season), we can all hope that the Louisville Ballet’s next sixty years will see even more growth and recognition than in its first sixty years, a true jewel of the greater Louisville arts community.

Lambarena, choreographed by Val Caniparoli.
Photo courtesy of Louisville Ballet.
60th Anniversary Celebration

April 13-14, 2012

The Louisville Ballet

At The Brown Theatre

233 West Broadway

Louisville, KY 40205