Mark Krieger & Natalia Ashikhmina in The Blood Project. Photo: Sam English
A review by Keith Waits
Entire contents are copyright © 2023 by Keith Waits. All rights reserved.
I often comment on my limited technical knowledge of dance when I am tasked with reviewing it, but Robert Curran’s penchant for collaboration makes it easier for me, particularly when the collaborators are drawn from the local theatre community.
Curran doesn’t just welcome interdisciplinary activity, he fairly demands it. It may prove to be the defining characteristic of his tenure with the Louisville Ballet. For this year’s Choreographer’s Showcase, he invited Pandora Productions and Louisville Youth Group to contribute themes, experiences, and dramaturgy to inform abstract human motion.
It was off to a somewhat traditional start with Human/Dancer, a neo-Balanchine dance all pink with flowers, a grouping of ballerinas defining the movement, grace, and discipline of modern dance with a nod to the past. If it feels lacking in comparison to the riskier fare that follows it, it provides a confident baseline vocabulary with which to compare the mostly darker and more experimental ambitions of the other choreographers. I couldn’t help but detect a strain of subversion anyway as if just the inclusion in this program insisted upon it, but JonMarie Johnson’s choreography (dramaturgy:Mollie Murk) establishes an important connection with the audience, the dancers exhibiting a surplus of charm with direct eye contact that takes full advantage of the intimate studio setting.
Cast: Ida Soranno, Claire Churchill, Anna Ford, Elizabeth Hines, Addison Mathes, Jordan Noblett, Ava Ownby, Chloe Puffer, Gabrielle Savka, Charlotte Van Ermen, Amber Wickey
Justin Michael Hogan’s Ties That Bind plays fast and loose with gender identity, opening with a group of dimly lit figures dressed in skirts and a hood and cowl. Once the lights come up, that the dancers are not all female-identifying is discernible but irrelevant. As the piece develops, costumes are changed, connections are made, and a love story emerges surrounded by a flurry of gender traditional signifiers. It is a heady, dark melange of androgyny with religious and spiritual overtones raised by the movement that becomes ritual. Dance inevitably conjures thoughts of ritual through its dependence on repetition and gesture for communication, and because dance is so often abstract, that might be only my interpretation, that the sense of ritual suggests community and perhaps even a safe place for all of those who see themselves under the LGBTQ+ umbrella. Dramaturgy by Michal J. Drury.
Cast: Sarah Bradley, Alexis Breen, Kelsey Corder, Lexa Daniels, Caleb Emory, Mark Krieger, Caitlin Kowalski, Tarique Logan, Danika McNees, Paige Riffer, Ryo Suzuki
Barrier, choreographed by Brandon Ragland, continues the androgynous imagery with an even more overt visualization of the community. With costumes suggestive of clerical robes (or Neo in The Matrix) Ragland and dramaturg Tyler Tate weave a rather complex narrative in which the characters move within dual opposing projections. The projections are of an ambiguous visual texture akin to wood grain that made me think of log buildings and forests, a rustic environment that placed the action on a more fundamental social plane. It was an atmosphere reinforced by a sound design that included raspy pre-industrial sounds that whether the sound of labored breathing or the labor of tools, were entirely human. Great tension is generated and one can easily imagine a restrictive culture dramatically suggested by looming shadows cast by the dancers within the projections.
Cast: Leigh Anne Albrechta, Emmarose Atwood, Lexa Daniels, Caitlin Kowalski, Minh-Tuan Nguyen, Jordan Noblett, Aleksandr Schroeder, Daniel Scofield, David Senti, Ashley Thursby
The choreography in the first three pieces remained inventive and abstract, giving a forceful foundation for the audience’s imagination to identify but also filling in the final part of the experience in their own way. The movement is suggestive enough to bring most of the audience into similar interpretations, but I am never certain if I have come away with exactly the right ideas.
The Blood Project follows the experimentation in combining dance and the spoken word that choreographer Sanjay Saverimuttu and playwright Allie Fireel first attempted in the 2021 virtual ChorShow piece, The Movement. Then, we heard actors on a sound design voicing extensive dialogue while the dancers communicate the character interactions. It was fascinating but I questioned whether the literal aspect of the language undercut the impact of the dancers. For this new work, which examines the meaning of blood in multiple dimensions, the recorded lines were more suggestive, less explanatory and more schematic in structure, shifting the context of the idea of blood as the action plays out.
Blood representing a profound familial connection has become a cliche, but Saverimuttu and Fireel suggest other possibilities about how blood connects in the global culture when blood type and diseases such as HIV, Ebola, and COVID define human experience in every aspect. The costumes here are contemporary, as the gender fluidity of the previous works drops a little into the background, and Saverimuttu’s use of pas de deux contrasts contemporary and classical forms.
Cast: Elizabeth Abbick, Natalia Ashikhmina, Emmarose Atwood, Mark Krieger, Aleksandr Schroeder, David Senti, Ryo Suzuki, Brienne Wiltsie
Finally, a sense of community expressed in youthful restlessness explodes onto the stage in Christian Chester’s All We Know Is Rust. The space fills with anxious figures in jeans and white t-shirts, a simple costume design that connotes mid-20th century teenage rebellion. Characterized by uniform, repetitive movement filled with ebullience and mischief that makes the dance so accessible that you believe for a moment that you could join right in. Whatever the value of the others, this piece is just a blast of energy that passes for upbeat in the company of so much weighty introspection and social commentary, its humor framing the evening with the charm of Human/Dancer. Dramaturgy by Jason Cooper.
Cast: Sarah Bradley, Adrah Cook, Tarique Logan, Sameer Rhodes, Claire Schoellerman, Daniel Scofield, Gaven Stevens, Amber Wickey
Exactly how the collaboration was executed is not always clear in watching the performance, but members of the Louisville Youth Group were interviewed about their experiences and perspective on their own identities and the world as a whole. Pandora provided dramaturgs for each piece, and I am given to understand that the interactions between choreographer and dramaturg varied from piece to piece.
But let the mystery be. This edition of ChorShow was one of the most satisfying I have experienced, each piece standing on its own but also fitting within an overall concept relating to crucial questions about the great, overarching theme of art: identity. Such themes are communicated with a greater immediacy in the studio environment in which the lighter-than-air grace and more grounded movements both result in heavy footfalls, breathing, and sweat that underscores the discipline and dedication of the company members. Unlike the classic story ballets in the larger theatre space, there is little room for fantasy here.
January 25 – 29, 2023
315 East Main Street
Louisville, Kentucky 40202
Keith Waits is a native of Louisville who works at Louisville Visual Art during the days, including being the host of Artists Talk with LVA on WXOX 97.1 FM / ARTxFM.com, but spends most of his evenings indulging his taste for theatre, music and visual arts. His work has appeared in LEO Weekly, Pure Uncut Candy, TheatreLouisville, and Louisville Mojo. He is now Managing Editor for Arts-Louisville.com.