Hannah Drake and dancers in I AM.
Featuring new works by guest choreographer Danielle Rowe and Louisville Ballet Artists,
including Justin Michael Hogan, Sanjay Saverimuttu, Natalie Orms, and Brandon Ragland.
Cinematography + Post Production by KERTIS
Producers: Aaron Mikel & Sawyer Roque
Videographers: Aaron Mikel & Alan Miller
Editors: Kaylee Everly, Tobias Van Kleeck, & Wesley Bacon
A review by Keith Waits
Entire contents are copyright © 2021 by Keith Waits. All rights reserved.
Not surprisingly, extreme anxiety, isolation, and the fight against social injustice are the preoccupations of the five choreographers featured in this year’s Choreographers Showcase or ChorShow from the Louisville Ballet.
The Misfits – Danielle Rowe, choreographer
Four disparate characters from iconic classical ballets gather for a group counseling session, dancing out the underlying conflicts for their problematic behavior. Rowe divides each solo into a rehearsal and performance portion which blurs the lines between the dancer and the role and points to the underappreciated nature of acting in dance. More importantly, the movement is more angular, offbeat, and modern than one expects from these characters, creating an idiosyncratic comic quality that is cued by the use of junk food and cell phones as props so that we are allowed to witness the expression of the neurosis and insecurities. “No one ever likes Drosselmeyer, EVER.” reads one text. Playing the less appealing characters comes with a price.
I loved this piece for being clever and self-aware about the psychological dimension of art and the artist without being overly serious. It finds a perfect balance tonally and is economical about making its points and getting out, but I could have easily spent more time with it. The movement is funny!
Featuring Nicholas Bentz, Stacey Blakemen, Kelsey Corder, Addison Mathes, David Senti
A l’œuvre on connaît l’artisan – Justin Michael Hogan, choreographer
The relationship between the music and the dancer is given an insightful examination by Justin Michael Hogan. An open stage is first seen occupied by a lone dancer moving across the floor in silence while a pianist sits waiting at an upright. Once the music begins, the plaintive notes build into more complex repetitions as other dancers enter to fill out a tight ensemble of seven bodies. Exactly how deliberately Hogan juxtaposes the specific motions is difficult to gauge, so influential are those crucial first moments in leading our attention to such detail. The pianist (Ethan James McCollum, playing his original composition) is given frequent attention in the editing and the choreography is both abstract and classical in feeling, a building of relationships between human forms and a rhythm from the keys that seems to run through those forms. Of course, this is what dance IS, but this is a singular instance in which we are forced to experience and understand that dynamic in an unadorned if somewhat academic manner.
And it could be going too far, but the sound of Ashley Thursby’s feet in the opening quiet seemed to be echoed later in the underlying dull thud of Mr. McCollum’s keystroke. I only noticed it briefly and then it dropped away from my comprehension. Was KERTIS exercising that level of subtle control in the sound design?
Ashley Thursby with Leigh Anne Albrechta and Elizabeth Abbick, Ryo Suzuki and Aleksander Schroeder, Brienne Wiltsie and John Aaron Brewer
Circadian – Natalie Orms, choreographer
Six women in comfy flannel pajamas shed their clothing to take on the guise of a dream state, nearly naked bodies expressing the raw anxiety that haunts our bedtime. It is also a staged shedding of the representational to capture the churning psyche of the fitful sleep, insomnia, or outright nightmare. Natalie Orms builds a tenuous balance in the tone, leavening her frenzied activity with notes of humor that make this a highly identifiable piece because laughter goes hand in hand with our greatest fears.
Sarah Bradley’s place at the center is subtly established in the choreography but clearly tracked in the camera work and editing. The annual Showcase is always the coziest performance and the ability to interject close-ups and fluid tracking shots pushes that connection to new levels and highlights the acting aspect of the performances.
Sarah Bradley with Courtney Ramirez, Kaleigh Western, Sarah Ray, Emma Fridenmaker, Isabella Sumera
The Movement – Sanjay Saverimuttu, choreographer
Timely and something of a risk, The Movement is one of the most adventurous cross-pollinations of theatrical disciplines I have witnessed of late. A collaboration between choreographer Saverimuttu, playwright Allie Keel, and others, the story focuses on a tight-knit group of queer friends and how the Black Lives Matter protests challenge their relationship. Each character is represented by a dancer and an actor in voiceover dialogue and it raises so many questions about form and function. Does one expression undercut the other? Does the didacticism of the language circumvent the viewer’s own journey of understanding from the movement? This is a choreographer’s showcase so what are all these actors doing here?
A black member of the group, Emerson, is built by writer Cris Eli Blak and actor Jahi Bogard, who voices, dances, and choreographed for the character. It seems essential that this arm of the collaboration was included for the sake of representation, and I think it speaks to Saverimuttu’s confidence in his vision and in his partners. He gives up the opportunity to show off his talent on more conventional terms for a fresh and arguably more innovative concept. His own choreography here is at times bravura but often more a very specific body language, with repeated gestures reinforcing intention and emotion much as American Sign Language might. His characters do move through space but they are just as often facing off in conversation and conflict. And while Bogard doesn’t display quite the precision and daring of the dancers, his movement bridges the gap between dancer and actor and unearths the commonality in the purpose of the disciplines.
I wish the production budget and necessary safety protocols would have allowed this narrative to move off of a stage and into naturalistic settings. As the friends clash about the activism related to Black and Queer identities, I would have loved to have seen these scenes played out in a loft apartment or in the streets of Louisville. It is emphasized that all of the pieces in the program were created for film and not the stage, and location shooting would have been perhaps the fullest realization of this unique effort.
Screenplay: Allie Fireel, Voice Direction: Ariadne Calvano
Cast – Emerson: Cris Eli Blak (writer) and Jahi Bogard (voice, dance, and choreography) Brent: Allie Fireel (voice) and Ryo Suzuki (dance) Annie: Mollie Murk (voice) and Elizabeth Abbick (dance) Cat: Izzy Keel (voice) and Emmarose Atwood (dance) Dani: Sarah Elston (voice) and Tyler Ferraro (dance)
I Am – Brandon Ragland, choreographer
Equally ambitious and thematically a companion piece to The Movement, Brandon Ragland’s I Am is a profound meditation on African American Gay identity in 2021. Ragland also has impressive collaborators in three notable Black spoken word artists: Isiah Fish, Hannah Drake, and Lance G Newmann II, and again gives other artists space to deliver their own impact within his framework, including bringing them on camera for substantial recitations.
Some of Ragland’s dances are staged in the dancer’s homes, snatches of solo and pas de deux that succinctly capture the claustrophobic tension of pandemic lockdown, and he uses the spoken poems as a bridge to his more complex and resonant passages filmed on a stage. He choreographs a series of tableaux ranging from young men in hoodies in a night lit by a street light, which is unsubtle but forcefully declares the intention in unmistakable terms, and in an excruciatingly intimate and exposed solo by Kateryna Sellers. Other groupings reinforce the strong emotional observations and declarations of the three poets.
Ragland also takes some risk in being overshadowed by his collaborators. When Isaiah Fish relates that, “I never saw two black gay boys dance on anything but a grave,” the line is devastatingly economical in capturing the anguish of social isolation of a young black child. And when Hannah Drake delineates the complete logic of each Black American’s connection to the historical pain and suffering dating back to 1619, the anger doesn’t obscure the truth that identification with history and heritage is a privilege not exclusive to White America.
While the crucial experience of contemporary dance is often the viewer’s interpretation of movement, the language here is rich and expressive enough to leave little to the imagination while never lapsing into preachiness. Ragland can afford to be generous in allowing so much from the poets because his work as a choreographer is mature enough to stand alongside the work of other artists of any stature. He proves once again that he is developing into a world-class talent.
Featuring Natalia Ashikhmina, Lexa Daniels, Erica De la O, Erin Langston Evans, Mark Krieger, Minh-Tuan Nguyen, Kateryna Sellers, Shelby Shenkman, & Phillip Velinov
The combination of conceiving and executing this work as a film and the urgent expression of highly personal narratives of protest and inclusion make this an especially bold ChorShow. The heady mix of contemporary and classical forms is not unusual, but the elevated level of personal artistic expression is unusual and has resulted in the most accessible Showcase I’ve ever seen.
Streaming May 19 – June 30, 2021
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 LVA’s Artebella On The Radio 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.