Tom Strini

Two brand-new dances and one new to us at the Milwaukee Ballet

By - Mar 26th, 2010 12:41 am
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The tonal tumult and rhythmic stasis of an orchestra tuning stops Tan Dun’s Concerto for Pipa and String Orchestra in its tracks. The effect is part of the piece. What’s a choreographer to do?

Here’s what Val Caniparoli did with a dozen Milwaukee Ballet dancers in his Blades of Grass, which premiered Thursday (March 25): He had the dancers make their own rhythm. They formed a wedge at the edge of the stage, with the point and the faces to the house. From a slight crouch, the dancers swung their arms from hip to shoulder height above skip-hop, traveling steps — in reverse. The perfect unison and the pendulous weight of the arms, which rose from swaying shoulders driven by supple backs, made you feel as well as see the rhythm. Vicarious connection with the ease, grace and timing of it was one of many joys in this sophisticated dance.

Musically, the moment described above is the exception. This concerto is a minefield of tricky rhythm. The pipa, a Chinese lute, is traditionally a descriptive instrument, capable of representing everything from bird songs to sea battles. Dun acknowledges that with many free, rhapsodic passages with heavily veiled meter. How Caniparoli and the dancers counted it is beyond me. Maybe they simply got the musical gestures so deeply into their bodies that the could move by feel.

Val Caniparoli’s “Blades of Grass”: Nicole Teague, Valerie Harmon, Diana Stetsura and Susan Gartell. Photo Mark Frohna.

This 22-minute dance is about the undulating body, with swaying and bending both front to back and side to side. The MBC crew was not only supple and strong, but also musical with this movement. Sandra Woodall’s sleeveless gowns, in a shimmering bronze fabric that moves as liquid around the women, added a lot to the overall impression of sinuous fluidity.

Caniparoli’s rhythmic savvy did not end with simply grasping and matching the music. He subdivided it in flurries of very fast steps, many of them beneath partnering tricks of daunting difficulty. He countered the musical rhythm, sometimes, to create rhythmic tension. None of this is easy, and the dancers nailed all of it.

And what elegant geometries he crafted, as the group split into subgroups, reformed to sudden, powerful unison, or vanished but for one or two dancers to shift the field of focus. Within these geometries, Caniparoli established certain motifs that became reference points. For example, the women formed circles with their arms and the men thrust an arm through them. The motif repeated in various ways; when the women sprung from the floor into the men’s encircling arms, it read as further development of that motif. That sort of thing makes a dance feel coherent and logical, as this one does despite its enormous variation, large scale and expressive range.

Susan Gartell excelled in the opening solo of Jerry Opdenaker's "Coeur de Basque." Photo Mark Frohna.

Susan Gartell excelled in the opening solo of Jerry Opdenaker’s “Coeur de Basque.” Photo Mark Frohna.

Jerry Opdenaker’s Coeur de Basque, to tabla-driven Spanish/Arabian/Gypsy-style music by Chris Spheeris, inhabits the same value system as Caniparoli’s dance. It’s abstract, it’s highly technical, it frees the dancer through the torso and it responds alertly to the music. But Basque is simpler; Opdenaker responds directly to the music, particularly its serpentine melodies, almost note for note. They call that mickey-mousing in the trade, but Opdenaker went about it in a stylish way.

The dance plays out in long, cursive spirals and circles that match the music. But where the music spins on and on, Opdenaker cleverly arrests and reverses motion in ways you can’t anticipate. He is wonderfully clever with ballroomy partnering that makes you empathize with the friendly — even amorous — exchange of weight.

I also like the barest hint of character that Opdenaker built into the dance, for four women and three men. Rachel Malehorn, brilliant as the odd woman out, brought a subtle edge of rebellion and pique to the pointed — even slashing — movement that is hers alone.

The MBC’s own Petr Zahradnicek devised a charming conceit for his new Concourse:  Weary, delayed air traveler Patrick Howell dozes off. Two little airport nymphs — Luz San Miguel and Nicoloe Teague — in toe shoes come into his dreams and cast a spell. It allows him to see into the private lives of other travelers. This leads to a string of vignettes, to East European waltzes and polkas updated into pop by DeVotchKa.

The climax of Petr Zahradnicek’s “Concourse.” Photo Mark Frohna.

Some of the vignettes are charming and some are sexy. I liked the way Zahradnicek set a tango/apache number just at the edge of funny/sexy and too-rough/sexy, and I like the edge Susan Gartell and Justin Genna brought to it. He also made a nifty mop trio for janitors Matthew Frain, Ryan Martin and Marc Petrocci. Malehorn and Michael Linsmeier were irresistibly intense as a couple realizing that a baby is on the way, but Zahradnicek ran out of ideas before the music stopped. The couple spent way too much time shining flashlights at each other, and the next thing we knew the whole cast was spending way too much time playing with flashlights.

Concourse has a fun premise and some clever dances. It just needs a little editing.

This Milwaukee Ballet Pure Dance program runs through Sunday, March28, at Marcus Center Uihlein Hall. Visit the company’s website for further information. Click here for an interview with Val Caniparoli.

Categories: A/C Feature 1, Dance

0 thoughts on “Review: Two brand-new dances and one new to us at the Milwaukee Ballet”

  1. Anonymous says:

    I love going to the ballet on Thursday nights but when I read your reviews, which I always enjoy, I wish I could see the dances again and appreciate them even more.

  2. Anonymous says:

    If the dance is as elegant as the prose and the photos, the night should be wonderful.

  3. Anonymous says:

    Thanks, Brian! And Mary, I’m sure the company would be pleased to sell you another ticket for a second look. –Tom

  4. Anonymous says:

    You are right Tom, we would! Glad you enjoyed the evening Mary!

  5. Anonymous says:

    I enjoy seeing a performance and reading your review and associated comments the next day. We need an arts forum to raise the level at which we appreciate the performing arts.
    Janet and I enjoyed this evening with the Milwaukee Ballet and are very pleased to have Michael Pink out guide to dance. We have enjoyed all the dance programs this season.

  6. Anonymous says:

    Thanks, Stan. I do wish people would comment more; I’d like to see some crosstalk develop. That sort of thing just makes the world more interesting. — Tom

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