(This review is written by American-Statesman freelance arts critic Claire Christine Spera.)
Ballet Austin’s “Director’s Choice” Valentine’s Weekend program at the Long Center included four works by three choreographers, featuring guest artists Pontus Lidberg and Pam Tanowitz. Also on the bill were reprises of artistic director Stephen Mills’ “Desire” and “CARBON53.”
Swedish-born Lidberg and New York City-based Tanowitz’s works employed a healthy mix of contemporary and balletic movement, but this is where the similarities ended.
The curtain rose for Lidberg’s “Stream” to reveal a stage of 10 dancers donning pale blue-grey chiffon outfits (costuming by Reid Bartelme), obscured by a scrim hanging over the scene, giving the effect of gazing upon motion in watery depths. Set to a strings composition by Ryan Francis, “Stream” was an elegant, flowing work that evoked ripple effects in water; the ensemble often moved in canon, performing the same motions one right after the other, floating in and out of the space in a rotational manner.
There were no rough edges here: Curved arms, soft turns and plunging partnerwork kept the choreography surging forth, wave after wave. The music’s vibratory quality made the sound of the strings hang in the air as a group of five men danced in perfect sync, seamlessly transitioning from rolls on the floor to standing pirouettes.
Tanowitz’s “Early That Summer,” with live string accompaniment by Austin Chamber Music Center’s Cordova Quartet, had hard edges. The Cordova Quartet’s performance of composer Julia Wolfe’s driving score was flawless; accented with slight pauses, minor keys and patterns, the music was the perfect backdrop for Tanowitz’s unflinching piece. The dancers’ white unitards adorned with squiggly purple lines (costuming again by Bartelme) seemed to be a visual representation of the music: the white for the space between notes, the purple squiggles for the eerie accents.
There was a sense of foreboding, both in the dancers’ robotic motions and the score itself, which at moments could be mistaken for a jittery horror film soundtrack.
Barefoot and angular, the nine performers walked on the balls of their feet with bent knees, twisted their hips and thrust straightened arms out in front of their bodies. But the austerity was broken up by moments of quirkiness, like when a jolt of motion originating from a dancer’s shoulder rippled through the rest of her arm.
Ballet Austin artistic director Mills’ duet, “Desire,” told the story of a breakup, focusing on that very moment in time when a couple decides to go their separate ways.
Set to Arvo Pärt’s “Spiegel im Spiegel: 1” (played live by pianist Michelle Schumann and violinist Niccolo Muti of Austin Chamber Music Center), Sunday’s matinee performance featured dancers Aara Krumpe and Paul Michael Bloodgood.
Krumpe and Bloodgood couldn’t have been more fitting for the piece — not only were their bodies seemingly made for each other (their flesh-toned undergarments afforded us an unobstructed look as they pushed and pulled, leaned on and sprung off one another), but their emotional connection felt incredibly real. Tony Tucci’s lighting — the dancers were lit in a soft-orange glow — highlighted both a literal and metaphorical sunset as the relationship came to an end.
Krumpe’s arms were often thrown wide, as though embracing the unknown. She traveled across the stage, one arm stretched out in front of her, as the other was clung to by Bloodgood; something gave us the feeling this breakup was a one-sided decision.
In the last moments of “Desire,” Krumpe made her way towards a disembodied arm reaching out from the wings, which, finally, pulled her free from Bloodgood. It was over.
Mills’ “CARBON53” explored the concept of carbon copies in dance form. A three-part work sandwiched by Steve Reich’s “Clapping Music” and “Pendulum Music” with Philip Glass in the middle, “CARBON53” is exacting.
Much of the choreography was based around the ensemble moving in single-file vertical line back and forth across the stage, recalling a scanner’s laser beam. With each march across the stage, some dancers were left behind, almost like residue, until they rejoined the line with the next pass.
It’s always a delight to see Ballet Austin take on guest choreographers’ visions, and the 2016 edition of “Director’s Choice” didn’t disappoint. Combine that with two jewels by artistic director Mills, and you have one enthralling Valentine’s Day performance.