(This review is written by American Statesman freelance arts critic Claire Christine Spera.)
In Stephen Mills’ ballet version of “Hamlet,” the titular character is a man of multiple dimensions. While slowly slipping into madness, the line between reality and the imagined becomes blurred; thoughts mesh with action, visions with follow through. A haunting Philip Glass score, played lived by the Austin Symphony Orchestra, set the mood at the Long Center for the Performing Arts this weekend.
To illustrate the multiple facets of Hamlet’s personality, Ballet Austin’s version of the Shakespeare play stars not one but four Hamlets. There’s our tormented protagonist (danced by Frank Shott at the Sunday matinee), plus three echoes of himself (James Fuller, Oliver Greene-Cramer and Orlando Julius Canova), all working to avenge the untimely death of his father at the hand of his uncle, Claudius (we see Hamlet’s father as a ghost, played by Artistic Director Mills in a white, coat-tailed suit). It is as though Hamlet is never alone; his shadows follow him, dancing in canon behind him to create a ripple effect.
As readers of the original Shakespeare work will recall, madness abounds in “Hamlet,” and Ashley Lynn Sherman’s performance of Ophelia presented no exception. She had a way of bringing us into her crazy world, where movement and emotion fused in displays of hair pulling, limb flinging and body curling on the bank of a river. She sank — both figuratively and literally: figuratively, into madness; literally, into that cold water. She dipped her hair in a water basin that lined the entire front of the stage, and flipped her head up as she moved across the space, generating her own mist.
Behind Ophelia, three echoes of herself floated in flesh-toned chiffon dresses (Grace Morton, Chelsea Marie Renner and Brittany Strickland), creating the effect of slow-motion movement under water. The stage, punctuated with upright single-stem red roses and darkly magical lighting (scenic design by Jeffrey A. Main and Mills, lighting by Tony Tucci) evoked a dream world — perhaps one where Ophelia would finally find peace. The scene ended with Sherman suspended in the air against the backdrop, bathed softly in yellow light: sinking, sinking, sinking. Her death is exquisite.
Back at the castle, there’s more death. Hamlet swordfights Ophelia’s brother, Laertes, who has blamed Hamlet for Ophelia’s death, killing him, but not before Laertes stabs him with his poison-tipped sword. As Hamlet begins to feel the poison’s effect, his mother, Gertrude, succumbs to a poison-laced drink, concocted by Claudius. Realizing what has happened, Hamlet stabs Claudius to death.
Each of the four Hamlets hovers over a death, taking on an otherworldly quality. It is hard to know if the scene is real, or just how Hamlet wishes it would be.
(This review is written by American-Statesman freelance arts critic Claire Christine Spera.)
Say “Anton Chekhov,” and warm and fuzzies don’t exactly come to mind. This is certainly the case with Breaking String Theater’s production of “Gusev,” adapted and directed by Artistic Director Graham Schmidt from the Chekhov short story by the same title.
Based upon Chekhov’s sailing experience traveling home from the Russian penal colony of Sakhalin off the coast of Siberia, “Gusev,” playing at the Salvage Vanguard, chronicles a harrowing, exhausting, bleak 19th century journey — emphasis on bleak.
Titular character Gusev (Keith Machekanyanga) is haunted by what he experiences en route: sailors and soldiers hacking with sickness (Sergio Alvarado, Brock England, Hunter Sturgis and Reagan Tankersley), a priest who gives little comfort (Zac Crofford) and, when death strikes, a sea burial. Those who remain alive do so barely. The audience seating, available on three sides of the stage, is enveloped by th
e wooden planks of an imagined, creaky ship (the works of set designer Ia Enstera and sound designer Robert Fisher work well together), making us feel as though we’re along for the ride, too.
Even Gusev’s sleep is tormented — dreams afford no escape. The nighttime hallucinations feature two dancers in white (Jenny Alperin and Amy Morrow) performing choreography by Erica Gionfriddo. Their silky-smooth costuming ripples as they unfurl their limbs and partner up with Gusev and the sailors, leading them through ruminative gestures.
We don’t get much of a backstory on the characters — who they really are, why they’re here, on this ship. What we do get is told through beautiful black/white shadow-puppet projections (designed by Julia M. Smith), a fitting aesthetic for the dark “Gusev.” With a runtime of one hour, it’s difficult to delve too deeply into their pasts. The story itself leaves something to be desired.
That said, “Gusev” is an escape from the everyday — a hellish reality, but an escape from our world, nonetheless.
(This review is written by American-Statesman freelance arts critic Claire Christine Spera.)
Imagine a musical with no plot, no dialogue — just music, song and dance: boom, boom, boom! Welcome to Broadway’s “Sophisticated Ladies,” the 1981 Donald McKayle concept based on Duke Ellington’s music.
More song-and-dance revue than traditional musical, Zach Theatre’s rendition of “Sophisticated Ladies” (directed by Abe Reybold) wows with playful (and skillful) tap dancing, costumes that range from the bedazzled to funky fresh, and some seriously powerful singing, not the least of which is performed by Jennifer Holliday of “Dreamgirls” fame (her performance as Effie “Melody” White garnered her a Tony Award for best actress in a musical).
Oh, and then there’s Ellington’s wonderful music, played by a 15-member onstage orchestra.
There’s nothing not to like, and there’s plenty to rave about.
Let’s start with the magnetic Holliday, shall we? For each number, she wore what must’ve been six-inch heels, and elegant outfits that glittered under Michelle Habeck’s lighting design. She didn’t do much onstage but sing — and she didn’t have to.
In “It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing,” Holliday’s voice was inflected with the perfect edge of fun that did this classic absolute justice. The icing on the cake was when six tap-dancing men in white bellhop uniforms joined her (the talented J.P. Qualters, Tony Merriwether, Matthew Shields, William James Harris III, Leslie R. Hethcox and Phil Young).
In Act II, Holliday’s performance of “Something to Live For” was met with a standing ovation. “I’ve got it bad, and that ain’t good,” she crooned in a crystal-studded evening gown. She was simply spectacular.
There’s practically as much dancing as singing in “Sophisticated Ladies,” and Broadway choreographer Dominique Kelley’s steps, whether tap, lyrical, jazz or swing, hit the mark.
And tap fans, take note: Zach Theatre drew on local talent in the form of the charismatic Shields (former Tapestry Dance Company member and cofounder of Hyperfeet Productions) and the exuberant Merriwether (current Tapestry dancer).
In “Kinda Dukish,” Shields and Merriwether tested their balance and coordination (both are working perfectly fine, incidentally) as they tapped up and down a series of stairs, their feet matching the pings of the piano — this, after Shields had already shuffled atop a suitcase. Their rhythmic feet, together with the band’s music, had the audience hooting and hollering.
“Sophisticated Ladies” abounds with flirtation — between a hot-pink-swimsuit-clad woman on holiday at the beach and her cocktail servers, and among the trio of “Dancers in Love” (Afra Hines, Brandon O’Neal and Harris), in which snapping fingers and gentle body slaps created a rhythm on top of the music.
There are moments of longing, too, such as Chanel Haynes-Schwartz’s intoxicatingly soulful solo “In a Sentimental Mood,” in which she wears a long-trained dress that spills down the stairs.
“Sophisticated Ladies” may have no plot, but that’s the precise argument for going to see it. It’s just plain fun; there’s nothing more you need.
“Duke Ellington’s Sophisticated Ladies” continues through Aug. 23 at Zach Theatre. Tickets: $25-$73. www.zachtheatre.org
(This review is written by American-Statesman freelance arts critic Claire Christine Spera.)
Entering the darkness of the Long Center’s Rollins Studio Theater over the weekend was like going back to the womb. An embryonic display greeted the eye: Four silks, lit in glowing red, hung from above, each containing a folded body. On the ground were three more bodies, lying perfectly still beneath shimmering mesh. Then, they began to move, unfurling themselves from their cocoons, coming alive.
So began “Swings Asunder,” a production performed by Austin-based aerial dance troupe Sky Candy and written, directed and choreographed by Nathan Brumbaugh. Set to Austin composer Justin Sherburn’s atmospheric music, the seven-dancer performance swept from the embryo to birth to adulthood, with aerial dance the cornerstone of the movement. The audience seating, configured around three sides of the stage, lent an intimate quality to a special evening.
Projected on a screen were words, along with their definitions, that marked the phases of the dancers’ development — words like “nascent” (“just coming into existence and beginning to display signs of future potential”), “ipseity” (“selfhood; individual identity”), “sorority” (“club of women”) and “fraternity” (“club of men”).
In their nascent phase, the dancers wore nude underwear and flesh-toned netted fabric over their faces, their individuality masked. As they clambered up and down the vertical silks and slowly writhed to a standing position on the floor, their fascinatingly toned musculature was on full display. As they developed towards ipseity, they began to tear away their facial coverings, bringing their individual features into focus.
“Swings Asunder” demonstrated the range of the performers as they told a story of personal growth through floor acrobatics, hand balancing, pole dancing and twirling on rings — techniques as varied as the individuals performing them: Cory Allen, Hailley Lauren, Taryn Lavery, Amy Myers, Leila Noone, Caroline Poe and Jamie Roberts.
As they grow up, a story unfolds of a boy and girl. Groom’s and bride’s outfits descend from the ceiling, and they wed, though the bride is reticent. A child, attached to the bride’s white petticoats by an umbilical cord, emerges; we understand.
The child grows up, a girl who prefers wifebeaters, jeans and suspenders to dresses. The mother and father each play their roles: mother in high heels and an A-line dress, father in a suit jacket. There’s tension between who the parents want their child to be and who their child is. “Is that a boy or a girl?” outsiders ask.
In a moment of reconciliation, mother, father and daughter clamber up on a bedframe as it is hoisted into the air, embracing each other. It’s this last phase that’s the sweetest: Acceptance.
(This review is written by American-Statesman freelance arts critic Claire Christine Spera.)
The show hasn’t started yet, but the stage of the AustinVentures Studio Theater is already full — of drums, xylophones, marimbas and sixxens, a 19-keyed metallophone designed by Iannis Xenakis for his four-movement “Pléïades.” There are six of each instrument, and they take up so much space they spill into the wings on either end of the stage.
Artistic Director Kathy Dunn Hamrick invited three guest artists to interrupt her choreographic process by working with her eight dancers. The result was not separate pieces, but rather a single cohesive work comprising four choreographic sensibilities. Charles O. Anderson, Lisa Nicks and Kate Warren, along with Hamrick, are the co-creators of “More Than One Complication.”
The dancing itself went up, down and all around; the only constant was its fabulous inconsistency. You didn’t know where it was going next. You were there to live in the moment, along with the dancers, and they were clearly relishing the opportunity.
There was a striking section danced to the pinging sounds of the xylophones. The dancers lined up across the stage, their backs to the audience, and made a sneezing sound before launching towards the audience in a frenetic, funny fashion, breaking out of their horizontal line. As they tossed their limbs, it was almost as though you could see their energy being released into the ether. A smattering of notes rippled through the dancers, causing them to scatter across the stage with twitching shoulders and skittish lunges.
In a section set to the thrumming of drums, the dancers formed a circle that they collapsed and expanded in turn. Slower moments of unfurling their limbs gave way to falling motions. As their feet hit the floor, they made their own rhythmic music.
Towards the middle of the 45-minute piece, Mariclaire Gamble stoically handed a water bottle and towel to a fellow dancer. While she drank and toweled off, the drumming reached a crescendo. Yes, sometimes it’s best to take a moment to yourself in the midst of hysteria.
In the final moments, the dancers joined hands and walked off stage together. Life is complicated, they seemed to be saying, but it’s better together.
The nominations for the 2014-2015 Austin Critics’ Table Awards are in.
Now in its 23rd year, the Critics’ Table in an informal group of arts writers from the American-Statesman and the Austin Chronicle who annually recognize achievement in the arts.
The free awards ceremony is at 7 p.m. June 1 at Cap City Comedy Club.
Production, Drama All the Way, Zach Theatre Am I White?, Salvage Vanguard Theater The Christians, Hyde Park Theatre Cock, Theatre en Bloc Love and Information, Mary Moody Northen Theatre Refugia, UT Department of Theatre & Dance
Production, Comedy Cenicienta, Zach Theatre Detroit, Capital T Theatre Everything Is Established, Physical Plant Peter and the Starcatcher, Zach Theatre The Suicide, Paper Chairs Thr3e Zisters, Salvage Vanguard Theater
Production, Musical 100 Heartbreaks, Joanna Garner Bright Now Beyond, Salvage Vanguard Theater Chicago, Half & Half Productions Footloose, Summer Stock Austin Kiss Me, Kate, Texas State University Department of Theatre and Dance Stone Soup, Summer Stock Austin
Direction Cassie Abate, Kiss Me, Kate
Derek Kolluri, Cock/Jacob’s Ladder
David Long, Love and Information
Charles Ney, A Midsummer Night’s Dream
Caroline Reck, Cenicienta
Dominique Serrand, Refugia
M. Scott Tatum & Julianna Wright, Chicago
Yuri Umov, Thr3e Zisters
Acting in a Leading Role
Liz Beckham, As You Like It
Jill Blackwood, The King and I
Jacques Coliman, Bright Now Beyond Amy Downing, Silence! The Musical
Philip Goodwin, The Invention of Love
Leslie Hollingsworth, Chicago Vincent J. Hooper, Stone Soup
Carla Nickerson, The Mountaintop
Jason Phelps, Feast of My Heart
Marc Pouhé, Cyrano de Bergerac/The Mountaintop/The Taming of the Shrew
Matt Radford, We Play Chekhov/Deus Ex Machina
Gricelda Silva, Changelings/Simple Sundries/Cenicienta
Steve Vinovich, All the Way
Jaston Williams, Vanya and Sonya and Masha and Spike/Maid Marian in a Stolen Car
Acting in a Supporting Role
Melvin Abston, All the Way Michelle Alexander, All the Way
Christina Baldwin, Refugia
Florinda Bryant, “Am I White?” Steven Epp, Refugia
Joseph Garlock, Romeo and Juliet
Babs George, Jacob’s Ladder
Joey Hood, The Christians
Jessica Hughes, The Christians André Martin, The Invention of Love
Erik Mathew, The Invention of Love
Robert Matney, Thr3e Zisters
William Earl Ray, All the Way
Jose Villarreal, Silence! The Musical Johanna Whitmore, Jacob’s Ladder
Ensemble Performance Cock, Theatre en Bloc Everything Is Established, Physical Plant Theatre Love and Information, Mary Moody Northen Theatre This is Our Youth, Punchkin Repertory Thr3e Zisters, Salvage Vanguard Theater A Year With Frog and Toad, Zach Theatre
Music Direction Jeanette Cannata-Grahmann, How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying
Emily Goldman, Kiss Me, Kate
Lyn Koenning, Chicago (Summer Stock Austin)
Michael McKelvey, Silence! The Musical
Allen Robertson, Stone Soup/The Who’s Tommy/The King and I/A Year With Frog and Toad John VanderGheynst, Chicago (Half & Half)
Movement Cassie Abate, Kiss Me, Kate
Brazie Mata Adamez, Chicago (Half & Half)
Robin Lewis, The Who’s Tommy
Jennifer Young Mahlstead, A Year With Frog and Toad
Judy Thompson-Price, How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying
Greg Zane, The King and I
David Mark Cohen New Play Award Am I White?, Adrienne Dawes Cenicienta, Rupert Reyes and Caroline Reck Everything Is Established, Hannah Kenah Refugia, Steven Epp Stone Soup, Allen Robertson & Damon Brown Teen Girl FANtasies, Kimberly Belflower & Megan Tabaque The Theory of Substitution, C. Denby Swanson
Museum Exhibition James Drake: Anatomy of Drawing and Space (Brain Trash), Blanton Museum of Art Do Ho Suh, The Contemporary Austin Margo Sawyer: Reflect, Umlauf Sculpture Garden & Museum Wildly Strange: The Photographs of Ralph Eugene Meatyard, Blanton Museum of Art/Harry Ransom Center The Making of ‘Gone With the Wind,’ Ransom Center
Solo Gallery Exhibition 40Hz: Barna Kantor, Big Medium Blanket of Fog: Hollis Hammonds, Women & Their Work Contamination | Pollination: Elizabeth McDonald, Pump Project David Culpepper: Wake Me When It’s Quitting Time, Co-Lab Sarah Frantz: Between Borderlands, Women & Their Work Susan Collis: I would like to invite the viewer, Lora Reynolds Gallery Susi Brister: Fables, Women & Their Work
Group Gallery Exhibition The Contemporary Print, Kevin McNamee-Tweed and Kathryn Polk, curators, Print Austin Tell Me What You Think of Me, Leslie Moody Castro, curator, Texas State University Gently Fried, Los Outsiders
Work of Art: Independent or Public Project AHOM, Museum of Human Achievement Comfort Station, Katy Hernandez Creek Show: Light Night, Waller Creek Conservancy (Lewis Legge Lewis, Design Workshop, Baldridge Architects, Jason Sowell, Thoughtbarn) Leavings, Nancy Mims Neighborhood Watch, Sean Ripple
Dance Concert Belle Redux/A Tale of Beauty & the Beast, Ballet Austin Ignite: Three Works, Performa/Dance Season of Innocence, Ballet Austin II There, the Magnificent, Kathy Dunn Hamrick Dance Company The Trees of Govalle, Forklift Danceworks Desplazados, A’lante Flamenco
Short Work The Backup Dancer: Bits and Acts From the Night Train, Gold Show/Rose Show On Truth and Love, Performa/Dance Vicissitudes of the Heart, Chaddick Dance Theater Hearing My Place, Acia Gray
Choreographer Cheryl Chaddick, Vicissitudes of the Heart
Kathy Dunn Hamrick, There, the Magnificent/Briefs: An Episodic Adventure
Jennifer Hart, Ignite: Three Works/To Here
Sally Jacques, In Light
Nicholas Kepley, Season of Innocence
Karen Nelson and ensemble, The Tuning Project
Dancer Bailey Anglin, Season of Innocence
Jeremy Arnold, Soul/Sole Connections
Edward Carr, Belle Redux
Siobhan Cooke, Soul/Sole Connections Mariclaire Gamble, Briefs: An Episodic Adventure
Brian Heil, Season of Innocence
Aara Krumpe, Agon
Ashley Lynn, Agon
Julie Nathanielsz, Yo Genesis
Michelle Thompson, Belle Redux Nicole Whiteside, In Light
Jaime Lynn Witts, Firebird
Duet Devon Adams and Nathan Brumbaugh, Vicissitudes of the Heart
Ashley Lynn Sherman and Christopher Swaim, Agon
Jamie Lynn and Ed Carr, To Here
Heloise Gold and Ellen Bartel, 1000 Forest Gorillas in Kansas
Anuradha Naimpally and Purna Bajekal, Jewels of the Tanjuvar Tradition
Allyson Dolan and Jack Anthony Dunlap II, Briefs
Andrea Ariel Dance Theatre/Strike Anywhere Performance Ensemble/Super Creeps, The Bowie Project 2
Ballet Austin II, Season of Innocence Ready|Set|Go!, In Habitants
Kathy Dunn Hamrick Dance Company, There, the Magnificence/Briefs: An Episodic Adventure
Tapestry Dance Company, Soul/Sole Connections
A’lante Flamenco, Desplazados
Hubbard Street Dance Chicago, Texas Performing Arts
Martha Graham Dance Company, Texas Performing Arts Otro Teatro, Luciana Achugar, Fusebox Festival Preparation for the Obsolescence of the Y Chromosome, Michelle Ellsworth, Fusebox Festival a quartet, Heather Kravas, Fusebox Festival Seven, MET Dance, Austin Dance Festival Slump, Dark Circles Contemporary Dance, Austin Dance Festival
Aaron Bell, A Year With Frog and Toad/The Three Little Pigs
Ia Ensterä, We Play Chekhov/Detroit/Thr3e Zisters/The Tempest
Ann Marie Gordon, Changelings
Richard M. Isackes & Wendall Harrington, A Masked Ball
Lisa Laratta, The Suicide
Michael Raiford, Kiss Me, Kate
Leslie Turner, Jacob’s Ladder
Costume Design Jennifer Davis, Changelings
Pam Fletcher Friday, Stone Soup
Alison Heryer, The King and I
Christina Montgomery, A Year With Frog and Toad
Mercedes O’Bannion, Refugia
Michael Raiford, Belle Redux/Kiss Me, Kate
Jason Amato, Maid Marian in a Stolen Car/The Invention of Love
Patrick Anthony, DNA/Changelings
Natalie George, The Tuning Project/Gold Show/Rose Show/Feast of My Heart/Thr3e Zisters/1000 Forest Gorillas in Kansas Michelle Habeck, A Masked Ball/All the Way
Stephen Pruitt, Once There Were Six Seasons/The Trees of Govalle
Steven Shirey, We Play Chekhov/Jacob’s Ladder
Robert Fisher, Thr3e Zisters
K. Eliot Haynes, Once There Were Six Seasons/The Wars of Heaven, Part I Billy Henry, Refugia
William Meadows, In Light/The Invention of Love
Joel Mercado-See, The Mountaintop
Buzz Moran, We Play Chekhov/The Trees of Govalle
CLASSICAL MUSIC Chamber Performance Bach vs. Handel Smackdown, La Follia The Lodger, Austin Classical Guitar
Miró Quartet with James Dunham & Norman Fischer, Butler School of Music North Star, Austin Chamber Music Center La Femme Boheme, LOLA Austin Verklarte Nacht, Aelous Quartet
Choral Performance Beethoven: Choral Fantasy, Chorus Austin
Haydn: The Creation, Texas Choral Consort
Muhly: How Little You Are, Conspirare/Austin Classical Guitar/Texas Performing Arts Southwest Voices, Chorus Austin
Classical Performance Beethoven: Ninth Symphony, Chorus Austin A Masked Ball, Austin Opera Indie Orchestra Night, Texas Choral Consort Don Giovanni, Austin Opera
Austin Symphony Orchestra with Alison Balsom
Shostakovich “Symphony No. 7: UT Symphony Orchestra.
Singer Dominick Chenes, A Masked Ball
Michael Chioldi, A Masked Ball
Sara Ann Mitchell, A Masked Ball
Nick Zammit, Bach Vs. Handel Smackdown Gil Zilkha, “Oseh Shalom,” Southwest Voices
Julie Taylor, La Femme Boheme
Emily Breedlove, La Femme Boheme
Morgan Smith, Don Giovanni
Original Composition/Score Belle Redux, Graham Reynolds How Little You Are, Nico Muhly The Lodger, Joseph V. Williams II Season of Innocence, Steve Parker Symmetrographia, Travis Weller The Wars of Heaven, Part 1, Justin Sherburn
Graeme Francis, North Star
Carla McElhenney, Beethoven: Choral Fantasy
Michelle Schumann, North Star
Bion Tsang, The Lodger
Keith Womer, Bach vs. Handel Smackdown
Sandy Yamamoto, Franck: Sonata in A Major Leanne Zacharias, River Measures
line upon line percussion
Texas Guitar Quartet
New Music Co-op
(This review is written by American-Statesman freelance arts critic Claire Spera.)
The women wear long skirts with aprons and bonnets, covered head to toe. Their gesticulations fluctuate between jagged containment and distressed abandon. Their clothing betrays hardship: Sweat stains discolor the dirt-soiled, worn fabric.
This is ballet master and choreographer Nick Kepley’s “Season of Innocence,” a retelling of Arthur Miller’s 1953 play “The Crucible.” Set on Ballet Austin II (Ballet Austin’s apprentice program and second company), Kepley’s 45-minute piece brims with accusation, judgment and agony — in all the best ways possible.
Even for those unfamiliar with “The Crucible” — that staple of high school English classes that centers on allegations of witchcraft in the late 17th century Puritan town of Salem, Massachusetts — Kepley’s “Season of Innocence” leaves a powerful lasting impression.
His choreography for seven women (Salem villagers) and two men (a husband and a judge) is so different from the type of dance ballet companies typically do that it’s impossible to forget. Banished are ballet’s pointe shoes; the women dance barefoot. Every ounce of fluidity is gone; the Puritans’ angular bodies are filled with tension, hesitation and, ultimately, aggression.
Refreshingly devoid of repetition, the choreography allows for ample character development. Bailey Anglin, who played the accuser who incites the witch-hunt hysteria, was a sight to see. Her conniving facial expressions, stiff gait and twisted postures (which included literal finger pointing) pulled us into her mania. Rosie Grady Sayvetz appropriately aged herself about 30 years purely through movement for the role of the wife to Brian Heil’s husband; her hunched shoulders gave her a distinctly worn appearance.
What was clear was the dancers wholly embraced Kepley’s steely, barbed vision of 17th century Puritan life with attack to great effect.
The scenic design consisted solely of wooden chairs and benches that the dancers dragged around into different configurations. They often took a seat to gaze upon their peers, casting silent judgment.
In this regard, Kepley’s interpretation of a play from the 1950s about life in the 1690s proved surprisingly relevant to 2015: The themes of discrimination and exclusion in both Miller’s “The Crucible” and Kepley’s “Season of Innocence” are, indeed, timeless.
Then there was Austin-based composer Steve Parker’s music, commissioned specially for the ballet. The abstract soundtrack for the most part lacked any countable rhythm. It played with themes of the sacred (church bells) and the secular, and the guttural noise of inhalations and exhalations bookended the score.
I certainly hope this isn’t the last we’ve seen of Kepley’s choreography. He brings dynamism to Ballet Austin II both in terms of story concept and movement vocabulary that Austin should see more of.
(This review is written by American-Statesman freelance arts critic Claire Christin Spera.)
Ballet Austin presented a mixed repertory program at the Long Center this weekend, collectively titled “Director’s Choice.”
Featuring works by guest choreographers Jennifer Hart and 2014-2016 Princess Grace Award Winner Jimmy Orrante, as well as a piece by Ballet Austin artistic director Stephen Mills, the selections allowed the dancers to demonstrate a range of movement styles and emotions.
In Hart’s “To Here,” the stage was encapsulated by three screens. Projections of brightly colored wildflowers (think: spring in Texas) seamlessly gave way to a desolate desert landscape, then a rocky beach and, finally, bright white ice. A classical score by English composer Gavin Bryars featured the violin.
Susan Branch Towne’s costume designs reflected these changes: In the beginning, the women wore floral-watercolor chiffon dresses in vibrant pinks, oranges, greens, yellows, blues and purples; as the mood shifted, the 10 dancers re-emerged in white outfits that were ever-so-lightly splattered with gray. The projections behind them mimicked rain on a glass window before resolving into ice.
The path of the dance — from there, “to here”— recalled the cycle of life, from youth to old age. The last portion, where the stage was filled with whiteness as dancer Jamie Lynn Witts opened her palms to the sky, embraced the unknown.
The second piece of the evening, Mills’ “One / the body’s grace,” highlighted three couples, each discovering how to meld their individual lives to become one. In particular, Saturday evening’s Ashley Lynn Sherman and James Fuller embraced each other in grace, curiosity and intimacy; their emotive faces made the choreography all the more believable.
Sherman, poised atop her toes in pointe shoes, melted down onto Fuller as he lay on the floor. Then, standing up, she was embraced by him as he leaned backwards. The barely-there costuming by Christopher McCollum — tight tanks and bike shorts in a neutral color — revealed the minutiae of their musculature as they came together and separated; in the end, Fuller placed Sherman on the ground and walked away. She watched him leave her behind.
The final piece of the evening, Orrante’s “Threads of Color,” was set to music by Argentinian tango composer Astor Piazzolla. Five couples whirled about the stage, the women donning long, black mesh skirts and white scarves around their necks, the men in simple black pants and tops (the work of costume designer Alexey Korygin). The scarves floated lazily behind the women as they moved to the spicy music.
The “threads” may have been the scarves, but the “color” was definitely the movement, inspired by the deep energy of Piazzolla’s compositions. The solid backdrop changed colors to reflect the mood of different moments. Meanwhile, arms sliced through the air and feet scurried. The women tossed the scarves from around their necks and the men caught them, before tenderly replacing them.
“Director’s Choice” was an evening of contemporary ballet that, although technically plot-less, told its own abstract stories.
Ballet Austin artistic director Stephen Mills and composer Graham Reynolds will continue their longstanding artistic collaboration when the pair team again next season for “The Graham Reynolds Project.”
The showcase of short ballets will reprise two previous Mills/Reynolds collaborations — “Bounce” and “Though the Earth Gives Way” — and premiere a new one. “The Graham Reynolds Project” will be March 25-27, 2016 at the Long Center.
Mills made the announcement at a reception Tuesday night when he unveiled Ballet Austin’s 2015-16 season.
Mills will also premiere a new yet to be titled short ballet as part of the “Director’s Choice” program of mixed repertoire next February that includes Mills’ riveting, edgy “Carbon53” and “Stream” by innovative Swedish choreographer and filmmaker Pontus Lidberg.
Ballet Austin will remount its previous productions of “Hamlet” — this time with live accompaniment by Austin Symphony Orchestra playing the Philip Glass score — as well as “Cinderella” and “The Nutcracker.”