Dallas — Two dance companies, two vastly different aesthetics. Avant Chamber Ballet and Dark Circles Contemporary Dance joined forces Friday night at Dallas City Performance Hall with each putting their best foot forward. Avant Chamber Ballet had the advantage of live music for Raymonda and Who Cares? Dark Circles Contemporary Dance had the advantage of sheer imagination in The Rite of Spring.
If Katie Cooper’s version of Raymonda left out some of Petipa’s more intricate steps, you would hardly guess. Without exception, all eight soloists in tiaras and white tutus not only executed every brisk beat, every entrechat, relevé and passé with precision, but looked fetching with willowy arm gestures and supple upper bodies. As the heroine Raymonda, Yulia Ilina offered a clear, strong technique but not much charm. Fortunately, the three men had little to do.
The dynamite combination of George Gershwin’ jazzy music and Balanchine’s cheery, cheeky Who Cares? either brings out the best in a company or just as easily can fall flat. Avant Chamber Ballet’s version fell somewhat in the middle, with a delightful “The Man I Love” and “Liza,” and a dreamy “Embraceable You” and “My One and Only,” along with a less-than-inspired “Stairway to Paradise” and “I’ve Got Rhythm.” The musicians on piano, clarinet, bass, trumpet, percussion and violin gave it their all.
The Manhattan skyline in the evening serves as the perfect setting to capture the city’s energy and romance. The ballet opens with a particularly delightful “The Man I Love.” Along a diagonal path, Emily Dixon slowly walks backward, arms thrust as if she is ready to shoot an arrow. Suddenly she turns to face the waiting Shea Johnson, and they embark on a dance that is close at one point, far away, and close again, their bodies forming dramatic spikes.
Johnson makes a wonderful partner as he serves as counterweight in “The Man I Love,” “Embraceable You” with Juliann McAloon and in “Who Cares?” with Christy Martin. He gets his chance to shine, however, in “Liza,” where he skirts the stage with loose-limbed devil-may-care ease.
Vaslav Nijinsky would never have guessed what his 1913 ballet to Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring would unleash. Dozens of choreographers ever since have tackled Stravinsky’s pulsating score with gusto, and while no one since has incited a riot as did Nijinsky in Paris, many have created a stir. Among the more harrowing are Pina Baush’s version where dancers in flimsy dress stamp and lurch in a dark field and—closer to home—Joose Vrouenraet’s 2013 sinister version for Southern Methodist University’s Meadows Division of Dance where students in school uniforms escape from glass cages.
Naturally enough, Dark Circles Contemporary Dance joined the fray, in a highly original version by Joshua L. Peugh. Its perfect setting for a rite of spring? A high school gymnasium on prom night. Prom is a high school spring rite, after all.
Strings of ribbons drape from the ceiling while bleachers serve as chairs. The dress—girls in flouncy dresses in pale and vivid colors and boys in identical white jackets and black bow ties—suggest the action takes place sometime in the 1960s. But there’s a twist: a transgender student in deep bluish green prom dress partners a lesbian in white jacket and black trousers.
The ballet begins with students filing down the aisles and grabbing surprised audience members, escorting them gently onto the stage and depositing them on chairs. (I was one of the unsuspecting recruits, leaving me without my trusty pen and notebook.)
What follows is a strange mix of order and chaos: dancers mill about awkwardly; couples plaster themselves together in a slow, syrupy dance; everyone lets loose in a wild free-for-all sliding, crawling and floundering on the floor; boys yank girls back by tugging them by their ankles; make a few dizzy swirls around the floor, and so on. Late in the evening Peugh ditches Alex Karigan Farrior to take up with Chadi El-Khoury (the male-to-female character), leaving the lesbian (Sarah Hammonds) to her own devices. The other couples (David Cross, Dexter Green, Kelsey Rohr and Sarah Matzke) are not so fickle.
While it seems to be a given that the sacrificial maiden will be hounded and tormented to death, our transgender heroine is no easy mark. She stands motionless, warily surveying the now tight mass with a cold eye. That doesn’t keep them from swarming over her as she dashes away, climbing over chairs and bodies. Just before the worst can happen, a single ribbon falls from the rafters, the spell is broken, and she gets off free.
Imaginative, bold and unforgettable.
» Margaret Putnam has been writing about dance since 1980, with works published by D Magazine, The Dallas Observer, The Dallas Times Herald, The Dallas Morning News, The New York Times, Playbill, Stagebill, Pointe Magazine and Dance Magazine.