Dallas — Avant Chamber Ballet’s season closer Moving Music delivers quite a bit to unpack. Presented at Moody Performance Hall with all live music, it encompasses the Women’s Choreography Project, now in its fourth year. Artistic Director Katie Cooper’s vision of increased opportunities for women ballet choreographers has gained enough steam that they received over fifty applications for the coveted commission.
The first observation is Cooper’s noticeable absence from the choreographic lineup, but she was likely busy garnering performance rights for the works of three significant names in the ballet world: George Balanchine, Christopher Wheeldon, and Paul Mejia.
The former appears first on the bill, with Michele Gifford staging his brief but rapid-fire Valse Fantaisie. A seven-piece varied musical ensemble accompanies the dancers with a rousing rendition of Mikhail Glinka’s piece of the same name. Even though it’s just under nine minutes, the work feels like a marathon and wastes no time packing in the movements.
A quartet of ladies quickly enter and immediately begin a series of exuberant développés, a motif carried on by Juliann McAloon and Sean Omandam as the featured duet. Swift balancés and piques pass in the blink of an eye, with barely a chance for the dancers to breathe. Omandam moves through the pace like it’s another day at the park, as he effortlessly partners a sprightly McAloon.
Overall, the dancers fare decently with it, although the occasional bobble and facial expression slip communicate the piece’s difficulty. Of all the Balanchine works they’ve done, they don’t execute this one nearly as well as the others, but considering the insane amount of vocabulary and rigorous transitions, one can’t help but loudly applaud at the end.
Emily Dixon Alba and Damien Johnson come together for a Wheeldon pas de deux from his ballet The American (also staged by Gifford), with music by Antonín Dvořák played by Mark Landson, David Do, Cody Russell, and John Landefeld. Exuding a sense of longing and searching, the two maneuver through intricate partnering sequences that challenge technical and performance skills. The transitions aren’t as smooth as one would expect, and many areas of partnering feel stunted, but Alba delivers her usual delicate, luxurious quality and enviable lines.
WCP winner Michelle Thompson Ulerich brings Day Vignettes to the company, with a remarkably different vocabulary and mood. A lone dancer begins the work by sitting downstage of the closed curtain, facing upstage, before the house lights signal its start. The curtain rises to reveal the remaining nine dancers facing her in a line, donning short-sleeved sheer red tunics over a matching leotard. Anastasia Markina, Landson, and Landefeld play selections from Arvo Pärt and Catherine Davis.
Strong gestural phrases begin the piece and permeate throughout, and the still moments tremble with anticipation. Moving in and out of exquisite shapes, the dancers find a breathtaking connection with each other and the audience. Solos, duets, and small ensembles occur simultaneously in some areas, but rarely does the attention feel split. All work together to create a gorgeous picture that embodies Ulerich’s underlying theme of perseverance.
The only drawback to the stunning work—and unfortunately it’s significant—is the use of pointe shoes. The best moments in the dance happen when no elevation is needed, and the transitions between en pointe and flat don’t move as smoothly as the mood would dictate. Also, the Moody has amazing acoustics and the sound of the shoes on the floor against the suspenseful subtly of the instruments proves distracting.
The second act can only be described in the modern vernacular as “bringing all the feels”—both good and bad. Paul Mejia’s Serenade in A features four dances clad in tights and white, long-sleeved leotards adorned with a simple white ribbon around the waist. Pianist Markina navigates Igor Stravinsky’s score with gusto, while the dancers do the best they can with some awkward choreography.
It holds a distinct Balanchine air (not surprising, given Mejia’s history with the iconic choreographer), progressing through classical vocabulary with an odd quirkiness. The dancers hit the positions with a nice precision, and repetition allows for a welcomed familiarity.
But then they prance and bounce around with arms up, drawing attention to their shaking hips and smirking facial expressions. It’s cute at first, but as it continues, it produces an uneasy feeling. The sexualized choreography contradicts the cultural significance of the concert in which it appears, as it perpetuates harmful perceptions of the female dancer as more ornament than use.
Fortunately, it’s not the closing image of the show, as Kimi Nikaidoh’s The Face of Water (also a WCP commission) knocks it out of the park as the best piece of the evening. With the string quartet from earlier on stage rather than to the side, the opening picture of three dancers with loosely interlocked elbows gazing towards them reinforces the overall theme of the evening—ballet’s unwavering connection to music.
The dance begins slowly, building breathless anticipation. As the trio moves away from their starting point, more enter, and the work begins to exhibit one of its best qualities. Nikaidoh displays her ability to create satisfying entrances, exits, and floor patterns that allow the audience’s attention to effortlessly move from one movement thought to the next. It’s more balletic than her usual choreography for Bruce Wood Dance, and the dancers glide seamlessly through the vocabulary with a wide emotional range. Thirteen dancers swiftly weave through diagonal lines, and their sweeping placement delivers an astonishing visual. The mood rises towards the end, which comes way too soon.
Overall, the nicely paced evening allows the dancers to display technical and performance range. Considering the reason for the WCP, however, and the increased examination into the paucity of women in ballet leadership, the contrast among these specific pieces proves especially intriguing. In looking at gender roles, the male-choreographed works portray women as either beautiful objects to behold or fragile, surrendering beings to carry and support. The female-created ones, however, deliver a different connection, as the dancers (regardless of gender) support and move with each other—even with the male/female partnering in Nikaidoh’s work—and communicate more than aesthetics.
Whether or not these reflections have any bearing on the underlying issue or where they fit into the overall picture of ballet current events remains to be seen, as the conversation continually brings up new points to consider.