Dallas — Avant Chamber Ballet changes course from their holiday performance to present a light-hearted February show that still hits a few different moods. With two premieres by artistic director Katie Cooper, one previously-staged Christopher Wheeldon duet, and this year’s Women’s Choreography Project commission on the bill, Romance and Ragtime delivers a well-rounded evening at Moody Performance Hall. The Cezanne Quartet (Eleanor Dunbar, Lauren Densinger, Steven Juarez, and Elizabeth White) accompanies three works, while solo pianist Artem Arutyunyan plays for a fourth.
Cooper’s two premieres are quite similar (even with differing costumes and music style) as both display precise, deliberate choreography and the dancers are all smiles throughout each. Opening the evening, The Seasons travels through Antonio Vivaldi’s Four Seasons with staging that emphasizes the strength of individual dancers. Juliann McAloon and Melissa Meng especially shine. Ensemble precision falters a bit in some areas, but overall the work displays a lovely aesthetic. The dancers glide and bourrée across the stage in dresses of varying lengths and pleasing colors, and Cezanne’s vibrant rendition of the music completes the charming atmosphere.
The second premiere, Ragtime, continues the buoyant mood with Arutyunyan’s rousing performance of Scott Joplin’s early twentieth-century masterpiece. Brilliant jewel-toned minimalist costumes with panels of black present a more modern look, and Cooper adds more neo-classical flairs to her usual vocabulary. The flirtatious movements and dancers’ pizazz help mask the overly repetitive motifs, less refined execution, and timing issues. Shea Johnson and Meng execute an exciting duet, with Johnson delivering impressive jumps.
Sandwiched between Cooper’s effervescent works is Wheeldon’s elegant pas de deux from The American, staged by Michele Gifford. McAloon and Johnson fare decently well with the difficult partnering and exude a wistful longing. Cezanne Quartet handles Antonín Dvořák’s score with ease and grace.
The Women’s Choreography Project world premiere occurs a little earlier this year, but winner Fernanda Oliveira’s Homebound doesn’t disappoint. It’s the best work of the concert.
Set to the Australian string quartet FourPlay, the ballet follows a young woman’s journey to find her identity and a sense of belonging. All performers begin on the floor clad in black jackets, with Meng wearing white under hers. Austere gestural phrases match perfectly with the plucked minimalist opening of the music (played by Cezanne). Feeling apprehensive and out of place with the group, Meng removes the jacket, revealing a white dress. She moves through separate gestural motif, which flows into the torso, a series repeated in various points of the ballet.
A lively section follows as she meets a sprightly group, trading off movement phrases as if in conversation. When their interest wanes, she catches the eye of the mysterious and dashing Marlen Alimanov. Infatuation and a subtly spicy duet ensue with thrilling allegros by Alimanov. But he, too, leaves, and anguish shouts through Meng’s harsher movement qualities. What’s a girl to do?
Find strength and identity within and use that to reach out to others. With her choreography less restrained, she maneuvers around the stage, unfazed by the stares of others. Her compassion is irresistible as she connects with the rest of the dancers, and all join in for an uplifting closing unison.
As with past WCP premieres, the dancers prove their technical and emotional ranges for a tight-knit, heartfelt performance. Oliveira’s vocabulary fits well with the company, and the dancers seem comfortable with the choreography. The work also has relevancy beyond the context in which it was created. Our technological ability to connect with others who share similar characteristics has in some ways created more exclusive clubs with increasingly harsher eligibility requirements. The innate tendency of people to organize into tribes isn’t immune to the flaws of human nature. It can be difficult to remember that we are not solely defined by that one facet which brings us into a community, nor does our identity lie in another’s appraisal of our place in society. Oliveira’s work reminds us of our uniqueness, as well as our ability to find commonalities and unity even with our differences.