Fort Worth — One thing that makes Texas Ballet Theater so fascinating is artistic director Ben Stevenson’s use of company choreographers. Carl Coomer has had quite a few times to shine, especially with last year’s ambitious Henry VIII, but this season Andre Silva gets his moment in the spotlight as dancer and choreographer in TBT’s first mixed repertoire program this spring (the second comes at the end of March) presented at Bass Performance Hall. His work 11:11 shares the bill with Christopher Bruce’s Ghost Dances and William Forsythe’s In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated, both significant pieces of late-20th century contemporary ballet.
Silva’s premiere opens the evening, and it will likely go down as one of the most unexpected moments in DFW’s 2019 dance scene. Although a strong technical base seems vital to pull off the shapes and virtuosity scattered throughout, as a whole, it’s hardly balletic and the most bizarre yet thrilling opener for a TBT show. With costumes by Brazilian native Sonia Roveri and lighting design by Tony Tucci, the ballet jumps between nine seemingly unrelated short vignettes.
As electronic music by Jlin begins to thrum, floor-level upstage lights reveal twenty-two dancers behind a scrim, which generates surprised murmuring from the audience. Tribal music matches the unison earthy choreography, which values energy and passion over the company’s typical precise placement. Ungulating and popping movements sprinkled with spastic gesturing bring up an immediate obvious question.
Who are these dancers?
Roveri’s costumes contribute quite a bit to the unpredictable, exciting aesthetic, and the frequent, varied attire changes throughout speak volumes about the collaborative effort between her and Silva. Colorful stripes on the face correspond to the pops of blocked color that occur on many of the costumes. Footwear ranges from boot-like jazz shoes and socks to barefeet, and skintight shorts, tops, and unitards are frequently accessorized with straps, wraps, and free-flowing shirts.
A suitcase, a moving box frame, and benches provide more puzzling pictures, and light bars occasionally lowered from above add more texture to the space. Finding a favorite or most memorable section is impossible. Men and women have their own group parts that are equally intriguing but convey vastly different atmospheres. Two areas come close to resembling ballet. Carl Coomer and Carolyn Judson beautifully connect for a soft, longing duet, and another section reveals rapid-fire, technical partnering. But then, the aura shifts with an exaggerated, theatrical quartet before culminating in a jazzy ending.
The cryptic, ambiguous title refers to the idea of being in the moment, and that’s the best approach to viewing his work. Enjoy the picture, revel in the dancers’ marvelous execution, and welcome the emotions and thoughts it evokes. Attempts to find a strong narrative thread or obvious theme that anchor the segments (as is found in many ballets) are likely futile.
After an intermission, Ghost Dances provides more structure. A dimly lit stage backed by a painted landscape with trees and mountains heightens the eerie opening, as three dancers stand like statues with eerie wind noises playing. These ghost dancers (Jiyan Dai, Brett Young, Alex Danna) don vague, skeleton-like masks, dreadlock wigs, and scant pieces of fabric draping across painted bodies. For quite a while, they dance to the wind noises, with only the rhythm of their controlled movements and sounds of their feet hitting the floor providing any kind of cadence.
Another group of dancers enters the stage, and Belinda Scarlett’s costume design clothes them in pedestrian clothes, albeit tattered, faded, and worn. Earthy flutes, electronic beats, guitar strums, and Spanish singing contribute to the folk feel of their dancing, which contains many lateral torso movements, whirling arm patterns and turns, and quick footwork. Cara Shipman and Riley Moyano maneuver through a stunning duet, while Judson and Coomer playfully partner for a slightly jazzy, highly flirtatious section. For each segment, the ghost dancers break up ensemble and duet choreography as the wind noises take over.
Although the creative impetus for the work came from accounts of a 1970s South American military coup, the overarching themes of death’s inevitability and the abrupt heartbreak of violence are timeless. The same could almost be said of the choreography. It premiered in 1981, but contains enough vocabulary found in current contemporary ballet with transitions and staging reminiscent of more traditional modern dance. It’s the perfect combination of old and new, truly exemplifying the shift into the more recent contemporary aesthetic.
Another 1980s ballet, In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated, closes the evening, beginning and ending with a bang. It’s the most minimal of the three, with stark white downlights that never change and a harsh electronic percussion score by Thom Willems in collaboration with Lesley Stuck. Nine dancers in sleek, green and black costumes zip through the dance with an energy level that never wanes, and defiant, pedestrian walking is the only thing that breaks up the urgent choreography. Forsythe uses shapes that are now common in contemporary ballet, but unlike today’s whirlwind execution, he opts for a different texture with suspended holds. Tilted and pitched battements, sumptuous extensions, and fierce athleticism create excitement, but the constant high energy is also wearing at the close of a show that lasts just over two hours.
Mixed repertoire concerts can often lead to mixed feelings, but overall this one proves stunning. Although the order could have been slightly adjusted for a more logical mood progression (with Forsythe’s work opening and Silva’s closing) the evening delivers astonishing surprises as well as the usual brilliance and artistic range we’ve come to expect.