Dallas — With all the ballet that’s been presented at Dallas City Performance Hall, Dallas Neo-Classical Ballet’s Futurisme à Pied (French for “future on foot”) was one of the oddest.
And that’s exactly what artistic director Emilie Skinner wanted.
An intimate collaboration of music, dance, and design took audiences on a journey through early 20th century art and aesthetics. Dadaism, surrealism, futurism, and other “-isms” melded together for an impressively cohesive show. The art forms of World War I and the interwar period openly mocked and questioned the society that led to the Great War. Highly political, yes, but this inquiry delved beyond current events and began to redefine art. In a nutshell, anything goes and one should leave expectations at the door.
The contemporary music ensemble SYZYGY from SMU’s Meadows School of the Arts (directed by Lane Harder) provided live accompaniment for Act I, and the Meadows Percussion Ensemble (directed by Jon Lee) took over for Act II. It was a curious evening, but also surprising and quite enjoyable, despite its detour from the predictable and comfortable.
Opening the program was a restaging (and almost re-imagining) of Parade, a Ballet Russes production featuring a list of collaborators that would now seem like a star-studded roster (in the context of history) but at the time were quite new at the game. Jean Cocteau conceived a scenario in which entertainers attempt to lure audiences to an indoor show. It wound up being Erik Satie’s first foray into ballet music and Pablo Picasso’s first round at costume and set design for dance. Léonide Massine took the helm as choreographer (astonishingly set in 1917, in the middle of the war), and while scandal didn’t quite reach Rite of Spring standards, it still caused a small riot.
For this production, visual artist Francisco Moreno supplied the costume design, slightly changing up some of the characters, but still keeping everything monochromatic, which was Picasso’s statement on our dying creativity amidst increased industrialization. Satie’s music contained jubilant moments, fitting the need to attract an audience.
Two box-style costumes, representing the American Manager and Mexican Manager, allowed only the legs and feet of the dancers (Laura Pearson and Heather Dods, respectively) to be seen as they performed a character-like dance.
Hannah Rae Kleimeyer playfully portrayed the American girl in a dress by Kisa Shiga, and Felicia McPhee as the Alien Conjuror delivered angular movement with impressive battements and extensions. Billy Perkins and Dorian Perkins doubled up as the unicorn, and while it was completely silent, their impeccable timing and tricks brought about plenty of laughs. The only ballet-esque segment was the acrobats, Lea Zablocki and Alex Langley, a duet filled with tricks and smiles.
As an interlude, Harder gave a short speech on the purpose of the collaboration with DNCB (which also happened last year with SYZYGY’s involvement in The Masque of Red Death) and an introduction to Dada. He said, “Dada emphasizes things that don’t go together with no attempt at reconciliation.” With this philosophy, the aesthetic of the art isn’t as importance as the ideas it conveyed or the process used to create it, which was revolutionary at the time, even though current audiences are used to seeing it played out regularly.
To further the point, Griffin Camacho read Hugo Ball’s Dada manifesto accompanied by Harder’s original composition Zurich, 1916, referring to the time and place it was originally spoken.
Rounding out Act I and bringing everything together was 391, with music by Harder and choreography by Skinner. The title refers to a Spanish Dada literary magazine and the music was Harder’s reaction to Parade and follows Dada style by creating a mish-mash of musical styles, including ragtime and marches. Airplane noises and sirens complete the score, and the dancers alternated between an effortless, glossy performance and a frantic, unsteady quality. Whitney Hart delivered spotless fouette turns, but her onlookers quickly grew weary of the dazzle.
Act II began with a stunning visual. The black traveler that created the backdrop for the first half opened to reveal a percussion ensemble in the upstage area, with pianos acting as the border between musicians and movers. Dancers clad in burgundy short unitards stood ready for Ionisation, choreographed by DCNB member Kayla Davey and sharing the same name as the all-percussion composition by Edgard Varèse. Created between 1929-1931, the piece opened up the door for “found sounds” (including a siren) to be used as music in a classical score.
Choreographically, there’s nothing particularly unique, although it flowed well. The dancers’ intense performances fit nicely with the odd and dissonant sounds of the score, and they handle the unison parts with clarity and skill. Hart as lead dancer astonished once again with her precision and quality and delivers some remarkable leaps. The only downside to the piece was the design of the dancers’ costumes, as parts of the fabric proved unflattering on all.
Although the other pieces have importance of their own, the highlight of the program seemed to be Ballet Mècanique. The title comes from a Dadaist silent film by Dudley Murphy and Fernand Lèger with an accompanying score by George Antheil, a piece which hasn’t been played in North Texas since 1983. The film comes courtesy of SMU and is projected as the dance and music play out on the floor.
The inclusion of the percussion ensemble on stage with the dancers provided an intriguing aesthetic for Ionisation, but adding a projection turns it into sensory overload, especially with the intensity of the score. The film includes random images repeated and sometimes enhanced with a kaleidoscope effect or turned upside down, all of which could make it into a horror film given the right context. The ensemble added propellers to its instrument set, and with dancers moving on stage, one doesn’t quite know where to look.
Boone (Ballet Mistress for DNCB) provided the choreography, and her traditional steps and spatial organization added some predictability to the oddness. But that’s where convention stopped. The corps donned painted unitards, and Boone wore a tutu made of fabric stretched from the waist to a wire forming the end of the skirt. While vocabulary might have looked familiar, Boone performed her choreography with an intensity and heaviness typically not found even in neo-classical ballet. Ensemble choreography was very placed, and none of it quite fit the music. At a quick glance, it could almost resemble a Merce Cunningham piece.
Whatever Skinner and crew were going for with Futurisme à Pied, it worked. The collaborators and performers aptly guided audience members through the works yet challenged them in a manner that was effective and satisfying.