Dallas — Opera. Ballet. Baroque. These three words can be intimidating to even the most cultured art lover. For the most part, these genres of artistic expression bring to mind a time of grandeur, Kings and Queens, and a sense of inaccessibility to some. Not necessarily incorrect in a historical sense (with early court ballets originating in the palace of The Great Louis IVX of France), it’s understandable that a program consisting of baroque art might cause hesitation on the audience’s part. So how can musicians, dancers, and artists give credit to the time period while also making it accessible to a 21st century audience?
The American Baroque Opera Company and Ballet Dallas tackled this question head-on in their production of The Elements. As one of the handful of works selected for this season’s Elevator Project presented by the AT&T Performing Arts Center and the City of Dallas Office of Arts and Culture, the collaboration focused on composers Michel Richard Delalande and Andre Cardinal Destouches’ opera ballet Les Elemens — along with additional baroque era compositions. Under the artistic direction of Eric Smith and featuring contemporary ballet choreography from Valerie Shelton Tabor, the evening challenged audiences to see, hear, and experience the baroque aesthetic through a new perspective.
As a fan of intimate performance spaces, it was a real treat to see Hamon Hall adapted for ballet use. Ballet is one of those styles that typically benefits from massive proscenium stages — displaying the art form on an elaborate pedestal. From afar, we don’t always notice the sweat on their faces, or see the muscular contractions, or hear their heavy breathing. But in this ballet-up-close setting, audiences had the chance to experience the athleticism of these dancers in a way that doesn’t hide the gritty details, yet also highlights each ballerina’s ability to breeze over these difficulties with ease and grace.
Thus, we began our journey into Delalande and Destouches’ opera ballet as a sextet of musicians played pleasingly dissonant baroque melodies. Plucky harpsichord notes blended with muted oboe tones and trills from the flautist while audience were immediately transported to 1700 France.
Following this brisk overture, Jean-Fery Rebel’s “Chaos” (a composition from his later version of Les Elemens) incited a whirlwind of individual movement as four ballerinas entered from all four corners of the room. Becoming the embodiment of Water, Air, Earth, and Fire, each dancer donned a flowy skirted costume with mesh sleeves and bright colored face paint matching the aesthetic of their element. With deep lunges, diagonal slicing arms, and flared wrists the quartet spun in confrontational pathways—capitalizing on the chaotic themes in the musical accompaniment.
For the structure of the program, vocal and musical sections followed movement pieces—bringing a consistent, comfortable flow to the night. William Derusha commenced the operatic segments in his reprisal of Netpune. His deep intonations brought grounding to the opening scene of chaos as he sung of bringing peace to these adversarial elements.
Portraying Fire, Lea Zablocki manifested her element through flittering wrists and darting direction changes. Maintaining a perched posture and a hot-tempered dynamic throughout the performance, Fire acted as the most confrontational and dangerous element amongst her colleagues.
As Venus, Anna Frederika Poppova continued Neptune’s pleas for peace in her lyric cries. Her range was astounding—transitioning from bellowing vibrato to subdued tones in her high range—presenting a delicious operatic display.
Quick entrances and exits gave the tight space a sense of continuous movement. While the vocalists offered a lyrical story, the feisty ballerinas continued to fight for prominence—Earth (Laura Pearson) and Fire asserted their power through brief bursts of tricky turns and balances, peacocking their strengths back and forth. Whitney Hart’s illustration of Water added itself to the tumultuous mix in her attempt to calm the space with floating arm circles and hopeful reaches.
In response to Poppova’s call for help from the west wind, Kaley Jensen whirled into the space with dainty points, playful flicks, and uplifted holds. Bringing Earth and Water into a tranquil trio, the group joined hands and skipped together in jovial folk-dance patterns.
After a magnetizing duet between Derusha and Poppova came the most well-developed solo of the evening. Featuring Pearson at her best, the Earth character revealed its new-found stability in heavy, controlled falls and serene rocking motifs. This embodiment proved richer and more mature than earlier expressions — giving a satisfying conclusion to Pearson’s role.
The finale welcomed back all performers (singers included) for one last jubilant dance. Incorporating simple partnering reminiscent of baroque era social dances, the cast hopped and smiled their way into a series of final bows.
Was this representation of baroque music revolutionary? Not so much. Besides the structure and inclusion of contemporary ballet, the musical component felt rather traditional. Marketed as showcasing baroque music as “living, breathing art,” I expected more auditory experimentation. However, I do applaud this production for its collaborative approach to a difficult-to-access musical era? Yes! I hope to see how both the American Baroque Opera Co. and Ballet Dallas grow into these shared artistic explorations in the future.