If one intimate weekend with Texas Ballet Theater is good, then two is definitely better. Rounding out their second set of Portraits Ballet Festival, Ben Stevenson and company deliver three more knockout works at AT&T Performing Arts Center's Wyly Theatre. This weekend's mixed bill provides more variety than last week, all while displaying the company's virtuosic versatility.
Like Carl Coomer in the previous weekend, Peter Zweifel doubles as choreographer (premiering The Finding) and dynamic lead dancer (Lambarena). The former work portrays a couple in love who must battle the darker influences pulling one of them away. Lucas Priolo enters the stage carrying Katelyn Clenaghan in a passionate embrace. The intimacy between the two continues in the closeness of the choreography, which could have been achieved without a single touch. The dancers' connection and longing easily become tangible with just a single gaze. Clenaghan's gaze, however, wanders to something unseen, eventually taking her movement away from her partner as well. More dancers appear on stage clad in navy, gray, and eggplant in stark contrast to the couple's costumes of lilac and cream. Something sinister tests the relationship.
The storyline continues with frantic athleticism as Priolo tries to win back his love. The two continually separate and return, all while the threatening ensemble whirls around the stage hindering their efforts. Priolo exhibits the unconditional love—gentle but powerful, pursuing and supportive. While she mostly winds up going an opposite direction, Clenaghan always accepts his affections, even if only for a moment. Finally, they end as they began, eyes locked onto to one another and the darkness nowhere in sight.
The piece is technically beautiful with wonderful movement choices. The ensemble executes unison choreography with brilliant synchronization. Seamless partnering flows throughout the work, not just with the principal couple. Some of the men's sections aren't performed as solidly as the women's parts. The storyline moves pretty well, except towards the end where there seems to be a gap right before the happy ending. We don't get to see Clenaghan's transition and acceptance of her love.
Although The Finding has a happy ending, the tension and troubles portrayed give way to a more disturbing feeling with Ben Stevenson's Image, based on the tumultuous life of Marilyn Monroe. In a pre-show announcement, Stevenson warns the audience that this piece is not "tutus and sweetness." Carolyn Judson, dancing the role as the doomed sex symbol, moves drastically beyond the Sugar Plum Fairy and the innocent peasant girl of Dracula's affections, and into the terrifying realm of Monroe's psyche.
Judson begins the piece clad in a nude bodysuit, clutching and grasping at a gray wall. Her makeup, hair and awkward angular movements make her unrecognizable as the dancer we've seen in past works. In this first section, she begins a series of motifs that pop up in various forms later in the dance. Frantic hand gestures, terrified facial expressions that come from the inside out, and jerky hip motions all accompany a feeling of nakedness and unwanted exposure. The wall separates and reveals a land of show business, complete with various lighting instruments and a giant dressing room mirror. The latter turns out to be Judson's nemesis, as the reflection horrifies her throughout most of the dance.
Only when she puts on her red lipstick, wraps the golden dress around her, and dons the platinum blonde wig do her movements and demeanor begin to change. The harsh, ungainly choreography melts into a delicate, sensual dance to match her new persona. The fake, however, cannot withstand pressure, and eventually Judson rips the outer marks of beauty off in desperation. The frenetic qualities return tenfold, until she breaks. Euphoria colors her face, a net drops from the ceiling, and Judson floats away after her greatest performance yet.
As the saying goes, it's always darkest before dawn. After the heart-wrenching sorrow of Image comes the colorful and lively Lambarena, a musical and movement fusion of the classical and tribal. Set to music of Bach and traditional African songs arranged by Pierre Akendengue and Hughes de Courson, choreographer Val Caniparoli blurs the lines of classical ballet even further. Mixing classical style, traditional African dance, and African-inspired modern, the dancers roll, ungulate, relevé and leap with fiery intensity. The transitions between the rigid ballet and looser African dance tend to be a bit choppy with some of the dancers; others can handle the change a little better. Priolo especially uses the warm setting to his advantage as he plays up his part with subtle expressions and gestures to the audience.
TBT ends the season with a successful festival that not only rejoices in past works of art but celebrates and nurtures new choreographers. Join them next year as they close out the season again for an intimate exchange at the Wyly Theatre.
◊ Read our interview with Peter Zweifel here.
◊ Here's our review of the first weekend of Portraits Ballet Festival.