Review: American Repertory Ballet starts season with widely varied ‘Kaleidoscope’

american repertory ballet kaleidoscop


Clockwise from left, Nanako Yamamoto, Annie Johnson, Emily Cordies-Maso and Michelle Quiner perform “Kaleidoscope Mind.”

A sophisticated program highlighted by the premiere of Ryoko Tanaka’s “Hindsight” opened American Repertory Ballet’s 2022-23 season at the New Brunswick Performing Arts Center, Sept. 23. Ranging in style from the classic to the contemporary, this mixed bill, dubbed “Kaleidoscope,” offered a survey of recent trends in ballet, balancing nostalgia with futuristic visions.

American Repertory Ballet dancers perform “Hindsight.”

An opener guaranteed to impress, “Hindsight” is a powerhouse ensemble piece showcasing this company’s teamwork and go-for-broke energy. Clearly the dancers were inspired by the presence in the pit of composer Ian Howells on piano, and cellist Paul Vanderwaal. The music’s striking chords and jaunty themes alternated with tender passages to create a variable and dramatic soundscape.

“Hindsight” is also mined with choreographic incident and cleverly managed contrasts. Groups arranged in bold lines and circles set off subtle details such as a dancer’s head calmly turning to one side, or gnarled hands that resemble claws or tree branches. Brief solos and duets broke out of the framework. Tanaka has said she was thinking of the weird mirror images in Salvador Dalí’s painting “Swans Reflecting Elephants” when she made this dance, but symmetry and mirroring are part of every choreographer’s toolkit.

“Hindsight” found its emotional center in a duet for Annie Johnson and Aldeir Monteiro, who strolled together and then abandoned themselves to the supported partnering and spinning lifts of a classical adagio. Their idyll did not last, however, as a third figure emerged from the darkness to claim Johnson before she could rejoin her partner, leaving Monteiro bereft and gazing at the place where she should have been. Such dark imaginings and the ache of loneliness feel Dalí-esque, yet this broken love affair was not enough to dispel the overall impression “Hindsight” gave of a meticulously ordered world.

Claire Davison’s “Bewitched” was more informal, a woozy pas de deux for lovers in their cups, set to a jazz standard by Rodgers & Hart. Erikka Reenstierna-Cates and Elias Re tumbled and embraced, rocking tenderly. They offered memorable characterizations — he, stalwart and naive; she, fragile, full of mischief and, ultimately, treacherous.

“Delibes Duet” is what choreographer and company director Ethan Stiefel calls his tinkering with the ballet formerly known as “Coppélia.” Gone were the monkeyshines of the full ballet: the flirting, the pouting, the chasing after butterflies. Instead, our modern heroes monkeyed around with gender roles in the pas de deux, with the man supporting himself unnecessarily on the woman’s extended arm to perform a cabriole, for instance.

Sigh. The new shenanigans are sillier than the old ones. Thankfully, this “Delibes Duet” went on to provide a taste of genuine bravura. Tiziano Cerrato gave a bold and exciting performance, but Lily Krisko was overtaxed in the coda.

Emily Cordies-Maso and Elias Re dance in “Kaleidoscope Mind.”

The evening’s second premiere featured a collaboration between choreographer Da’ Von Doane and visual artist Grace Lynne Haynes, who designed both costumes and scenic elements for a ballet called “Kaleidoscope Mind.” Dominating the production, the scenery included a web-like pattern on the backdrop and a collection of mysterious, free-standing sculptures, which gave the space a futuristic atmosphere. Color-coded costumes divided the cast into blue and peach-colored cadres, which the choreographer mixed or separated. Music by Steve Reich hummed like a dynamo in the background, supplying a movement impulse that the episodic choreography ignored.

Instead of going with the rhythmic flow, Doane seems interested in gestural ornaments and poses, giving the ballet a static and otherworldly quality. Women made spinning, mechanical gestures and pulled their elbows back. A man crowned himself with his hands, then made a pyramid shape overhead. While allowing themselves to be wound up or nudged off-center, the dancers quickly returned to equilibrium, triumphantly displaying their balletic lines.

Collaborations between choreographers and visual artists are nothing new in ballet — one gesture in “Kaleidoscope Mind,” with a flattened hand pulled back sharply along the dancer’s extended arm, recalled the 1933 “Les Présages” with scenery by André Masson. In order for such artistic pairings to reach their full potential, however, the kinetic power of the human body must be released.

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