Q&A: Parisa Khobdeh, Paul Taylor Dance Company

Photo: Paul Taylor's Cloven Kingdom. Photo: Courtesy of PTDC

Photo: Paul Taylor’s Cloven Kingdom. Photo: Courtesy of PTDC

Dallas native Parisa Khobdeh shares what it means t be a Paul Taylor dancer, fostering her free and easy movement quality and the company’s upcoming performance at the Eisemann Center.

Richardson — It takes more than strong technique and individual virtuosity to make it as a member of the Paul Taylor Dance Company. It also takes humility, authenticity and a natural self-awareness as company member Parisa Khobdeh has discovered over the past 12 years.

Born and raised in Plano, Khobdeh trained with Gilles Tanguay at Dance Consortium and Kathy Chamberlain at the Chamberlain School of Ballet. It was Chamberlain who encouraged her to audition for Southern Methodist University’s dance program where she got the opportunity to work with choreographers, including Robert Battle, Judith Jamison and Donald McKayle. Her path as a professional modern dancer wasn’t cemented until she attended the American Dance Festival (ADF) as a Tom Adams Scholar where she saw the Paul Taylor Dance Company perform Promethean Fire (2002). The first time she auditioned for the company she didn’t make it, but that didn’t deter her from her ultimate dream of becoming a Paul Taylor dancer. After attending a Taylor intensive in New York Khobdeh made it through her second audition and premiered with the company at ADF in summer 2003.

One of the last living pioneers of modern dance, Paul Taylor first presented his choreography with five other dancers in Manhattan in 1954. Over the last 60 years he has become a cultural icon thanks to his vivid imagination, all-encompassing intellect and quick eye for uncovering a person’s character, which continues to captivate audiences around the world. Formed in 1993, the Paul Taylor Dance Company has performed in more than 540 cities in 64 countries, representing the United States at arts festivals in more than 40 countries and touring extensively under the aegis of the U.S. Department of State.

The company returns to Dallas Feb. 7 for a one-night only performance at the Eisemann Center for Performing Arts in Richardson, TX. The program includes the Dallas premiere of Diggity (1978), Beloved Renegade (2008) andCloven Kingdom (1976). There will also be a screening of the Paul Taylor documentary Creative Domain, presented by the Eisemann and the Arts Incubator of Richardson, at 7 p.m. on Thursday, Feb. 5 at the Alamo Drafthouse in Richardson. Tickets for that are $10.

TheaterJones asked Parisa Khobdeh about her training in Dallas, becoming a Paul Taylor dancer and having work set on her by the legend himself.

TheaterJones: You have been with the Paul Taylor Dance Company for more than 10 years. What is it about the man that instills such loyalty from his performers?

Parisa Khobdeh: I don’t see it as loyalty so much as it is a commitment to him and his work. We are really a family and look out for one another. Mr. Taylor has an eye for uncovering a person’s true character. He notices things that aren’t always apparent to the rest of us when he is auditioning people. He chooses not only really beautiful dancers, but also people with really great souls. And because of that you don’t see a lot of turnover among the dancers in the company. I joined the company at 22 and it has been a place that fosters artistry. There are a lot of revolving-door companies out there. They emphasize the technical virtuosity and not necessarily the depth of humanity, which is what Mr. Taylor’s work, embodies. His work reflects his physicality, beauty and well-structured physique. And then the dance itself is structured to show architecture through space and that is something that sets his work apart from others choreographers.

In a 2007 Dance Magazine article Mr. Taylor refers to the way you move as eye-popping. How does it feel to receive such a compliment from such an illustrious source in the modern dance world?

Oh gosh! I don’t really think about it to be honest. What I feel for Mr. Taylor is complete love and support. He has a beautiful soul and such a big heart. Every day we get the opportunity to work around a genius. So, back to your question I really don’t think about the things you just mentioned. This has definitely been a wonderful place for me to foster my artistry. Mr. Taylor really allows the dancer to speak and fulfill the role given to them. And I think that’s why his company attracts more mature dancers. It’s woven into the work, these subtleties of being human. He sees things a certain way and then shows you where to look and it’s really just been a wonderful place to expand and experience life for myself. To learn from him, watch him create and then to be created on is such an honor.

You are the focus of his works Lines of Loss (2007) and To Make Crops Grow (2012). What is the atmosphere like in the studio when the company is working with Mr. Taylor?

We are all very present when he is creating. Entering the studio Mr. Taylor already has the music broken-up and counted out; he has his notebook; and he knows what and how many dancers he is going to use, but he knows there is only so much you can plan. It’s now a matter of going into the studio and having the process and that’s when the energy between the dance maker and the dancer really comes to life. And you need that process and coming into the studio. You can’t just make a dance in your head in your house. It’s exciting and seldom is it disappointing because if you are not being created on then you are watching him create which is a gift in and of itself. Sometimes he will articulate what he wants and if you don’t get it then he will get up and show you and you get to experience the dancer that he is. There is such a beauty when he comes up and touches you. When he actually moves you there is a touch memory there that stays with you even after performing the work for the hundredth time. It’s really a sacred process.

When did you come to the realization that modern dance was the right path for you?

I actually started my dance training with Julie Lambert and Gilles Tanguay at Dance Consortium with would later merge with Kathy Chamberlain’s school. I was 14 at the time and I really danced because it was fun. With Gilles I learned a lot of modern movement, but when I joined Kathy’s school the focus was more on classical ballet. The school also offered classes in other styles of dance, but most of the students spent their summers at the School of American Ballet and I was never really moved by the storybook ballets. I appreciated them, but the form didn’t really speak to me.  It was Kathy who encouraged me my senior year of high school to audition for the Southern Methodist University’s dance program. So, I auditioned and got in and really had no idea what I was getting myself into. At the time I wasn’t interested in becoming a dancer, but I began to waver after taking Graham technique and working with various choreographers such as Robert Battle, Judith Jamison and Donald McKayle. But most importantly I was seeing a lot of modern dance work created by Paul Taylor and Merce Cunningham. I was starting to see works that really spoke to me and that was a big game changer. So, it wasn’t until the end of my junior year when I went to the American Dance Festival (ADF) where the Paul Taylor company premiered Promethean Fire (2002) that I knew this is what I wanted to do. I didn’t just want to dance for Paul Taylor; I had to dance with Paul Taylor.

Photo: Courtesy

Photo: Courtesy

Looking back how did attending festivals such as ADF prepare you for your future as a professional dancer?

The SMU dance program required you to attend festivals, but Kathy Chamberlain has always encouraged her dancers to go and see dance and for good reason because perspective is everything. And honestly I didn’t know what dance was capable of doing. And I sense that had I not seen some of those performances I wouldn’t have known what I wanted.

As a dancer who is over 30 years old how do you avoid burning out or becoming jaded by the industry?

I think it’s about awareness and consciousness and you are ultimately in control of all of that. Nothing external to you like a choreographer, job or partner will make you happy. Happiness is our birth right. Ultimately, we all have our different paths, but it’s still up to us to have that consciousness to dream up what our life could be. We all have the same potential and it’s just a matter of how bad do you want it. How hard do you want to work at it and I think that’s just consciousness. Mr. Taylor beautifully transmits content and depths of life. There are probably a lot of young dancers that it’s all about becoming a star and in that case the Paul Taylor company is probably not right for them. It’s definitely not the place for them because it’s not about you. If you can come from a place of true contentedness and not competing with other dancers then the work doesn’t become hard or unenjoyable. It becomes an experience and it becomes gratitude. You get to see the beauty in life for its simplicity and sweetness.

The other part of it is being healthy and not smoking or drinking, and to really have a clean lifestyle. That’s what I need to be able to do the work that I’m content with and happy about. I am not saying any of these things are wrong. The kind of vigor and the expectations that the work demands of an artist actually causes me to eat consciously. I had a major injury that took me out and it was really a gift because it allowed me to want to come back to dancing. It was a gift to be able to watch work and watch my colleagues do what they love to do it. It gave me perspective. And then to be able to go back to doing it, I only felt gratitude.

How does it feel to get to perform in your hometown?

I definitely feel like I have come full circle. But what is most exciting is seeing how the city and dance community has changed since I left 12 years ago. That’s really the beautiful part of coming back to Dallas. It’s wonderful that there are presenters like the Eisemann Center and TITAS to bring in such amazing dance companies. You know, it’s not just about the dance schools, but it’s also about seeing dance and gaining perspective.

The evening’s program includes Diggity (1978), Beloved Renegade (2008) and Cloven Kingdom (1976). Which pieces will you be performing and how does each piece speak to you?

I will be performing in Beloved Renegade and Cloven Kingdom. Having a strong ballet background and exposure to other styles thanks to Kathy and SMU made learning the material easier for me. And obviously Mr. Taylor is from the school of Graham so his style is not too far off from what I am use to. Still, I was young when I joined the company, 22, so there was a lot for me to learn and it takes years to become a Taylor dancer. With more than 140 works in his repertoire these three pieces give you only a small taste of Mr. Taylor’s aesthetic. He shows you where to look in all his works, but then you have to do the discovering for yourself. Beloved Renegade is a perfect example of this. It’s inspired by Walt Whitman’s “Leaves of Grass.” And how it looks to me is Mr. Taylor is reflecting on his own life or man reflecting on his own life and reminds of a quote “find death before death finds you.” I think Mr. Taylor even said that all stories end the same way and that’s with death. That’s the one thing we do know. But the work is not morbid at all.

Cloven Kingdom is the earliest work on the program and really reflects Mr. Taylor’s intellectual hunger. You can see the tension between the Baroque and modern music, but also the tension among the dancers as they struggle with social conformity as they try to disguise their own animal motives. So, you see that struggle and that conflict and the movement vocabulary within the work ultimately came out of this tension between what’s socially acceptable and our true primitive nature. Diggity is a work Mr. Taylor did with long-time collaborators Donald York (composer) and Alex Katz (sets and costumes). There’s 20 some cutouts of dogs placed around the stage which in turn creates an obstacle course for the dancers.

This Q&A was originally posted on TheaterJones.com.

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Dysfunctional Beauty

Photo: Courtesy of DCCD

Photo: Courtesy of DCCD

Montreal-based choreographer James Gregg brings his eccentric style and unique sense of humor to Dallas in his new work, Boonflood, U.S.A, part of Dark Circles Contemporary Dance’s Winter Series.

Fort Worth — Joshua L. Peugh has a knack for finding choreographers who are just as curious and quirky as him and who possess their own distinct voice to come to Dallas to work with his company Dark Circles Contemporary Dance (USA). Peugh looks for guest choreographers who have his similar ‘sight’ when it comes to the creative process, but who can also challenge the dancers physically and intellectually. Over the past two years the U.S. branch of the South Korea-based DCCD has successfully introduced North Texas audiences to choreographers such as Chad El-Khoury and Mike Esperanza, whose works were enthusiastically received by critics. DCCD is hoping to continue this trend with Montréal-based choreographer James Gregg’s new work, Boonflood, U.S.A. The piece, which uses six DCCD company members including Peugh, is part of DCCD’s Winter Series which runs Jan. 29-31 at Erma Lowe Hall, Studio Theatre on the Texas Christian University Campus in Fort Worth.

An Oklahoma native, Gregg moved to Chicago in 1999 to dance with River North Chicago Dance Company. He was with the company for several years before moving to Montréal where he currently dances with Les Ballet Jazz de Montréal. He has also danced with RUBBERBANDance and Azure Barton and Artists. Last year Gregg was one of the winners of Ballet Austin’s New America Talent/Dance choreographic competition for his work The Space Between. Peugh and Gregg met last year in Philadelphia where they were both setting pieces for BalletX.

While watching a run-though of Boonflood, U.S.A. at Preston Center Dance on Sunday afternoon it was easy to see why Peugh was drawn to Gregg’s work. They both have a penchant for distorted body shapes, whimsical gesturing and full body contact partnering. They also find humor in the most simplistic of tasks such as walking, hugging and staring. Gregg displays this side of himself in the opening section of Boonflood, U.S.A. Dressed in folksy attire, denim button downs, beige pants and floral patterned dresses, the six dancers shuffle across the stage frozen in what appears to be an awkward family portrait. They go back and forth about five times, dropping off a member of the family each time, which causes them to shift their pose. The music is an original score by Austin-based composer Jordan Moser that starts with an upbeat banjo ditty, then morphs into unsettling heartbeats before finally bringing back the banjo in a very complex electronic remix of sorts.

Whereas Peugh’s movement choices typically emphasize a certain body part such as an arm, shoulder or hip, Gregg leans more toward full body motion as evident with Sarah Hammonds’ open-chested releases and loose leg lifts during her solo. Gregg advises her to think about compressing the muscle so it doesn’t look floppy. The group sections are where we see Gregg’s true chorographic genius come out to play. Having been working in Montreal for the past 10 years, Gregg says he has gotten to experience everything from classical and contemporary styles of dance to more avant-garde and risqué ways of moving. In the groups sections of this pieces Gregg plays around a lot with the texture (i.e. sharp, weighted, calculated, loving) as well as group partnering.

For example, in the waltz section the three couples go from pushing and pulling at one another to placing their head on the other person’s shoulder as they spin around with their arms extended out. In the group partnering section everyone stays connected as Peugh supports fellow dancer Alex Karigan Farrior as she pushes off someone’s back with her feet to end up on Chad El-Khoury’s shoulders. As this is happening the entire group is steadily moving upstage while staying connected as a whole. These extremely intense sections are balanced out with more whimsical moments such as the family photo session where everyone strikes a June Cleaver pose before returning back to their true characters. Everyone in the audience can relate to this dysfunctional family theme. And while at certain points the piece evokes feelings of grief, anger and isolation Gregg says there is an uplifting quality to it all.

The DCCD Winter Series also features two new works by Peugh, Critics Of The Morning Song and You and Me. The first is a duet between Peugh and Farrior which premiered in New York City last October at The Ailey Citigroup Theater. The piece is quintessential Peugh; isolated body gestures, rhythmic pedestrian movements, body music and of course uniquely comical. You and Me includes a minimal techno soundtrack, vintage arcade sounds and features Peugh’s knee-bruising floor work and primitive body positions.

This preview was originally posted on TheaterJones.com.

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Shaping Dance

 

Photo: Shaping Sound

Photo: Shaping Sound

Travis Wall discusses his choreographic journey on So You Think You Can Dance, expanding the commercial dance industry and cofounding the L.A.-based contemporary dance company, Shaping Sound.

Fort Worth — The commercial dance industry has gone through a major transformation over the last 10 to 15 years. Being a professional commercial dancer in the ‘90s meant moving to L.A. and auditioning for music videos and TV commercials. The term ‘dance celebrity’ did not exist. The closest a commercial dancer would get to fame was dancing in the background of a Britney Spears video. Commercial dancers today has seen an increase in jobs and exposure thanks to TV shows such as So You Think You Can Dance, Dancing With The Stars and Dance Moms. These shows have jump-started many dancers’ professional careers, including Travis Wall’s. The public first got to see Wall as a contestant on Season 2 of SYTYCD, but it wasn’t until Season 5 when he was brought back as a choreographer that we got to see the emotional storyteller underneath all that incredible technique.

Growing up in his mom’s dance studio in Virginia Beach, Wall always knew he was destined for more than just dancing at a very young age. He landed his first professional at age nine when he appeared in a Dr. Pepper commercial. And he was only 18 when he became a contestant on SYTYCD in 2006, a blessing and a curse he says. A blessing because his body was able to keep up with the grueling schedule, but he says he found it hard to open up to the camera. “I really didn’t know how to act especially with my sexuality (at the time noSYTYCD contestant had ever come out). So, instead I just made it about the dancing. I wasn’t going to make it about anything else.”

After the show Wall became more focused on creating work with the hopes of one day returning to the SYTYCDstage to show off his choreographic chops. “It was a passion of mine to become a choreographer in the commercial dance industry and I told the show’s producers that they would invite me back.” Wall got his chance in Season 5 with a contemporary routine featuring Jason Glover and Jeanine Mason. “I was actually assisting Wade Robson that week and the night before the show the producers called me and asked me if I wanted to do my first piece. I basically had 12 hours to pick music and set the routine on the dancers.” Having guest choreographed on the show for numerous seasons now, Wall is quick to point out that he usually only gets five to six hours to work with the dancers. Outside of the show Wall has worked with Florence and the Machine, Chelsea Handler, Eminem and Rihanna. He also choreographed the contemporary numbers in the film Step Up Revolution and currently teaches on tour with NUVO Dance Convention.

When asked how it feels to have his journey as a choreographer documented in such a public way Wall says it is simply amazing. “I think it’s really cool for people to feel like they are part of a journey.” Wall also gets the added bonus of having these clips of his work forever archived on the Web. “I can just randomly go on You Tube and watch the pieces and remember what I was going through at that particular time. I always put a lot of myself into the pieces I do on SYTYCD and so I’m really watching my life process through these videos.”

Having spent so much time in front of the camera it only seemed natural that in 2012 the camera would follow him as he and his buddy’s Nick Lazzarini, Teddy Forance and Kyle Robinson launched their contemporary dance company, Shaping Sound. The trials and triumphs that occurred during the company’s first season were documented in the reality series All The Right Moves, which aired on the Oxygen channel. While Wall is thankful for the exposure the show provided he says if he had to do it over again he probably wouldn’t have agreed to do the show. “At times the cameras really stunted the creative process. I felt like what came out wasn’t the true version of ourselves. We were constantly nervous about what someone was going to say and how the work would appear on camera so we just decided we needed to keep our art separate from the other stuff. So, what we ended up presenting on the show was really a stage show which was the product of constantly having the stress of the cameras on us.”

Photo: Courtesy

Photo: Courtesy

Even with its bumpy start Shaping Sound has thrived over the past four years captivating audiences across the U.S. with its dynamic mix of energy, emotion and athleticism as well as its celebrated cast of dancers, including SYTYCDAll-star Jaimie Goodwin and Season 10 winner Amy Yakima. The 12-member company also includes Dallas native Skylar Boykin who trained at Dance Industry Performing Arts Center in Plano, TX. The working dynamic between the four friends is quite cohesive according to Wall. “We are like brothers so we know how to work with each other and we know who pushes the other’s buttons.” As far as creating and choreographing Wall says it’s really a collaborative effort, but that over the past year he has taken more of a leadership role when it comes to the staging and directing aspects of the work.

Shaping Sound is produced by Break the Floor Productions and seeks to provide audiences with a greater understanding of contemporary dance through a fusion of jazz, modern and hip-hop choreography. North Texas audiences’ will get a chance to see Wall and the rest of the company when Shaping Sound comes to Bass Performance Hall in Fort Worth on Wednesday, Jan. 28.

Wall describes the one-night only show as a dance theater experience in two acts. “You’re following this girl whose spirit is completely damaged and you watch her fall asleep and enter this dream where she learns how to love. She goes through all these experiences so she can take what she learns and apply them to her real life.” Wall adds, “There’s lots of different styles of movement and amazing music you’re going to love. The louder you cheer the harder we perform. We thrive off the noise.”

This article was originally published on TheaterJones.com.

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Body Music

Photo: Mike Melnyk

Photo: Mike Melnyk

Body musician Keith Terry brings his unique style to Dallas’ first Rhythm in Fusion Festival (RIFF) happening this weekend at the Majestic Theatre.

Dallas — Finger snaps, foot stomps, chest womps and butt slaps. These are just a few of the body parts Keith Terry uses as musical instruments in class. He also pops his fingers, shuffles his feet and whistles. He calls this blending and bending of tradition and contemporary musical and dance elements body music.

As a trained percussionist Terry was a drummer for the Original Jazz Tap Ensemble when he started incorporating hand claps and foot steps into his work. His “ah ha” moment came in the late ‘70s while playing drums for a tap dance class. “I had this thought about what it would be like to make music with my body so, I stood up and started playing around with this idea of being a body musician. After class Charles “Cookie” Cook and Charles [“Honi”] Coles came up to me and encouraged me to pursue it. I took their advice and I am still pursuing it.”

Over the years Terry has studied a variety of rhythmic techniques from Japanese Taiko and Balinese Gamelan to North American rhythm tap and Ethiopian armpit music. He travels extensively in the U.S., Asia and Europe where his body music performances, workshops and residencies are popular among professional performers and educators. “I am fortunate that I get to travel a lot and it has really opened my eyes to different ways of thinking about rhythmic time in different parts of the world.”

As a soloist Terry has been featured at Lincoln Center, Bumbershoot, NPR’s All Things Considered and Morning Edition, PRI’s The World, the Vienna International Dance Festival and the Paradiso van Slag World Drum Festival in Amsterdam. From 1998 to 2005 Terry was on the faculty at UCLA’s Department of World Arts and Cultures, where he designed and taught a dozen courses on the relationship of music and dance, including deep listening, synchronicity, time and timing. Terry is also the founding director of Crosspluse, an arts organization dedicated to rhythm-based intercultural music and dance located in Oakland, California. In 2008 he formed the International Body Music Festival (IBMF), a 6-day festival that explores the language of body music from culture to culture. It was actually at the 2014 IBMF in San Francisco where he met Katelyn Harris, the co-producer of Dallas’ first Rhythm in Fusion Festival (RIFF).

Terry is currently in town for the festival which runs Jan. 16-19 at the Majestic Theatre in downtown Dallas. He is teaching alongside Chloe Arnold (Beyoncé and founder of Syncopated Ladies), C.K. Edward (national tour of The Book of Mormon) and Harris (artistic director of Dallas-based Rhythmic Souls Dance Company). For those dancers taking his class for the first time, Terry says not to worry. “I see body music as the first music. I mean before we were making instruments we were stomping and clapping. There’s just something really old and familiar about it makes people feel comfortable when doing it.”

His teaching style has grown organically throughout the years. He requests his students to wear sneakers as tap shoes will overpower the other sounds. During warm-up he views his body as a drum set with the claps being the snare drum, the bottom being the tom-toms and the feet being the kick drum. His says his classes are more than about just training body musicians. He has taught ballet, modern and taps dancers as well as actors and theater folk. “It’s about using the material to get that rhythmic understanding inside them so they can then express whatever style they are doing.”

This feature was originally published on TheaterJones.com.

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Q&A: Choreographer Ronald K. Brown

Photo: Ayodele Casel

Photo: Ayodele Casel

Choreographer Ronald K. Brown on 30 years of making dance stories, traveling to the birthplace of West African dance and his company’s upcoming performance for TITAS at AT&T Performing Arts Center.

Dallas — Ronald K. Brown doesn’t just make dances; he makes dance stories. Using a combination of contemporary and African dance styles, including Afro-Cuban and spiritual movement, Brown creates work that provides a unique view of human struggles, tragedies and triumphs. His choice of music, literature and spoken word reinforces these themes and helps acquaint audiences with the beauty of African forms and rhythms. This kind of physical storytelling along with Brown’s humility and emotional depth is why he is considered one of today’s leading contemporary choreographers.

A Brooklyn native, Brown began studying dance at a Police Athletic League summer program at age 6. His dream was to train with the Dance Theatre of Harlem, but in high school he changed his focus to creative writing and journalism. After spending the summer before college dancing, Brown realized his true calling and resumed his dance training. Brown has studied a variety of dance techniques, including Graham, ballet, traditional West African dance and Brazilian capoeira. At 16 he began studying at Mary Anthony dance studio in Manhattan, and two years later founded Evidence, which is named after the first dance he choreographed in 1985.

Entering its 30th season, Ronald K. Brown/EvidenceDance Company has traveled across the U.S. and abroad, including Cuba, Brazil, South Africa, Nigeria and Senegal, to name a few. In 2010 the company joined the U.S. State Department’s DanceMotion USA tour to perform, teach and conduct demonstrations. In addition to Evidence, Brown has also set works on Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, Cleo Parker Robinson Ensemble, Dayton Contemporary Dance Company, Jennifer Muller/The Works, Philadanco, Muntu Dance Theater of Chicago and more. He has collaborated with such artists as composer/designer Omotayo Wunmi Olaiya, the late writer Craig G. Harris, director Ernie McClintock’s Jazz Actors Theater and composers Robert Een, Oliver Lake, Bernadette Speech, David Simons and Don Meissner. His other accolades include the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Fellowship, National Endowment for the Arts Choreographers Fellowship, New York Foundation for the Arts Fellowship, United States Artists Fellowship and The Ailey Apex Award for teaching.

Evidence will be performing at the Winspear Opera House in Dallas on Jan. 17. The program includes Brown’s Come Ye (2002) and On Earth Together (2011). Using music by Nina Simone and Fela Kuti, Come Ye is a call to all those willing to fight for their lives with the ultimate goal being peace. In On Earth Together Brown uses music by Stevie Wonder to reinforce this idea of a loving and compassionate place to celebrate a world view.

TheaterJones asks Ronald K. Brown about his travels to West Africa, incorporating his writing lessons into the choreographic process and the life experiences that ultimately led to the creation of the two works his company will be showing in Dallas, Come Ye and On Earth Together.

TheaterJones: Critics are always quick to comment on your poignant storytelling. How did you uncover this ability?

Photo: Courtesy

Photo: Courtesy

Ronald K. Brown: What’s interesting is that I had all these false starts with my interest and love for dance. I remember at 12 heading to an audition at the Dance Theatre of Harlem when my Mom went into labor with my little brother. I decided then to forget about dance and focus on being a big brother and a writer. So, I went to the Arts Center in Lower Manhattan where I studied creative writing and journalism with the intent of making this my career. It wasn’t long after that when I bit the bullet and realized I did want to dance and I wanted to have a company. I knew I wanted the work to be about something. A kind of physical storytelling in a way. So, when I am creating something I write a lot and I share that with the dancers to help them embody the words of the story. It’s not about acting it out or pantomime. It’s about capturing the true essence of what the story is.

How does your creative writing background aid you in your choreographic process?

I usually come into the studio with ideas and music, but no steps and am improvising while the dancers follow me around. So I build a phrase, which is just like writing a sentence, and from there I build paragraphs and organize it so that they make sense. So the structure of the work is similar to that of writing a story. Writing also makes me conscious of what is and isn’t necessary in the work. Even with that said editing a piece is still very hard. I remember in the early 90’s I was as physical as I could be in my dancing. And then I starting playing with gestures and getting a little more introverted with some of my work. In 1994 everything started to come together in terms of dealing with the physicality and gesturing of my movement.

In the early ’80s was physical storytelling a new concept to dancers and choreographers?

Trisha Brown was really popular in the 80s. The downtown dance world was really about the Alexander technique and about finding the facility in your body absent of emotion. In the history of dance everyone is trying to learn from the generations before, but I think with traditional modern dance a lot of us teachers were then having hip replacements and wanted to develop a teaching and way of moving that really takes care of the body. So, for a young black man from Brooklyn creating movement that was absent of emotion and story just wasn’t the direction I wanted to go. Even though I was working downtown I was still trying to say something with it. I am also in the mindset of not harming the dancers’ bodies. There is nothing aloof about our dancing. An example is Doug Varone and his company. I am drawn to the fire of the company’s dancing and the overall physicality of it.

Can you tell me what was going on in your life during the creation of Come Ye (2002) and On Earth Together(2011) and how it impacted the work?

Our country had just gone into Afghanistan when I started working on Come Ye. And it got me thinking about the men and women willing to risk their lives for us and I am just so thankful for them. I was really aware of all the young people going over there. While my company was touring I remember seeing these young people in uniform sitting and playing on their portable video games and my heart felt so heavy. That stayed with me and one day while I was on my hands and knees cleaning my apartment this song by Nina Simone came on. And I had figured that I would do something to her music at some point. It was Come Ye, and in the song it says everyone who is dedicated to fighting for your life, it’s time to learn how to pray. And I realized that is how I feel. This song is over 30 years old, so what happened to all of the lessons we were taught by the revolutionaries who believed that in the time of war that the destination is still peace? The piece began to unfold as I thought about all the unrest in the world and how we try to deal with it. It starts with Simone’s Come Ye and goes into her Sunday in Savannah, Revolution and ends with a song by Fela Anikulapo Kuti nicknamed Amen. He wrote this song after his mother was thrown out of a window because he had spoken out against the government in Nigeria. So, the song speaks of this tragedy and yet is so full of prayer. In the last three minutes of the piece you see images of Gandhi, Bob Marley and all these people who are about liberation while the dancers on stage are trying to embody their warrior nature.

In On Earth Together there is a song in the third section called They Won’t Go When I Go, which is the same song I used for a solo I did back in 1987. My mom passed on in 1996 and my dear friend Dr. Johnson passed on in 2010 and so this section is really about legacy. There’s a moment when everyone’s on stage and one person walks around to check on a few people who are just standing there. I had to give notes to this person and I was so overcome with emotion that I had to walk out of the room.

How do you encourage your dancers to get to such a vulnerable place?

During the rehearsal process I do use different exercises and techniques to help them embrace the essence of the work. Sometimes we watch a movie or share written literature. So, the dancers do have to do a certain amount of homework in addition to learning movement. Another example is when I am trying to have them embody fear I will just scream as loud as I can so they can experience a natural reaction. I also look for dancers who have a simplicity in their performance and presentation. How do they deliver the material in an audition or in a class? There has to be a humility and an openness to their dancing.

You have traveled all over the world experiencing different dance cultures. What dance styles did you encounter?

When I traveled to West Africa in 1995 I think my exposure to traditional, social, contemporary and spiritual dancing helped me understand where I stood in this continuum of contemporary dance. Before that I think I was nervous about using traditional dance steps. I would deconstruct the rhythm or play with the technique but realized I wanted to do something else. And when I started working there I was told that when you touch African dance it automatically becomes something else. A similar thing happened when I went to Cuba for the first time in 2001. I was exposed to traditional and social dances that really broadened my vocabulary and my eye. There is this one style I encountered in Senegal called sabar that makes sense to my body, but then Afro-Cuban also feels really good on my body. And I incorporate all these techniques into my movement vocabulary.

This Q&A was originally posted on TheaterJones.com.

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Tap Diva: Chloe Arnold

Chloe Arnold. Photo: Courtesy

Chloe Arnold. Photo: Courtesy

Professional tapper Chloe Arnold on her fly foot work, tap dance in the 21st century and participating in Dallas’ first Rhythm in Fusion Festival (RIFF).

Dallas — Savion Glover. Debbie Allen. Desmond Richardson. Beyoncé. Only a handful of dancers can say they have worked with these incredibly talented artists. And even fewer can say they have impressed them with their poignant and zealous tap dancing. By 10 years old Chloe Arnold knew tap dance was her calling. From that moment on she did everything she could to hone her skill set with the hopes of one day becoming a professional tap dancer. She sought out the best in the tap world to train with, including Savion Glover, Gregory Hines, The Nicholas Brothers and Ted Levvy. She continued her training while in college at Columbia University in New York City at the Broadway Dance Center and at backstage jams with the cast of Bring In ‘da Noise, Bring In ‘da Funk.

Arnold knew in order to make it big in a field largely dominated by men she would need to bring something fresh to the table. Ironically enough it was Arnold’s all-female tap group, Syncopated Ladies, that would catapult her career and catch the attention of celebrities such as Beyoncé and hit T.V. shows like So You Think You Can Dance, America’s Got Talent and Dancing with The Stars.

Arnold is also committed to sharing her technique and professional experiences with other aspiring tap dancers. In addition to being seen on film, television and stages worldwide, Arnold is also the co-founder of DC Tap Festival and co-director of LA Tap Festival. She has taught at studios across the nation, including Broadway Dance Center, Ailey Extension and Debbie Allen Dance Academy and also tours with New York City Dance Alliance. It was at a Tap Festival in Houston a few years ago when she met Katelyn Harris, artistic director of the Dallas-based tap troupe Rhythmic Souls. Harris and Malana Murphy are the co-producers of Rhythm in Fusion Festival (RIFF), Dallas’ first tap festival, where Arnold will be teaching and performing. The event feature master classes, improv jams, tap battles and a performance showcase, and also features other percussive dance forms, such as Irish step dancing, flamenco and folklórico. RIFF takes place Jan. 16-19 at The Majestic Theater in downtown Dallas. You can see a full schedule below this interview.

TheaterJones asks Chloe Arnold about honing her skills, creating Syncopated Ladies and what she hopes tappers will take away from her classes at Dallas’ first Rhythm in Fusion Festival (RIFF). There’s also a faculty performance at 8 p.m. Sunday, for which tickets are $35.

TheaterJones: How did you hear about the Rhythm in Fusion Festival (RIFF)?

Chloe Arnold: I met Katelyn at a Soul to Soul Festival in Houston back when she was a part of Tapestry Dance Company. I heard she was moving to Dallas and teaches at a studio where I also teach master classes and attends New York City Dance Alliance (NYCDA). It was cool because I met her in the festival world and then I met her again in the convention world. I have seen a lot of her work on our stages at NYCDA and it’s always phenomenal. So, it was cool to meet someone who can transition between both worlds and has such a wonderful voice in dance and in tap.

What are the main differences between festival tapping and convention tapping?

The primary difference would be that in the world of festivals the focus is on musicality and technique and getting these to their ultimate proficiency. Improvisation is also a big part of the festival setup. In the convention world they focus more on the performance aspect of tap dance. But what I have seen is that there are now more dancers from the festival world entering into the convention world by way of teaching at a convention or a studio like Katelyn’s, which has increased the skill level of these studio and convention tap dancers. My hope and vision is that through events such as RIFF we can bridge the gap between these two worlds so the art form as a whole can be elevated.

What motivated you to pursue a professional tap career?

I have always loved tap dance and when I was 10 I had the incredible experience to meet and work with many of the masters of tap. So, I got to see firsthand people having a tap career and living as a tap dancer and for me that was enough just knowing it was possible. So at age 10 I started to assert this dream of becoming a tap dancer. I have studied other styles of dance, but I knew I wanted to be a tap dancer. I have a really strong sense of conviction that has been fostered by my parents who raised me to believe that I can achieve anything I put my mind to. I have encountered many challenges and tons of rejection, but I am a cup half full type of person and so what some people might consider a loss I consider an opportunity to learn.

What was your first big professional gig?

When I was in college I did a musical in Atlanta with Debbie Allen called Soul Possessed. It was an eight shows a week production and the cast included Desmond Richardson, Carmen De Lavallade and Patti Labelle. That was certainly life changing because I got to experience what it’s like to live as a dancer. When the show was done I went back to school, and I just had a greater sense of mission and what direction I wanted to take with my career.

Why did you choose to attend college over starting your professional career?

It wasn’t even an option to not go to college. When I went to New York to see some friends who were in Bring In Da Noise Bring In Da Funk they told me I should go visit Columbia University. Actually, Savion Glover’s brother took me to Columbia for my college visit when I was 15 and I made up my mind right then that this was the place for me. I went back to my home in Washington, D.C. and did everything I needed to do to make that a reality.

How did your all-female tap troupe, Syncopated Ladies, originate?

After college I move to L.A. and I would go to this tap jam on Monday nights and one night it was all ladies and I was blown away. I remember looking around the room and thinking these are amazing women who need to be in a group. So, I set a work on them that they did at an annual tap festival. That was back in 2003 and we all were so young and so green in terms of cultivating the whole package. But it was the foundation for what would one day become Syncopated Ladies. They were women that could improvise, learn choreography and were also learning other styles of dance. We have maintained a very close friendship over the years. And then one day while we were having girl time we decided we just wanted to rock out and that’s when we started creating videos and I started to expand my vision. It was time for me to go for it instead of just waiting for our once a year thing. The five stunning ladies I started with are still here plus two more that used to be my students. It’s truly a sisterhood and when we dance together its really cohesive because we know each other so well.

Syncopated Ladies is known for its girl power mentality. How did you develop this fierce and feminine style of tapping?

Photo: Courtesy

Photo: Courtesy

I’ve always had a girl power mentality from childhood. I was always the girl who was doing whatever the boys were doing. I was not afraid to dive into “a man’s world” and tap is a man’s world even though more women are now doing it. So, when I moved to New York it was really a boy’s club and I knew I wanted in. Once I got my skills and taps together and was starting to be heard I realized that instead of fighting to prove myself it was time for me to be true to who I am. And that includes the feminine aspect which Syncopated Ladies touches on in our dancing. It’s centered on this idea that we can still be taken serious as tappers even if we are wearing a cute outfit and our heels. This is where the feminine style came from and it was really influenced by Debbie Allen and Beyoncé. I have worked with both and they really brought out the woman in me.

Where you surprised by the vast support the Syncopated Ladies received during the dance crew battle portion of Season 11 of So You Think You Can Dance?

There are far more tap dancers now connecting because of social media, but largely because there are more tap festivals than ever around the world. We are really a global community and I think that is our greatest strength. When Syncopated Ladies was on Season 11 of So You Think You Can Dance the producers were surprised by the number of votes we received from countries all over the world. We had people tweeting from Brazil, Japan and Europe. People don’t know this, but the world of tap is vast and united. And sometimes when you are marginalized it makes for a stronger fight. We still have a long way to go, but I think it was great that this past season SYTYCD had two tap dancers in the final. I also think it’s great that Dallas will know have its own tap festival because it’s only going to increase the appreciation and the visibility for the art form and that’s the key. The more people feel welcomed to the field and feel like they can do it the greater the visibility.

What would you like the young dancers at RIFF to take away from their time with you?

I am aware of what my colleagues are doing and teaching so I think about that when I am preparing to teach a class. If the other teachers are covering x, y and z then I am going to focus on a different aspect of tap. I like to inspire people to go beyond what they have learned already so it’s very much in line with my life and my career. I want to make people believe in themselves. For me, it’s more about challenging your fears and finding inspiration and I do that through technique, choreography and improvisation. Tap is huge in Dallas and this festival is going to be the perfect timing to, like I said, bridge the gap in the tap world. It’s a place where everyone who thinks they are different can come together and realize how similar they are and how they all share the same love for tap.

This Q&A was originally posted on TheaterJones.com.

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Gayle Halperin: Dance Maven

Photo: Robert Hart

Photo: Robert Hart

After launching the Dallas DanceFest and positioning Bruce Wood Dance Project for its future following Wood’s death, Gayle Halperin is a major force in the dance scene’s growth.

When Gayle Halperin comes up with an idea that could benefit the Dallas dance scene, it is full steam ahead, regardless of the budgetary and timeline pressures associated with producing a large event such as the new Dallas DanceFest, or the personal challenges that can arise from continuing the legacy of the Bruce Wood Dance Project after the passing of choreographer Bruce Wood last May. While Halperin is quick to credit her “village of supporters, patrons and passionate dance lovers, it is clear that she is nonetheless an invaluable part of the local dance community, with her arts organization knowledge, list of contacts and passion for the dance art form.

Halperin’s intuitive sense of the community’s needs are why so many of the programs she has championed over the last couple of years have met with such success. “Looking back, my first project was Dance Planet and expanding exposure of dance at the community level—bringing all styles together at one venue. Then TITAS made living in Dallas manageable for me by bringing in nationally and internationally acclaimed dance companies. Then, I kept taking on more and more roles at the Dance Council of North Texas.”

Most recently Halperin steered the committee within The Dance Council of North Texas to create the Dallas DanceFest that took place in August at the Dallas City Performance Hall. With the number of artists living and working in the area growing and the exquisite Arts District at their disposal, Halperin saw a unique opportunity and pounced on it. “I was blown away and overwhelmed with the whole event. Each day was an amazing experience—shows had such a great variety of high caliber dance—all the dance companies were at the top of their game. Each show was inspiring and as excellent as the one before. The audiences embraced the variety and were enthusiastic.”

Halperin also has close ties with the Bruce Wood Dance Project (BWDP) since it was she who approached Wood about restarting the group and moving it to Dallas in 2011. After Wood died unexpectedly in May, some in the arts community questioned whether the company could sustain itself.  Thanks to Halperin’s and the other board members’ quick thinking the BWDP’s September performance went on as planned. “I was following my instinct. He taught me so much about courage, drive, passion, responsibility, work, and more. I could feel it in my bones that B. would want us to keep going. It’s been not easy going forward without him. Not easy at all. But as artists we know how to be flexible, how to problem solve, and so we continue. Bruce lives on through his choreography, aesthetic, teaching, and dancers. Continuing onward is the best way to celebrate his life.”

Halperin’s ultimate legacy may be succeeding in her goal of making Dallas a “dance destination” in the same vein as New York, Los Angeles, Miami or Chicago. The development of new local performance opportunities, and paying jobs, through projects and events such as those Halperin has helped spearhead are going a long way in helping artists make Dallas home rather than just another stop on a performance tour.

The 2015 Dallas DanceFest is scheduled for Sept. 4-6, 2015 (check the website for info about submitting an application); and the Bruce Wood Dance Project is rehearsing for its next performance at Dallas City Performance Hall. Also, a photography exhibit chronicling Bruce Wood and his work runs Jan. 10-Feb. 15 at the Arlington Museum of Art.

This profile was originally published on TheaterJones.com.

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Review: Dallas Repertoire Ballet’s The Nutcracker

DASHING DANCE

DRB company member Hannah Morris as Clara in this year's production of The Nutcracker. Photo: Kim Voorhies

DRB company member Hannah Morris as Clara in this year’s production of The Nutcracker. Photo: Kim Voorhies

At the Eisemann Center, Dallas Repertoire Ballet delivers one of the most exuberant and technically spectacular Nutcracker productions of the season.

Richardson — Having seen multiple Nutcracker performances already this season critics sometimes feel like they are on autopilot when sitting in the audience for another show. Ballet companies have to find new ways to freshen up their Nutcracker without deviating too far from the ballet’s renowned origins. Dallas Repertoire Ballet (DRB) managed to accomplish this Friday evening with a fast-paced and choreographically exceptional Nutcracker at the Eisemann Center for Performing Arts in Richardson. Artistic Director Megan Willsey-Buckland and choreographers Kathy Willsey and Audrey Rusher Mitts made some bold choices when it came to story development and prominent dance numbers such as Snow and the Waltz of the Flowers that kept the audience, including moi, engaged for the duration of the show.

The dashing pace of the show was set from the get-go. The curtains opened up to reveal the inside of the Stahlbaum’s house where Mr. Stahlbaum, his wife, daughter Clara and son Fitz are preparing for their annual Christmas party. The stage is simply set with a grandfather clock, some chairs and a sofa. The vastness of the space is quickly forgotten as 50 plus children and adults swarm on stage to greet the party hosts. These introductions, which usually take minutes in many productions, took mere seconds in DRB’s version leaving the dancers with more time to show off their bountiful technique, stamina and individual artistry. Clara (Hannah Morris) and her friends excelled in their allegro numbers, performing the repetitive petite jumps and traveling steps with ease. Chaos was avoided with practiced entrances and exits and visually pleasing traveling patterns. The choreographers took a risk by minimizing the grand gesturing that is typical, replacing it with more dance sequences, a decision that in this case worked thanks to the commitment of the adults and younger dancers. The older party goers displayed their intermediate waltzing skills while Morris wowed us multiple times with her far-reaching lines and unrestrained enthusiasm.

The drama of the battle scene was enhanced by the fog machines and the tour de force that is Albert Drake in the role of the Nutcracker Prince. Drake’s background with the Bruce Wood Dance Project added dimension to the otherwise typically flat princely character. Drake also did not hold back when it came to the military-precision arm motions and repetitive toe touches to the delights of viewers. Not wanting to waste such a talent, Drake also makes an appearance in the Snow scene with a pas de deux with Morris which, while quite lovely, did take some of the shine away from the Snow Queen (Ashlee Gilchrist) and Bruce Wood Dance Project member Harry Feril as the Snow King. Feril effortlessly manipulated Gilchrist through the various body shapes and over the head lifts that are staple points of this particular scene. While Gilchrist’s upper body appeared stiff during certain lifts, exhaling while executing movement will enrich her performance. Choreographer Megan Willsey-Buckland’s Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders’ background shone through the Snow Corps’ sharp arm placements and various movement contagions.

Photo: Kim Voorhies

Photo: Kim Voorhies

The first half’s steady pace and eclectic display of skills continued in the second half of the show. Feril pulled double duty as the Cavalier to Grace Ludwinski’s Sugar Plum Fairy. Ludwinski’s slight frame made it easy for Feril to execute the press up lifts and various running leaps sprinkled throughout the grande pas de deux. Ludwinski proved herself capable of handling the exacting partner work as well as the fast foot work and exploding turn sequences in her solo section. Feril’s low center of gravity added extra excitement to his leaps and tour en l’airs to the knee. Other standouts in the second half include Lynnae Hodges’ wicked fast pirouettes in Spanish Chocolate, Bella Rusli’s unnatural body contortions in Arabian Coffee and the whole cast in the Waltz of the Flowers. The intricate pointe work of the soloists mixed with the various rhythmic patterns of the wreath holders transformed the stage into one big beautiful moving picture.

This review was originally posted on TheaterJones.com.

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Review: Dallas Ballet Company, The Nutcracker

Photo: David C. Harris/Time Frames Photography

Photo: David C. Harris/Time Frames Photography

Holiday Blend

Strong storytelling, elaborate set design and dynamic guest performances are some of the highlights at Dallas Ballet Company’s annual Nutcracker performance in Garland.

Dallas — After 28 seasons Dallas Ballet Company (DBC) Artistic Directors Brent and Judy Klopfenstein know what works and what doesn’t when it comes to their version of The Nutcracker. Intricate set design, light-hearted narratives, cleverly crafted group dances and dynamic individual performances are what audiences have come to expect and DBC didn’t disappoint at Saturday afternoon’s showing of The Nutcracker at the Granville Arts Center in Garland.

Guest Artists April Daly and Miguel Blanco from Joffrey Ballet were magnetic in their roles as Sugar Plum Fairy and Cavalier. They both displayed unwavering control as Blanco manipulated Daly through the tricky body rotations and balance holds in the grande pas de deux at the end of the show. Despite his broad frame Blanco was very lighted-footed in his jumps and pulled off his triple pirouette effortlessly. Daly was like watching a shooting star on a clear night. She ricocheted across the floor in a series of pique turns finishing in a flawless arabesque hold. Her breathy exhales and soundless, fast foot work made her a captivating performer to watch.

The show also contained some standout performances by a few DBC members. Lanie Jackson dazzled in her role as the Snow Queen. In addition to exquisite technique, Jackson’s innate musicality gave her the freedom to explore different qualities of movements. One minute her arm placement is razor-sharp and body position exacting and the next her arms are exploding to match her exhale at the top of a soutenu turn into a smooth shoulder lift. Even though Morgan McClinchie (Snow King) could have used more tension in his body while leading Jackson around the stage, his capacity for the press up lifts and backward progressing catches were impressive. McClinchie also got to showcase his clean technique and jumping chops as the lead in the Waltz of the Flowers alongside Isaac Hileman and Christian Otto. Long-limbed and naturally poised, all three young men take after Guest Choreographer Jason Fowler, a former soloist with New York City Ballet and DBC alum. Waltz of the Flowers lead Olivia Mann wowed the audience with her rhythmic breathing patterns, supple feet and unending extensions.

Whereas the Snow Corps were not as springy in their movements as Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s score demands and traffic patterns and timing were not always clear at times, The Waltz of the Flowers Corps was the exact opposite. All eight dancers executed the fluttery arm movements and striking pointe work with spunk and synchronized musicality.

Photo: David C. Harris/Time Frames Photography

Photo: David C. Harris/Time Frames PhotographyGranvi

The opening party scene at the Silberhaus’ house was quick moving, yet predictable with Drosselmeyer’s (Randolph McKee) eccentric showmanship, Clara’s youthful vigor and the adequate performances by the Harlequin and Columbine Doll and Mechanical Solider. Audiences enjoyed the maturity Annie Corley brought to the role of Clara. Her obvious skill and effervescent personality were used throughout the show and not just in the first half. The group dances in the first half were refreshing thanks to the use of props such as fans, baby dolls and swords. The movement itself was rudimentary (i.e. waltz steps, chaines, tendues and traveling chasses), yet it was performed cleanly and concurrently. The battle scene was more playful than menacing with the younger performers portraying the mice and soldiers. The flashing red and white lights on the otherwise dark stage added to the scene’s drama.

The large props present in almost every scene added to the overall fanciful theme, but in some cases they also slowed down the transitions between scenes especially during the second half. The Spanish Chocolate group made up for the drawn-out pause with spirited jumps and saucy skirt flicks. Terrance Martin reprised his role as the Arabian and proved he is still capable of performing the front walkovers and back handsprings that dubs this section a crowd pleaser. Whitney Hester surprised us with her sharp point work and controlled upper body positions as the lead in Chinese Tea. But what really sets DBC’s production apart from others is the skill set of even its youngest dancers. Basic, yet clean movement choices and fun use of props is why the Gingerbread scene remains an audience favorite.

This review was originally posted on TheaterJones.com

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Review: LakeCities Ballet Theatre, 2014 Nutcracker

Nutty Glee

Sarah Lane (ABT) and Daniel Ulbricht (NYCB) as the Sugar Plum Fairy and Cavalier in LBT's version of The Nutcracker. Photo: Nancy Loch

Sarah Lane (ABT) and Daniel Ulbricht (NYCB) as the Sugar Plum Fairy and Cavalier in LBT’s version of The Nutcracker. Photo: Nancy Loch

LakeCities Ballet Theatre delights audiences with its whimiscal rendition of The Nutcracker accompanied with live music.

Lewisville — As critics sometimes it seems like we are always looking for the weak links in a performance. So it’s always a pleasant surprise when that task proves difficult, as it did Saturday night at LakeCities Ballet Theatre’s (LBT) 24th annual production of The Nutcracker to a sold-out audience at Marcus High School in Flower Mound. In keeping with its family-focused tradition, LBT’s Nutcracker weaved intricate storytelling with spectacular set designs and fanciful choreography that all audience types could appreciate.

The audience was instantly pulled into the action as the families attending Mayor Silberhaus’ Christmas party entered the scene through the aisles acknowledging us as they passed by. Our eyes were then drawn to the richly-decorated stage where the Silberhaus family (Mayor, Frau, Clara and Fritz) are preparing for the festivities. Artistic Director Kelly Lannin’s quick wit and discerning eye kept the story moving and prevented clutter on stage. Traffic jams were avoided with subtle stage entrances/exits and regimented formations. With so many performers onstage, movement was kept to clean chaines, piques and traveling triplets. The adult couples performed tricky waltz steps and nuanced arm movements with a grace you don’t typically see from these characters. Special Guest Ken Wells (Herr Drosselmeyer) got the audience involved as he almost fell into the orchestra pit while seeking out the Silberhaus’ house. He was more senile than mysterious in his actions which suited the younger audience just fine. The festive atmosphere in the auditorium was heightened by Adron Ming and the Lewisville Lake Symphony’s competent rendering of Pyotr Ilyrich Tchaikovsky’s classic score.

What stood out in the first act was the performers’ commitment to their roles. While Claire (Julie Fenske) and her friends danced a sweet adagio number with their dolls the adults stood in the background gesturing to one another while the maids discreetly drank from the wine glasses and the nanny chased Fritz and his friends. Mayor Silberhaus’ (Chuck Denton) over-the-top facial expressions and spirited gesturing set the bar for the other individuals on stage. However, while the heavily layered petticoats and colorful dresses were authentic of the time period, they also made it difficult to see the young dancers’ feet.

LBT’s battle scene is one of the best in the area. Cheeky mice carrying wounded comrades off in stretchers, Drosselmeyer chasing a mouse with rodent repellant and a diva Rat King (Robert Stewart) requiring a plush couch for his death bed are just a few memorable moments. Newcomer Jack Wolff as the Nutcracker Prince was another pleasant surprise. This 14-year-old from Houston is the whole package. Great flexibility, stamina and a commanding stage presence, Wolff is definitely going places. He and Fenske also made a darling couple.

Julie Fenske and Jack Wolff as Clara and the Nutcracker Prince. Photo: Nancy Loch

Julie Fenske and Jack Wolff as Clara and the Nutcracker Prince. Photo: Nancy Loch

With extremely supple feet, pliable back and innate body movements it’s hard to believe Mackenna Pieper (Snow Queen) is only 15 years old. The energy exuding from her fingertips in a ponche arabesque and the ease in which she executes a one-arm assisted slow pirouette is not something you expect from one so young. With a trusting partner such as Shannon Beacham the Snow pas de deux processed seamlessly. And while the snowflakes fast pointe work was exacting and exciting it was sometimes overshadowed by the powerful sounds of the orchestra chimes.

Guest Artists Sarah Lane (American Ballet Theatre) and Daniel Ulbricht (New York City Ballet) breathed new life into the roles of the Sugarplum Fairy and Cavalier which has previously been performed by ABT’s Julie Kent and Sascha Radetsky. Lane and Ulbricht executed movement with a powerful punch that kept audiences in suspense. Lane’s incredible control and meticulous arm placement made her lines and spins appear unending. Ulbricht is a fireball on stage. His exploding grande jetes are unworldly and his double tour en l’air into a double pirouette down to the knee was perfection.

The other LBT couples in the second half did a commendable job of matching Lane and Ulbricht’s energy and poise. Ali Honchell and Guest Artist Ruben Gerding (Spanish Chocolate) were a whirlwind of petite jumps, spins and assisted lifts. The Arabian dance was everything viewers have come to expect. Beacham contorted Faith Jones into various shapes before slowly rotating her in a circle. Jones’ Gumby-like frame enabled her to pull her extensions behind her head and practically bend her body in half when arching back in Beacham’s arms. Andre Harrington once again displayed his acrobatic prowess in a number of back handsprings and forward tucks as the Russian Baba. The Chinese were sassy and forceful with their pointe work while Mother Ginger (George Redford) and the Polichinelles were lighthearted as they danced rudimentary steps in soft shoes.

The Walt of the Flowers coupled delicate pointe work with continuously shifting patterns and lively performances by three pairs; Julia Tiller and Beacham, Michelle Lawyer and Blaine Quine and Honchell and Gerding. The group’s movements appeared blurry at some points due to the red lighting reflecting off their pink costumes, but that can be adjusted. The overall effect was still dreamy and ornamental.

This review was originally posted on TheaterJones.com.

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