Tag Archives: Ben Stevenson

Texas Ballet Theater to stream Henry VIII ballet this weekend

Since there are currently no dance performance going on around town due to COVID-19 I wanted to draw attention to the local dance organizations who are using online platforms such as Facebook and YouTube channels to connect with new and established audiences by offering free content within a specific time frame. To date I have viewed Bruce Wood Dance in Joy Bollinger’s Carved in Stone, Texas Ballet Theater’s (TBT) premiere of  Ma Cong’s Firebird, Dark Circles Contemporary Dance in Joshua L. Peugh’s Aladdin and an excerpt of Jennifer Mabus’s Citizens of Loss for Avant Chamber Ballet.

So, ahead of TBT’s streaming of Carl Coomer’s Henry VIII May 8 and 9 at 8pm on the company’s YouTube channel @tbttheater, I wanted to revisit my conversation with Coomer about the making of this balletic work. Below is a copy of my Q&A with Coomer, which was originally posted on TheaterJones.com in February 2018.

Please enjoy!

Dancing Scandal

Texas Ballet Theater brings all the glitz, glam and romantic intrigue of Carl Coomer’s new work Henry VIII to Bass Performance Hall this weekend.

Photo: Steven Visneau
Texas Ballet Theater presents Carl Coomer’s Henry VIII

 

Fort Worth — From the moment Carl Coomer stepped on stage in George Balanchine’s Apollo at Texas Ballet Theater’s (TBT) Portraits Ballet Festival in Dallas back in 2012, I was immediately drawn to his sculpted body lines and effortless classical technique as well as his chiseled good looks. But he also grabbed me emotionally in Evolving, in his first choreographic work, which was also being showcased that day. Since then I have watched Coomer grow in both artistry and stage leadership with prominent roles in Ben Stevenson’s Swan Lake (2014), Jiří Kylián’s Petite Mort (2015), Jonathan Watkins’ Crash (2015) and Val Caniparoli’s Without Borders (2016), just to name a few. He premiered his second work the company entitled Clann back in 2014. On a more personal note Coomer is married to former TBT Leticia Oliveira and they have two children, the second of which arrived only two months ago.

For those unfamiliar with Coomer’s background, he hails from Liverpool, England, where he starting dancing at the age of 13. Soon after he was offered a scholarship to attend the Royal Ballet School under the direction of Dame Merle Park and Gailene Stock. After moving to the States, Coomer danced with Houston Ballet for six seasons before joining TBT in 2007. In addition to the works mentioned above Coomer has also performed in lead roles in Ben Stevenson’s The NutcrackerGiselleDraculaFour Last SongsThree PreludesFive PoemsMozart RequiemCoppeliaCleopatraPeer GyntRomeo and JulietThe Sleeping Beauty and Cinderella.

The last time I interviewed Coomer in 2015 for Petite Mort I asked him if we would be seeing more of his choreography in future and his response was “if Mr. Stevenson offered me another opportunity to choreography I would be more than willing to do it.” Well, here we are, three years later and Coomer is once again testing his choreographic methods in Henry VIII, a 55-minute ballet that focuses on the second Tudor Monarch’s relationships with his six wives as well his transformation from a viral young king to a sickly old man.

Set to Gustav Holst’s famous musical work The Planets, Henry VIII includes a custom-built, Tudor-esque set, dramatic period costumes and three-dimensional mapping and projections. Texas Ballet Theater will present Henry VIII along with Alexei Ratmansky’s Seven Sonatas, March 2-4, at Bass Performance in Fort Worth.

I caught up with Coomer in between rehearsals this week to ask him how he prepped for creating a ballet around such historical figures, his musical selection and choreographing sections for six very different female characters.

Photo: Texas Ballet Theater
Carl Coomer
TheaterJones: What types of research did you do leading up to rehearsals?

Carl Coomer: I knew a lot about Henry VIII anyway just from growing up in England and learning about him in school. But once a lot of the shows like The Tudors and Wolf Hall came out I just started watching everything I could to get a deeper understanding of his character. I also watched a lot of documentaries and a lot of books as well, with some being fictional and while others were just historical accounts on that time period. So yeah, I just gathered as much information as I possible could so I could build my own perspective on how to tell the story.

What were some of the highlights of this time period that you clearly wanted showcased in the ballet?

I really wanted to make it about how different each one of the wives is and how differently Henry VIII was with each one of them. Like he was together with Catherine of Aragon for so long (1509-1533) and they were in love, but it was definitely more of a political marriage. And then when Anne Boleyn (1533-1536) came along and that all happened their relationship was a lot more sensual and sexual and he was really seduced by her. And then with Jane Seymour (1536-1537) he was madly and deeply in love with her so, I just wanted to show how different each one of the wives is and how Henry VIII is with them.

In terms of the ballet’s structure is it set up like a story ballet or broken into specific vignettes?

I think it’s a bit of both because it is a story ballet so there is narrative happening throughout it. But at the same time having to tell somebody’s life story of 50 to 60 years in a about 50 minutes there is just no way you can include every little bit of information. So, I had to pick and choose what’s important and what to include so I decided to focus on the wives and each one of them has their own piece of music, which is the seven pieces of music from Gustav Holst’s The Planets. Each wife has her own piece of music and then the seventh piece is saved for the battle scene. So, the ballet does contain these little vignettes in a way because of each wife, but then the passing of time can’t really be explained to the audience without the entire cast carrying on with the larger narrative. So, it’s a little bit of both. It’s a story ballet, but spilt up into seven sections.

Having yourself performed in so many story ballets, what was it like to create your own?

For me, and I think I have probably told you this before, the music always comes first. What I had to do was to decide which piece of music would go with which wife and how does all of their personalities match with each piece of music. And once I had that figured out I literally sat down and scoured through every second of the music while thinking how I could tell the story minute by minute through this music. And then I used the music to kind of create a script if you like in order to break everything down to tell the story. I don’t know how others do it, but this was the best way for me to do it.

What led you to Gustav Holst’s The Planets for the ballet’s score?

It was one of the first pieces of classical music that I had ever heard when I was really young and it’s a pretty epic piece. I went to an all-boys school and they made us sit down in the assembly hall and made us listen to some classical music and when they put The Planets on I was just wowed by it, especially the war and Mars battle scene. It was a lot of drums, and horns and violins and I just loved it so much that even after I started dancing it has remained one of my favorite pieces of music as a whole. Each section has something different to offer and I think with this story it just blends so perfectly.

I noticed that a couple of the wives are being danced by new-to-mid-seasoned company members such as Samantha Pille (second season) and Alexandra Farber (sixth season), while others will be danced by more seasoned pros like Carolyn Judson (15th season), Katelyn Clenaghan (14th season) and Michelle Taylor (12th). How did you go about selecting the dancers to play each one of Henry VIII’s wives?

Well, the number of years the dancers have been with the company never really crossed my mind. I picked who was going to do what based on what I thought would suit all the dancers movement-wise and personality-wise. I mean I know all these dancers really well, but I have known Carrie and Katelyn and Michelle for a lot longer than the others so I know what they’re capable of and what suits them. I mean Michelle, is a really good actress and she likes to be dramatic so I picked her for Catherine of Aragon. Now with Carrie you know she has done so many romantic leads like Romeo and Juliet and so Jane Seymour suited her really well. And Katelyn just dances with a whole lot of abandon and with Anne Boleyn I wanted a lot of running and jumping on pointe and I knew she would be down for that.

 

 

Preview: Bruce Wood Dance’s Embrace Showcase

Forbidden Dance

Garrett Smith pays homage to those living in countries where dancing is banned in Forbidden Paths, part of Bruce Wood Dance’s Embrace concert.

Garrett Smith’s Forbidden Paths is part of Bruce Wood Dance’s Embrace Concert. Photo: Brian

Note: This preview was written in April after a private viewing of the work at the Bruce Wood Dance Gallery.

Dallas — Unmoving, the nine Bruce Wood Dance (BWD) company members sit on their haunches with their heads bowed and wrists locked behind their backs. The longer the dancers remain in this pose, which continues for about a full minute, the more overwhelming the moment becomes as my mind shuffles through similar images I have seen in the news recently. It brought up the images of people praying outside the burning Notre Dame Cathedral as well as images of those in mourning after the bombings in Sri Lanka on Easter Sunday.

This poignant section occurs in the middle of Garrett Smith’s new work, Forbidden Paths, which premieres at BWD’s Embrace showcase, June 14-15, at Moody Performance Hall in Dallas. The program also includes Joy Bollinger’s critically acclaimed Carved in Stone and the Dallas premiere of Bruce Wood’s Dark Matter, previously only seen when the company was in Fort Worth.

Smith’s powerful use of imagery is one of the many reasons that BWD’s Artistic Director Bollinger wanted him to come work with the company in Dallas. “The first time I saw his work I immediately fell in love with the musicality, powerful imagery and incredible partnering,” Bollinger says before the viewing.

Originally from Utah, Smith began his dance training with the Utah Regional Ballet and performed in the 2002 Salt Lake Winter Olympics Opening Ceremony. He later studied at the Houston Ballet Academy and created five works for Houston Ballet II’s repertoire. As a dancer with Houston Ballet, Smith got to perform works by Stanton Welch, Jorma Elo, Nicolo Fonte, Christopher Bruce, Ben Stevenson and Christopher Wheeldon.

It was only after seeing the piece that Smith told us about the concept, which started when he became aware that dance is prohibited in the country of Iran. “For me, this is the image of being detained,” Smith says about the section mentioned above. “There was a group of seven individuals in Iran that had danced to Pharrell Williams’ ‘Happy’ and they were detained for a month.”

He continues, “So I tried to imagine myself in that position and how extremely scary that would be for doing something that is not wrong. It is wrong according to their Islamic Constitution, but everyone should have that right to express themselves through dance and that is really the driving force for this piece.”

Whereas Wood’s gesturing is usually viewed as light-hearted and comical, the gesturing in Forbidden Paths comes across as more celestial. A prime example is when the dancers appear to be cupping a precious ball of energy between their hands, which they then manipulate aggressively and rhythmically around their bodies and outward.

Smith credits his use of gestural images to his time spent with the great Czech choreographer Jirí Kylián at the Norwegian National Ballet. Smith has also worked personally with Nacho Duato and Alexander Ekman and has also performed multiple pieces by William Forsythe.

Another striking moment in Forbidden Paths is Megan Storey’s opening solo. Her balletic lines melt into contorted shapes and weighted walking patterns, which she breaks up with flex-footed jumps and textured gesturing. Frustration is evident in her expression as her eyes follow an unknown source.

We found out later that the movement in Storey’s solo depict certain feelings and emotions that were stirred up by specific questions Smith had asked the group at the beginning of the process. “I asked the dancers’ questions such as what does dance mean to you? And how would you feel if you could not dance? The dancers then created solos based off their word choices, which I later sculpted into the piece,” Smith says.

At this point Smith asked Storey to step forward and show us some of the gestures she had crafted from these questions. She described an open-chested pose as her moment of discovery and expressed her anger through an unexpected jump with flexed-feet and fisted hands.

When talking with Storey about her solo later on she says, “I based the choreography off of the words I had chosen for my ‘paper phrase’ as Garrett called. He had given us several questions asking us various things about our relationship to dance, how we would feel if it was taken away from us, etc. From our answers, we chose words that stuck out to us and created gestures for each of them.”

She continues, “Some of the words represented in my solo are ‘music personified,’ ‘transcend,’ ‘conduit,’ ‘express,’ ‘angry’ and ‘can’t.’ From that starting point we, Garrett and I, adjusted certain transitions and gesture intentions to then reflect the objective of the piece and that worked with the musicality of the track.”

Reflecting on her time with Smith, Storey says, “It was truly a wonderful experience for me. Not only was his movement and musicality natural to me, but I also loved the purpose of the piece. It really opened my eyes to how other cultures view dance and performing arts, and how blessed I am to have the opportunity to pursue it as my career.”

She adds, “I try to channel all of those feelings when doing his piece and I’m honored to perform this work for those who aren’t able to.”

> This preview was originally posted on TheaterJones.com.

 

Preview: Texas Ballet Theater’s In the Middle Performance

Power in Numbers

Andre Silva shares the significance of the number sigh 11:11 in his new work of the same name for Texas Ballet Theater’s performance this weekend.

 

Photos: Andre Silva (L) courtesy of Texas Ballet Theater. Andre Silva’s 11:11 (R) courtesy of Steven Visneau.

Fort Worth — You have seen him portray princes, villains and heroes in numerous ballets presented by Texas Ballet Theater (TBT), but, for the first time, audiences will get to see who Andre Silva is as a choreographer in his work 11:11, part of TBT’s In The Middle performance March 1-3 at Bass Performance Hall in Fort Worth. The program also includes William Forsythe’s In The Middle, Somewhat Elevated and Christopher Bruce’s Ghost Dances.

Originally from Brazil, Silva began his professional ballet career with TBT at the age of 17. He danced with the company until 2009 when he decided to leave to dance abroad with Les Grands Ballets Canadiens de Montreal from 2009-2014. From there he danced with Germany’s Ballet Augusburg for a year before returning to TBT in 2015, much to audiences’ delight.

Throughout his time with TBT Silva has danced leading roles in many of Ben Stevenson’s ballets, including Peer GyntRomeo and JulietSwan LakeDraculaBartokPreludes for VanFive Poems, and Mozart Requiem. Some other works he has performed in include Val Caniparoli’s Without Borders, Christopher Wheeldon’s DGV: Danse à Grande Vitesse, Christopher Bruce’s Rooster, Carlos Acosta’s Carmen and Alexei Ratmansky’s Seven Sonatas.

Silva says what ultimately brought him back to TBT was Stevenson. “I love his leadership. What he brings to the table. The way that he coaches the dancers. The way that he choreographs. And I love his energy.”

He goes on to say, “TBT was my first company when I was 17 so I came into the company very young and I learned so much from Ben. He gave me my first leading role when I was 18.  So, I really wanted to dance under the direction of Ben Stevenson again. I wanted to do his ballets again and I also wanted to work with the staff again. So, that was the reason I came back and I am very happy to be back.”

He also points out that his decision to leave TBT was mostly to explore what was out there and learn from various directors and choreographers in Canada and then Europe.

Silva admits that he was speechless when Stevenson approached him about creating a piece for the company. He says up until then he had only set work on the school and second company.  “He really took me by surprise. In a year and a half I had created three to four pieces so I suppose I showed him that I was capable of doing this. When he approached me he said ‘I think you are ready for the company’ and I was like WHAT, but I was obviously extremely grateful and I still am and forever will be because I get to show what and who I am as a choreographer.”

The title, 11:11, came to Silva while he was working in Germany and has remained in the back of his mind so when Stevenson came to him about doing a piece Silva knew exactly what he was going to call it. The 25-minute work features 22 dancers (11 men and 11 women) and is broken up into nine movements. The work also includes costumes by Brazilian native Sonia Roveri, which Silva says fits the theme with its blending of colors and concepts that connect with the movement.

As for his experience in the studio with the dancers Silva says, “It was very collaborative. I would come in with a short phrase and allow the dancers to collaborate and let their bodies move in a way, and if I like the way they move or the way they approached it then I loved to put that in.”

He continues, “I am a very collaborative choreographer. I think it makes the work much more interesting because the movement comes in the moment and it becomes real and natural, and that’s also what 11:11 means to me. 11:11 is in the moment. 11:11 is infinite. And so it becomes this beautiful experience for me to be able to have dancers that are opened as well. It becomes a natural and interesting approach and I am always content with how things turn out.”

When it comes to organizing movement ahead of time Silva says he prefers to do it at home in his back yard or at the park where he can garner inspiration from everything around him in nature. He also says that he used to try to write everything down, but now prefers not to prepare too much before coming into the studio with the dancers. “This challenges me to accept that it will be O.K in the end and that I will come up with something special out of that.”

Going back to the title Silva says that for some people it may mean nothing, but for others it could have many different meanings. In this work the nine movements represent nine experiences Silva has had with 11:11. As for the audience he says, “I hope that people can understand perhaps what it means or take away something for their future reference as 11:11 or just have some kind of perspective of 11:11.”

He adds, “It’s important that each audience leaves the theater hopefully inspired and intrigued by their next experiences with 11:11.”

During our phone conversation Silva was also very opened about the struggles that come with choreographing any type of work. The main one being what happens when a choreographer gets stuck. When this happened to Silva he says he would remind himself of his intentions for the work. “When I am struggling and stuck I have to remember what the intention behind it is. What is it that I want to come through? And the moment that I think about that the feeling is what actually gives me movement.”

He confesses, “It’s not easy to do, but I have to trust that intuition and just let it flow. And the moment we trust it, that’s when it flows better than you ever thought it would.”

This preview was originally posted on TheaterJones.com.

 

Preview: Texas Ballet Theater’s Cleopatra

Dancing Queen

Carolyn Judson on her role as the Queen of the Nile in Texas Ballet Theater’s production of Cleopatra in Fort Worth this weekend.

Carolyn Judson as Cleopatra. Photo: Steven Visneau

Fort Worth — With her girl-next-door looks and sweet disposition, Carolyn Judson is the obvious choice to play the female lead in story ballets such as GiselleCinderellaRomeo and Juliet and The Nutcracker. In addition to her physical attributes, Judson’s penchant for softer, more pliable body positions, delicate foot work and beautifully drawn out leg extensions also make for easy casting decisions. But this weekend she will be trading in these sweet roles for something more seductive in Texas Ballet Theater’s (TBT) Cleopatra at Bass Performance Hall in Fort Worth.

Transforming into this powerful temptress has been a fun challenge for Judson who also played the part in TBT’s 2009 production of Cleopatra. But because back then she only got the role last minute, Judson says she was more focused on learning the steps than working on the characterization, something she hopes to rectify this time around.

“This time around I really wanted to try and capture that strong woman human quality that I think is Cleopatra,” Judson says.

As to how she accomplished this task Judson says timing both in the literal sense and where she is artistically speaking played a pivotal role in the rehearsal process. “Well, for one thing I have had more time to devote to the character. I also have more experience to pull from and richer character development than I did years ago, which has really helped because this role is so emotionally draining.”

Judson is the type of dancer who learns by doing the movement as it materializes from the choreographer. So, when rehearsing for Cleopatra she says she retains movement best when she is copying what TBT Artistic Director Ben Stevenson is doing alongside her. But when it comes to understanding a certain feeling or emotion, Judson says she will usually watch Stevenson from the front so she doesn’t miss any of his nuances.

For this weekend’s performance Judson will be reunited with her former Cleopatra partner Andre Silva, whom she says she used to partner with all the time before he left the company only to return a couple of years ago. “Other than doing the sugar plum fairy variation in The Nutcracker last season this is our first full-length ballet together since he has come back, and we’re just really excited to be working together again. That we have been building on things that we’ve experienced in the past 16 years here has made our bond even stronger and we’re really enjoying our work together.”

Another beautiful bonus of TBT’s Cleopatra performance is the live accompaniment provided by the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra and conductor Miguel Harth-Bedoya. Judson points out that the majority of rehearsals have been to recorded music and it wasn’t until two weeks prior to the show that the conductor came to the studio to lay the music out on the piano.

“This way he can get used to our tempos and we can get used to doing something that’s not going to be always the same.” She adds, “This is important because it does takes quite a bit of rearranging your brain when dancing to live music since our minds kind of go on autopilot with a recording a lot of the time. So, it’s really helpful for us to have those two weeks before to get used to the music for both the dancers and the conductor.” She also notes that the company will not get to perform with the full orchestra until the Wednesday before the show.

A fun fact I learned about Judson is that during performances with live music she likes to find moments in the show to make eye contact with the conductor. “I think there are times when it’s appropriate to look at the conductor during a performance. For example, whenever I’m taking a bow I end up looking at him as sort of a thank you because this is such a nice collaboration between musicians and artists and so it’s much more enjoyable for us to feel like we are all working on the same project and not just two separate entities.” She adds, “I don’t look at the conductor all the way through the ballet, but I think there are times when you can really bring him in to the action on stage.”

It’s hard to talk to any professional ballet dancer nowadays without bringing up the lawsuit against New York City Ballet and Principal Chase Finlay and other scandals involving the company over the last year. With this in mind I wanted to know what steps, if any, has TBT taken to ensure that its dancers and staff feel safe and supported. “Actually at the end of last season we did have a company come in and work with us on just being mindful of how we talk to each other and how we treat each other. We also have our school here in the same building and just being aware of treatment of the children as well especially since some of the company dancers are also teachers at the school.”

She adds, “So yes we did go through a program with tests and educational information just to make sure that everyone is on the same page. And we are so lucky that we have a really great working environment here and we all consider each other family and in fact most of us are married to other people in the company.”

You can see Judson in Texas Ballet Theater’s production of Cleopatra Sept. 28-30 at Bass Performance Hall in Fort Worth.

This preview was originally posted on TheaterJones.com.

 

Preview: Princess in Training, Texas Ballet Theater’s Cinderella

Paige Nyman on becoming a princess for Texas Ballet Theater’s production of Cinderella this weekend in Dallas.

Dallas — Every young girl dreams of one day becoming a Disney princess, including Texas Ballet Theater’s Paige Nyman who will get to live out her childhood fantasy in the company’s production of Cinderella at the AT&T Performing Arts Center’s Winspear Opera House Aug. 24-26. “I have always related most to Belle and Cinderella,” says Nyman, who is celebrating her 10th season with TBT. “I relate to Belle because I love reading books too, and I have always admired Cinderella’s resiliency and her ability to find hope and make the best in every situation.”

Paige Nyman of TBT. Photo: Steven Visneau

Nyman started dancing at the age of 3 in her hometown of Kansas City. At 16, she received a scholarship to the Harid Conservatory where she trained under Svetlana Osiyeva, Oliver Pardina and Victoria Schneider. Nyman joined TBT in 2009 and since then has performed roles in Ben Stevenson’s DraculaSleeping BeautyPeer GyntRomeo and JulietCinderella and Four Last Songs, among others. She has also performed in George Balanchine’s Allegro Brilliante, Glen Tetley’s Voluntaries, Jiri Kylian’s Petite Mort, Harold Lander’s Etudes and the title role in Carlos Acosta’s Carmen.

This production marks Nyman’s first time performing a lead role in one of Stevenson’s acclaimed story ballets, an incredible opportunity Nyman says she is more excited than nervous about. “This is such a fun legacy to be a part of and I am enjoying finding who I am in the character. Cinderella has this wonderful innate sense of hope, joy and happiness, but also experiences deep hurt and sadness and it has been a fun challenge to learn how to internalize everything.”

In rehearsals the dancers work equal parts on technique and acting, which Nyman says is really what separates Stevenson’s story ballet from other ballet companies. “He just understands what audiences want to see and what we, the dancers, want to do. He is always finding new ways to keep the story ballets fresh.”

These story ballets are just one of many aspects Nyman enjoys about being a part of TBT. “This is one of the most welcoming places I have ever encountered. From the start I was afforded the chance to work closely with the other company members and choreographers and it has been a wonderful journey for me these past 10 seasons.” She adds, “Ben continues to stretch our boundaries while also staying grounded in his story ballets and I just feel at home here.”

Nyman admits that the road to becoming Cinderella isn’t all tutus and tiaras. “Dancing with inanimate object like a broom can be hard. It doesn’t reason with you,” she jokes.

Nyman is referring to the kitchen scene where she is imagining she is at the ball dancing with a handsome prince when in reality she is covered in filth dancing with a broom. This dance segment led to one of Nyman biggest questions about the process, which was how to keep the role authentic through these quick emotional changes. She explains, “I wanted to know how to create a natural transition from the high of imagining I am at the ball to suddenly realizing I am at home dancing with a broom.”

Nyman has also had to shift her mindset from being one of many dancers in the corps to taking center stage. “There’s this wonderful sense of camaraderie in the corps because we all have the same goal, which is to be the picture frame for the lead dancers. But when you transition into doing a lead role you have to step outside that mindset of amenity. You have to face the fact that the goal is that everyone is looking at you, and maintaining that level of engagement is a beautiful responsibility.”

And like all dancers Nyman has a ritual she does before every performance that might sound kooky to some, but continues to work in her favor. “In the dressing room I have to put my left eyelash on first, my left earring and my right pointe. That is my secret recipe.”

 

The Texas Ballet Theater season also features:

  • Ben Stevenson’s Cleopatra (accompanied by Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra) at Bass Performance Hall: Sept. 28-30, 2018
  • Ben Stevenson’s The Nutcracker at Winspear Opera House, Nov. 23-25 and Nov. 30-Dec. 2, before transitioning to Bass Performance Hall Dec. 7-9; Dec. 13; Dec. 15-16; Dec. 20-24. The Nutty Nutcracker, an unconventional take on the holiday classic, will be at Bass Performance Hall Dec. 14.
  • The first mixed repertoire, March 1-3, 2019, at Bass Performance Hall features the work of two renowned choreographers, William Forsythe and Christopher Bruce in In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated and Ghost Dances, respectively. TBT dancer Andre Silva will share his contemporary choreography in a world premiere called 11:11.
  • A collection of works by TBT Artistic Director, Ben Stevenson, O.B.E., is on the bill for the second mixed repertoire and includes Four Last SongsTwilightEsmerelda (pas de deux only) and L. The pieces will be performed at Bass Performance Hall March 29-31, 2019.

>This preview was originally posted on TheaterJones.com.

 

Outside The Lines

Texas Ballet Theater expands its stylistic range in Val Caniparoli’s new work Without Borders, part of the company’s First Looks Series in Dallas this weekend.

TBT-WithoutBorders
Texas Ballet Theater rehearsing Val Caniparoli’s Without Borders. Photo: Ellen Appel

It’s not a coincidence that Texas Ballet Theater principal dancer’s Leticia Oliveira and Carl Coomer look like a pair of figure skaters just skimming the floor in a series of petite traveling lifts in American choreographer Val Caniparoli’s new work, Without Borders. “A lot of what I do has been inspired by ice skating or classical ballet or by working with African dance consultants in Lambarena and that has stuck with me over the years,” Caniparoli says.

Originally from Renton, Washington, Caniparoli opted for a professional dance career after studying music and theater at Washington State University. He received a Ford Foundation Scholarship in 1972 that allowed him to attend San Francisco Ballet School. He performed with San Francisco Opera Ballet before joining San Francisco Ballet in 1973. He became resident choreographer there, and later with Tulsa Ballet. Today, Caniparoli is one of the most sought after American choreographers in the United States and abroad, having set works on more than 35 dance companies, including the Joffrey Ballet. Caniparoli has also choreographed for many notable Opera houses in the U.S., including Chicago Lyric Opera, San Francisco Opera and the Metropolitan Opera.

Photo: Courtesy of Val Caniparoli

Caniparoli’s musical background plays a pivotal role in his creative process and is one of the most appealing aspects of his work. “I have studied music and theater all my life and fell into ballet when I was 20 so, it’s natural for me to create movement that is being dictated by the music.” I saw this firsthand back in September when I sat in one of his rehearsals with Coomer and Oliveira and later the full company for his piece Without Borders, which will have its world premiere at TBT’s First Looks Series May 6-8 in Dallas and May 27-29 in Fort Worth.

Most of the critiques Caniparoli gave to Coomer and Oliveira during rehearsal pertained to their musical timing and movement quality. “You have to fill out every count of the music,” Caniparoli tells the couple on one adagio section. “You also have to be very specific when counting the eights. This is a fast eight counts that moves into a slower tempo.” This last note was in reference to a particularly tricky lift where Oliveira coiled around Coomer’s upper body coming to a stop with her hips settled into the crease of his neck before slowly sliding down his body. Caniparoli switched places a few times with Coomer and Oliveira in order to help them get the right feel of the movement, which he illustrated with subtle head and arm gestures as well as slight weight changes during lifts. I found out later from Caniparoli that it is not unusual for him to get up and demonstrate certain choreography and partnering skills with the dancers he is working with. “I like to be very hands on with the dancers because as a dancer myself I liked working with choreographers who did allow the dancers to have a voice in the process. I learned early on that if you respect the dancers then they will respect you back.”

The music Caniparoli has chosen for the piece, a blend of tracks from Yo-Yo Ma and the Silk Road Ensemble’s 2013 album entitled A Playlist Without Borders, features a number of ethnic sounds, including African, Irish and Arabic and was also inspiration for the name of the work. “I wanted music with a lot of variety that would then be reflected in the movement as well as the costuming and lighting.” While the work doesn’t follow a particular theme, Caniparoli says he did use the musical explanations included in the CD, which described how the composers felt about each piece of music, as a basis for the choreography and inspiration for the dancers’ personal performances. “You don’t have to understand what my intentions were to enjoy this piece. I just want people to love the dancers, music, costuming, lighting and such, and not get too wrapped up in finding the meaning in everything.”

He continues, “I was just so inspired by Yo-Yo Ma’s ability to connect with all these traditional ethnic instruments and combine them in a unique East meets West way in these ensemble tracks. Whereas Lambarena focused more on war and unrest in other countries, in Without Borders I am trying to connect countries through music in a very uplifting and positive way.”

You can experience the music and movement of Val Caniparoli’s new work Without Borders for yourself when Texas Ballet Theater performs it at Dallas City Performance Hall this weekend as part of the company’s First Looks Series. The program also includes Glen Tetley’s Voluntaries and the company’s premiere of Ohad Naharin’s Minus 16. TBT will repeat the program at Bass Performance Hall in Fort Worth later this month.

>This preview was originally posted on TheaterJones.com.

 

Colliding Worlds, Texas Ballet Theater

Photo: Robert Hart/TheaterJones
Photo: Robert Hart/TheaterJones

Texas Ballet Theater is revving up for Jonathan Watkins’ new work Crash, part of this year’s Artistic Director’s  Choice performance in Fort Worth.

Fort Worth — For most people the word “crash” brings up images of cars, buses, planes and trains. But for British choreographer Jonathan Watkins the word has a broader subtext and is the focus of his new work Crash, part ofTexas Ballet Theater’s Artistic Director’s Choice performance in Fort Worth this weekend. In this piece Watkins takes on various personal, technological and political crashes which are represented through solo, duet and large group numbers in this 25-minute circular tale that features original music by Dallas-based composer Ryan Cockerham and costumes by Austin-based Kari Perkins, who also did the costuming for Richard Linklater’s Oscar-nominated film Boyhood.

In addition to these elements, Watkins uses abstract and neo-classical movements to shape the different situations and mindsets that he has laid out for us. “What I did is set up these different scenarios throughout the work that follow a similar pattern,” Watkins says. “There is a buildup of energy, a crash, and then the dancers have to collect the pieces and hopefully build a better foundation.

“And after the crash we need space to analyze and build the strength to help us deal with the crash going forward,” he explains further. “For this part I wanted the dancers to have a more pensive quality of movement.”

Watkins is an up-and-coming British choreographer who won the Kenneth MacMillan Choreography Competition at the Royal Ballet School when he was just 16 years old. He danced with the Royal Ballet for 10 years before leaving the company in 2013 to pursue his career as a freelance choreographer and director. Watkins made his international debut at the New York Choreographic Institute in 2008 with his workNow, set on New York City Ballet. His other international commissions include Eventual Progress for Russia’s Ekaterinburg Ballet Theatre in 2013 and Present Process for Ballet Manila, Philippines in 2014. His other choreographic credits include Beyond Prejudice and Free Falling created for The Curve Foundation, Abstract Balance with East London Dance and Together Alone for Ballet Black. Watkins also created his first short dance film called Route 67 in 2011. After Fort Worth, he heads back to Britain to work on a premiere evening-length work based on George Orwell’s 1984.

The pensive section Watkins mentioned earlier is at minute 19 of the dance and is what the company was working on when I sat in rehearsal a few weeks ago. For the next hour and a half the group learned four counts of eight of slow moving, forward progressing arm gestures and leg extensions. A deliberate button push with the right finger initiates the sequence and is followed with a half attitude turn into a side stretch. This leads into another leg whip and arm reach all executed in the same unhurried fashion. He then has the dancers retrograde the phrase so they end up in the same horizontal line they started in. I found out later from Watkins that the only preconceived movement was the button push. Everything else grew organically.

Photo: Robert Hart/TheaterJones
Photo: Robert Hart/TheaterJones

“I don’t always work like this, but in this case I wanted to do it with them and experience the choreography together,” he says. “Going in I was confident in the concept of moving slowly. I also knew I wanted to layer and experiment with the movement and that sort of detailing is best to be done then and there.”

These experiments included having two groups of 12 dancers stand in a straight line and begin the phrase on different counts. In some cases it was every four counts and in others it was every two counts. He then had the dancers clump together and move out and around each other creating this illusion of a living organism. Even without knowing the outcome, the dancers quickly adapted to each situation and problem-solved any traffic pattern issues as they moved. As a viewer I got to see the movement morph from a linear kind of tame visual into a cascade of complex shapes and bright pops of movement.

Throughout rehearsal Watkins uses different words, sounds and sometimes melodies to help the dancers align themselves with the pensive quality of the movement. “Shift it, step it, breathe it,” he says during one run through. Another time he mixes together words and sounds such as “Hwa, hwa, melt up, shift down, step to it, emphasize bah.” When I asked Watkins about his use of sounds instead of counts he says he will use whatever means necessary to communicate his intention to the dancers.

“Trust and communication are very important. Energy and being positive is what works for me because I don’t want people to dance through fear,” he says. “And, if I have to shout and sing to get my point across then I have no hang ups about doing it.”

It wasn’t that long ago that Watkins was still performing professionally so he knows what it’s like to be on the receiving end. “You just have to respect the other person and embrace the dancers.” The same rule applies when working with composers, costumers and other members of production team.

When it came to putting together his team for this project Watkins decided to experiment locally with composer Ryan Cockerham and costume designer Kari Perkins, who has costumed seven Linklater films, including his breakout Dazed & Confused. He found Cockerham’s name on the Royal College of Music alumni list and it just so happened he was based in Dallas and had some previous ballet composition experience. “I like serendipity and so when it happens I just go with it. I then started looking for a costumer in the area and I came across Kari who did the costumes for the movie Boyhood.”

For the music Watkins wanted a lot of melodic and rhythmic themes with some soundscape elements mixed in. He describes the costumes as an everyday look, but with lots of fractured layers on top. “And underneath resembles bare bones which represents the clean slate after the crash and before the cycle starts again.”

Artistic Director’s Choice opens with Jiří Kylián’s Petite Mort, followed by Crash, and closes with Balanchine’s Rubies.

This feature was originally posted on TheaterJones.com.

Ballet Bonds

Photo: Steven Visneau
Photo: Steven Visneau

Carl Coomer on his choreographic transition and new work Clann, part of Texas Ballet Theater’s upcoming program at Dallas City Performance Hall.

Dallas — “Clann,” the Irish word for family, is the inspiration for Principal Dancer Carl Coomer’s new work of the same name, but it could also describe how he views Texas Ballet Theater and especially Artistic Director Ben Stevenson. “Ben found me when I was really young and took me under his wing,” Coomer says.

Originally from Liverpool, England, Coomer began his training at the age of 13 and in 1998 was offered a scholarship to the Royal Ballet School. He performed with both Royal Ballet and Birmingham Royal Ballet before joining Houston Ballet in 2001. Houston Ballet was on tour in London when Stevenson spotted Coomer during an open company class. Coomer was offered a contract on the spot and shortly after that was on a plane headed to Houston.

“Ben has had to put up with a lot,” Coomer jokes. “I owe him.” So, when Stevenson left Houston Ballet to head up Texas Ballet Theater Coomer would soon follow. During his career Coomer has had the opportunity to perform the lead roles in some of Stevenson’s most memorable works, including GiselleDraculaFour Last Songs,Three PreludesFive PoemSwan Lake and The Sleeping Beauty, just to name a few.

Always up for a challenge, Coomer decided a couple of years ago to take the leap into choreography. His first work, Evolving, received high-praise from critics and audiences during TBT’s 2012 Portraits Ballet Festival at the Wyly Theatre in Dallas. His second work, Clann, will be presented at the Dallas City Performance Hall March 28-30 as part of TBT’s spring program, Balanchine and Beyond. His work will be performed alongside George Balanchine’s Serenade and Stevenson’s L, both recently seen in a similar program in Fort Worth, where they were accompanied by Sir Kenneth MacMillan’s Gloria (which will not be repeated in Dallas).

Seamus Heaney’s poem Punishment serves as Coomer’s main inspiration for the piece. “He writes about the discovery of a young girl’s body who they think was killed for committing adultery. Heaney tries to imagine what could have happened to her and in a couple of stanzas imagines himself being there. That made me want to take on the role of the observer and kind of figure out what happens to this girl.”

But Coomer is quick to point out that the piece doesn’t necessarily follow a storyline. Instead he uses traditional Celtic music composed by Jordi Savall and Andrew Lawrence-King to create different characters and the different relationships between them. “I used the pieces of music and the images from the poem to help me create different emotions and different ways of moving.”

Coomer adds that this time around he wanted to challenge himself in terms of his choreographic process. “With Evolving I definitely set the steps in the studio, but with this piece I didn’t want to go about it the same way. So, I did each section of music completely by itself and then started linking them together to see how it played out. I wanted to push myself to be more spontaneous and create more movement on the spot.”

He has also discovered that switching from the role of dancer to choreographer is not as easy as it sounds. “Because I am working with people that I know, I want them to look really good, but at the same time I want to push them as well. But I also know what it feels like to be dancing and to come back from a week off and be really sore. So, I think it’s hard to be tough on the dancers because I know what that feels like.” And with his friend and colleague, Lucas Priolo, retiring at the end of this season TBT fans have to wondering what Coomer’s plans are for the future. “I definitely see myself dancing a little longer. This is what I know. And even when my stage career ends I still want to continue in this field.”

This feature was originally posted on TheaterJones.com.

 

Review: The Nutcracker, Texas Ballet Theater

Courtesy of Texas Ballet Theater
Courtesy of Texas Ballet Theater

High-Flying Wows in Holiday Classic!

Texas Ballet Theater’s annual production of The Nutcracker is filled with theatrical comedy, classical ballet, and entertaining special effects not often seen in most renditions of this holiday favorite.

The company goes all out with gorgeous backdrops, large moving props, smoke machines, and a flying sleigh at their Dallas home, the state-of-the-art Winspear Opera House (their Fort Worth home is Bass Performance Hall).

The opening party scene started promising at the Dec. 1 show. Two staircases flanking on the stage brought dimension and provided performers with a larger space to dance. Though it lacked any challenging dance technique –– there was a lot of walking and gesturing –– the slapstick comedy, injected by choreographer (and the company’s artistic director) Ben Stevenson, was a hit as it is each season. A clumsy grandfather, for example, a hard of hearing grandmother, and prankster brother got the biggest roars.

As an angelic-looking Clara, dancer Aoi Takahashi, dressed in a white flowing nightgown, had a lovely youthful air about her and competent pointe work.  Drake Humphreys looked a bit too old to play the annoying younger brother, but his enthusiasm and strong technique was undeniable.

The most commanding presence at party scene was Carl Coomer as Dr. Drosselmeyer. Only a consummate pro like Coomer can draw in the audience with the slightest flick of his wrist as he hands Clara her Nutcracker.

Courtesy of Texas Ballet Theater
Courtesy of Texas Ballet Theater

The story and dancing gain momentum in the raucous battle scene where the men displayed strength and stamina as the Nutcracker’s soldiers. And there’s plenty of action. The sword fighting, between the Nutcracker (Adam Boreland) and the Rat King (Paul Adams), was enhanced by the dim lighting and menacing black and red figures in shapes of rats and nutcrackers on the front stage scrim.

After the height of the action, where Clara killed the Rat King with her shoe, the scrim rose revealing a calm and serene background of silvery blue and a snow-encrusted slope hidden underneath a thin layer of mist. The atmosphere perfectly ushered in the magical snow scene where the Snow Queen (Carolyn Judson) and Snow King (Lucas Priolo) appear through the misty slope.

Judson, a spritely technician, attacked every pique turn and arabesquehold with grace and vigor. Priolo, a true gentleman, offered Judson his arm with poise and easily lifted her over his head during the romantic grande pas de deux. It was a pleasure seeing Priolo perform one of his signature roles with the company one last time before he retires at the end of this season in 2014. The light and airy movement of the snowflakes (advanced students with the company’s ballet school) was lovely as well.

The second act had more of the fabulous technique and artistry viewers have come to expect from the company. Betsy McBride and Alexander Kotelenets were a dynamic duo as the Sugar Plum Fairy and her Cavalier. McBride’s willowy frame made her lines appear unending. She accomplished the fast footwork and difficult turning section in the grande pas de deuxwith swan-like style. Kotelenets’ Apollo-like features matched his prowess as he ate up the stage in his turning grande jete section.

The acrobatic partnering of Simon Wexler and Philip Slocki in the Chinese section and their drop in from the ceiling on two swings won loud cheers. Boreland as the Gopak received a round of applause for his otherworldly grande jetes. High energy in both of these sections, unfortunately, outshined the slower, yet still beautifully executed Arabian section.

The Waltz of the Flowers contained some visually pleasing formation changes and picture perfect moments as the flowers took turns leaping across the stage in wispy pink tutus. The romantic grandepas de deux by Judson and Priolo was a memorable way to end the show.

This review is also posted on WorldArtsToday.com.

Romeo Retiring

Lucas Priolo and Carolyn Judson in Romeo and Juliet at Texas Ballet Theate. Photo: Steven Visneau
Lucas Priolo and Carolyn Judson in Romeo and Juliet at Texas Ballet Theater. Photo: Steven Visneau

Texas Ballet Theater principal Lucas Priolo plans to retire at the end of the company’s 2013-14 season.

Fort Worth — For more than eight years Texas Ballet Theater principal dancer Lucas Priolo has been wowing audiences with his grace and athleticism onstage in works including Ben Stevenson’s Romeo and Juliet, Swan Lake, Peer Gynt and Three Preludes. So, it may come as a surprise for many TBT fans to hear that Priolo will be hanging up his pointe shoes at the end of this season.

“It’s time,” Lucas Priolo says. “My body is tired and I am really looking forward to taking over the family business.”

Priolo’s parents own a jewelry store out in California, Sofia Jewelry, and in his spare time he likes to design jewelry in his home workshop. “I have no complaints. I have done more than I ever thought I would in my career and I feel very fulfilled in what I have been able to accomplish. I am very humbled and understand that not everyone gets this opportunity.”

Growing up in Fairfax, Calif., Priolo went to his first dance class at the urging of his baseball coach. “When I was 8 years old my baseball coach had all the guys take this stretch and strength class and I got really into it,” Priolo says. “I stuck with it and at 13 my ballet teacher said I had to make a decision its one or the other and I chose ballet.”

From then on Priolo ate, slept and breathed dance. At 17 his perseverance and prowess paid off when he was asked to join the Houston Ballet. He packed his bags and headed to Houston where he started in the corps and worked his way up to the company. It was at Houston Ballet where Priolo met his mentor and career compass Ben Stevenson. “Stumbling upon Ben Stevenson was the luckiest thing that ever happened in my career,” Priolo says. “I have been fortunate to have my whole career with him and I have learned so much and savored every minute of it.”

Lucas Priolo, Right and his Dad, Carl Priolo. Photo: Steven Visneau
Lucas Priolo, Right and his Dad, Carl Priolo. Photo: Steven Visneau

Priolo also met his wife, former ballerina Julie Gumbinner, while at Houston Ballet. “We got engaged right before we left to follow Ben to Texas Ballet Theater,” Priolo says. They currently have two children, daughter Olivia and son Jordan.

During his career at TBT Priolo has had the privilege to watch the company grow into one of Texas’ premiere ballet companies, a feat he attributes to Artistic Director Ben Stevenson. “He has a way of making sure the dancers in the back of a scene are just as involved and as important as the leads in the front,” Priolo says. “He can create the most incredible atmospheres on stage and off. His attention to detail and to storytelling is simply amazing.”

“He is definitely going down in the history books as one of the best choreographers and directors of the modern century,” he adds.

When asked about his favorite ballet Priolo quickly responds with Romeo and Juliet. “It will always be very dear to my heart because I got to dance it with my wife,” Priolo says. “I remember one show in particular just being one of those magical shows that had it all. The orchestra, the audience and the dancing just all came together and it was one of the most memorable shows in my career.”

Priolo doesn’t intend to leave the ballet world completely behind. “I was very honored over this past summer to set one of Ben’s most famous pas de deux, Three Preludes, on a company in Nice, France,” he says. “I spent two and a half weeks coaching them and I absolutely loved the experience. I would be so honored to set more of Ben’s work on other companies.”

This piece was originally posted on TheaterJones.com.