For many decades, major performing arts organizations including ballet companies have followed a fairly predictable path: presenting well-known repertory in large venues, while expecting contemporary audiences to sit through lengthy productions of classic works.
For ballet audiences, it’s included a never-ending stream of Swan Lake, Giselle, and The Nutcracker. They’re important works, of course. And they’re a beautiful bridge between past and present perspectives on the art form, and those who’ve made significant contributions to its growth and development.
But audiences, and the arts landscape that surrounds them, are changing — quickly and dramatically — due in part to the rise of social media and economic factors. Thought leaders such as Michael Kaiser, who helped to turn around struggling arts organizations including American Ballet Theatre and Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, note that only the most nimble companies will survive.
For years, audiences have seen Ballet Arizona deliver a hefty dose of the revered classical ballet repertoire, including works by George Balanchine, the master 20th century choreographer who set multiple works on Ballet Arizona’s artistic director Ib Andersen during Andersen’s years as a principal with the New York City Ballet.
But evidence abounds that Ballet Arizona is working to strike the right balance between classic and new works. Consider the case of Today’s Masters, a program performed in March at the Orpheum Theatre, which included works by three contemporary choreographers including Andersen and Ballet Arizona’s own Nayon Iovino, who set his piece to music by rock band Pink Floyd.
Most recently, they premiered four new works, all choreographed by current or former dancers with Ballet Arizona. The works comprise this season’s Innovations, which continues through Sunday, May 24, at the Dorrance Theatre. The intimate black box theater is located inside the building that houses Ballet Arizona's school, studio spaces, and office. The site helps audiences get that behind-the-scenes feel they’ve come to expect in the age of social media and reality television.
But it’s the nature of the dance that’s most intriguing. Innovations demonstrates the company’s facility for creating new works that engage contemporary audiences. We hope to see more of them, not only because they represent a strong body of work — but also because they embody the passing of the torch from Balanchine to Andersen, and Andersen to subsequent generations. Innovations, like his site-specific Topia which premiered in 2012 at Desert Botanical Garden, is Andersen’s legacy in the making.
Innovations includes Touch choreographed by Myles Lavallee, What Lies Beneath choreographed by Joseph Cavanaugh, 4 Pieces choreographed by Tzu-Chia Huang, and 9 O’Clock choreographed by Iovino. Cavanaugh danced for 13 years with Ballet Arizona, but now serves as the company’s Ballet Master and Community Outreach Manager. Huang joined the company in 2005, and is one of several dancers retiring from Ballet Arizona at the end of this season. Lavallee, a Phoenix native who trained with The School of Ballet Arizona, joined Ballet Arizona in 2011.
Brazilian-born Iovino joined the company in 2012. His 9 O’Clock, inspired by Latin American telenovelas, is the most adventurous piece for Innovations. An old couch repaired with bright duct tape and small kitchen stove signal its setting inside a home where people fight over the remote control that gives them foray into a multitude of soap opera-style lives. Featuring infectious music and dance, it’ll leave some audiences members wondering how they ever managed to sit through all those story ballets with narratives rooted in bygone times rather than modern life.
Huang’s 4 Pieces is a poignant, intimate piece that includes a beautiful pas de deux danced with Astrit Zejanti, another longtime company member retiring from Ballet Arizona after this season. It’s danced to affecting music performed by Joshua Bell, Yo-Yo Ma, and others. Bring a hankie along for this one, which has the power to elicit wistful tears.
Lavallee’s Touch is a playful work danced to music performed by Aphex Twin, Thriftworks, and Sigur Rós. Steeped in the movement vocabulary of contemporary dance, it’s filled with hops, wobbles, undulations, and acrobatics that sit well on these dancers. The cast for Touch includes both veteran dancers such as Natalia Magnicaballi and Kenna Draxton, and several dancers who joined the company in 2014, in addition to Lavallee. Their work together is fluid and coherent.
Cavanaugh set What Lies Beneath to seven distinctive pieces of music and spoken word, seeking to reflect the unique qualities of its dancers. Most intriguing is an excerpt of an interview with anthropologist Margaret Meade, in which she freely conveys her “advice to young people.” It’s a strong work, but it seemed during Saturday’s matinee that dancers weren’t exploring the full range of movement it demands. Adding video projections or sculptural set pieces would significantly up its impact.
Innovations is a delightful reassurance that our own hometown ballet company is chasing the future rather than fearing it. Let’s hope audiences take note, showing their support for the injection of contemporary ballet into the Ballet Arizona repertoire with their attendance.
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Next season, Ballet Arizona performs a second site-specific work choreographed by Andersen for performance at Desert Botanical Garden. The 2015-16 season also includes new iterations of Today’s Masters and All Balanchine — as well as the classic ballets Coppélia, The Nutcracker, and The Sleeping Beauty.
We can’t help wishing another program of works choreographed by Ballet Arizona’s own was among the offerings. They’re the clearest evidence yet that the company is successfully blending classical with contemporary work, and helping to build a strong bridge between ballet''s future and past.
Innovations continues through Sunday, May 24, at the Ballet Arizona Dorrance Theatre. Find more information, including video previews of each work, on the Ballet Arizona website.