The glow of a setting sun surrounds a pair of peaks just west of Desert Botanical Garden. A short walk from the garden’s entrance, there’s a stage lit with an icy shade of blue. Dozens of tall cylinders line the back of the stage, with varying heights that give the illusion of rolling hills. A swath of desert plants towers behind them.
It’s opening night for the world premiere of Ib Andersen’s Eroica. Andersen is artistic director of Ballet Arizona, and this is the third ballet he has choreographed for performance in this desert setting. He premiered Topia in 2012, and Round in 2016.
Like those works, Eroica pays homage to the natural world. But it has a less playful, more powerful tone. Lighting transforms desert plants into set pieces that conjure iconic images from city skylines to the camouflage of war. No one will mistake these dancers for carefree fairies flitting around a garden.
With Eroica, Andersen punctuates the intersection of the personal with history and place, with magnificent effect. Eroica is a bold testament to shifts that occur throughout personal, creative, and collective histories.
It’s best understood against the backdrop of Andersen’s own creative journey, and the rise and fall of civilizations that have always marked human existence. Consider that rise and fall as you gaze upon his sole set piece, which signals the ups and downs of so many human endeavors.
Andersen hails from Denmark, danced with famed choreographer George Balanchine in New York, and now presents a repertoire that balances classical with contemporary ballet. He’s also a visual artist, whose inspirations include the desert light.
These aren’t mere biographical details. They’re keys to appreciating his newest work, which marries Balanchine’s focus on steps rather than story, with Andersen’s deep connection to the desert, and sets it all within the context of humanity’s march through history.
The ballet is set to Beethoven’s Third Symphony, called the Eroica (meaning “heroic”), which was composed during Napoleon Bonaparte’s rise to power. For many, the symphony represents the beginning of an especially creative middle period of the composer’s career.
The result is the dance equivalent of a complex abstract painting, executed with passion, and open to countless interpretations. Like many fine works of art, it beckons viewers to reflect on their own experiences and ideas, while hinting at the many layers of the artist’s own perspective.
For those who appreciate having some guidance, program notes reveal a bit about Andersen’s intention with the work:
Created in response to these divisive times, Andersen devises a contemporary allusion to the philosophical innovations, personal revelations, and political confrontations that Beethoven experienced when he wrote his Third Symphony.
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Andersen doesn’t directly portray the present moment in American political life, as one might in a story ballet. But the music’s four movements convey the emotionality of living with all that it entails – from exuberance to mourning, dignity exercised amid decay, and resilience born of struggle.
The cast for Eroica comprises more than two dozen dancers, who demonstrate a rare coupling of technical skill and emotive fluency. For nearly an hour, they deliver an onslaught of leaps and lifts, frenetic footwork, beautifully fluid hips, and lithe arms that sway like desert flora caught up in a gentle desert wind.
For those who aren’t well-versed in Balanchine, Beethoven, or European history, it’s enough to simply take in the dancers' artistry and athleticism against the backdrop of the Arizona desert, where a sliver of the moon replaces the sun after it sets.
Ballet Arizona performs Eroica at Desert Botanical Garden through Saturday, June 2. Tickets start at $40. Get details on the Ballet Arizona website.