Tulsa Ballet thrills, excels with 'Sinatra'
BY JAMES D. WATTS JR. World Scene Writer
Monday, October 31, 2011
10/31/11 at 6:53 AM
Tulsa Ballet's mixed-bill programs always bring out the best in this company. But every so often, this troupe puts on a show that forcefully, stunningly reminds you just how incredibly good it is.
That was the case Friday, when Tulsa Ballet opened "Nine Sinatra Songs" at the Tulsa PAC.
The program was made up of three works: Twyla Tharp's "Nine Sinatra Songs," and two new-to-Tulsa pieces - William Forsythe's "In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated," and Jiri Kylian's "Sechs Tanze (Six Dances)."
These last two pieces were what made Friday's performance so spectacular. Each makes punishing demands on the dancers, requiring them to move in ways that play merry havoc with the requirements of classical ballet and at speeds that seem at the limits of what the human body can do.
Yet Tulsa Ballet's dancers gave performances that did not so much push the envelope as shred it into confetti. Every dancer on stage attacked these works with a ferocity and fearlessness that was something to see.
"In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated" opened the evening. This is Forsythe's signature ballet, created in 1987 for the Paris Opera Ballet (the two cherry-like orbs hanging over the stage both give the ballet its title and are a sly homage to the place where the piece was born).
Set to an electronic-and-percussion score by Thom Willems that sounds like a machine deliberately bashing itself to pieces, Forsythe takes the basic forms of classical ballet - positions and movements designed to portray only beauty - strips them down and rearranges them to reveal the brutal, primal strength that is at the heart of dance.
And in doing, he creates a different kind of beauty, kinetic and visceral. Dancers move on to the stage, execute jaw-dropping solos or engage in duets that are as much physical duels as anything, then break apart and stride away. There is no overt emotional context to the dances, yet it is thoroughly captivating to watch.
Because of the design of the costumes, and the way they are lit by Les Dickert, one is able to see the musculature of the women dancers clearly - another way Forsythe reinvents the idea of beauty. One expects male dancers to be well-muscled, but women in dance are typically figures of beauty, not strength. "In the Middle..." proves that dancers, male and female, are both figures of strength and beauty.
The nine dancers in the piece were all superb, especially Alfonso Martin, who roared through his two solos like a human tornado and dueled to a fiercely won draw with Sofia Menteguiaga, newcomer Yoshihisa Arai, Alexandra Bergman, Diana Gomez and Soo Youn Cho.
Kylian's "Six Dances" was temperamentally the opposite of "In the Middle..." The music is by Mozart, a collection of bright, tuneful pieces. The overall tone of the piece is slapstick, as dancers prance and gambol about the stage in clouds of powder raised from the period wigs they wear.
Large black gowns on wheels - usually with men "wearing" them - roll on stage at opportune and inopportune times, often to underscore the sort of bawdy humor for which Mozart himself was known.
Everything is fast, every step is just enough off-center to be a risk. And in between the short and often silly dances, one hears the hum of machinery - like the sound of war approaching - that makes the tomfoolery that some epee-wielding dancers engage in a little more edgy than simple cartoon violence.
So you can, for example, view Yi Wang tapping his three cohorts on the head and watching them collapse like marionettes whose strings have been cut as simply a bit of physical comedy, or as something a little darker, more ominous.
Again, the Tulsa Ballet dancers go at Kylian's choreography fearlessly, at a speed that recalls watching an old silent-film comedy, where the action seems artificially sped up. But there was nothing artificial here - the company performed at such a high level that it's almost impossible to single out individuals from the ensemble of Martin, Arai, Bergman, Wang, Cho, Beatrice Sebelin, Claudio Cocino and Erin Pritchard, with Gabriela Gonzalez, Sarah Jane Crespo, Alberto Montesso, Joshua Slayton and Jose Antonio Checha Romero as the gowned "Megastars."
The Tharp piece (which actually uses only eight songs - "My Way" is used twice) has been performed by Tulsa in recent years, and it is an undeniable crowd pleaser. Tharp based the individual duets on ballroom dance forms that she then stretched to their limits, turning them into virtuoso displays of partnering.
The seven couples performed these dances extremely well - in particular, Ma Cong and Bergman in the tango-inspired "Strangers in the Night," Sebelin and Arai in the contortionist-like "One for My Baby," Gomez and Montesso in the saucily comic "Forget Domani," and Cho and Martin in the battle-of-the-sexes duet "That's Life."
The crowd Friday night loved it - for many, it was the ballet they came to see - but like so much of Tharp's work, this ballet leaves me a little cold. One can appreciate the skill needed to execute the work, but there is such a disconnect between the warm of the music and the chilliness of the choreography that one can't be sure if Tharp likes or loathes the emotions Sinatra sings about.
"Nine Sinatra Songs" continues with performances 8 p.m. Saturday and 3 p.m. Sunday at the Tulsa PAC. Call 918-596-7111 for tickets.
James D. Watts Jr. 918-581-8478
Tulsa Ballet Dancers perform "In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated" during dress rehearsal at the Performing Arts Center. JAMES GIBBARD / Tulsa World