Tulsa Ballet’s annual celebration of the new “Creations in Studio K” will this year prove that “everything old is new again.”
The program will include two world-premiere works — “Fading Figures” by Garrett Smith, making his choreographic debut with the company, and “Escaping the Weight of Darkness” by Tulsa Ballet resident choreographer Ma Cong.
The third piece will be “Prawn Watching,” a ballet by Val Caniparoli that Tulsa Ballet first performed in 1997. The company encored the work in 2002 — which was the last time “Prawn Watching” was performed anywhere.
“It wasn’t for my lack of trying,” Caniparoli said, laughing. “Really, it was something of a victim of the times. I had created it for Ballet West, and Tulsa Ballet was the second company to perform it.
“Both danced it very well, but the videos that were made of the performances weren’t very good,” he said. “And because I didn’t have a good video of the piece, I had a hard time selling it to other companies. So I’m kind of hoping that Tulsa Ballet reviving the piece might generate some more interest in it.”
Tulsa Ballet was sufficiently interested in Caniparoli and his work to have him serve as the company’s first resident choreographer. Among the works he created for Tulsa Ballet were “Going for Baroque,” which the company performed as part of its first international tour to Portugal in 2002, “Misa Criolla” and “Gustav’s Rooster.”
Returning to “Prawn Watching” has been a slightly surreal experience for Caniparoli.
“I have to admit, it did look a little foreign to me,” he said. “Maybe it’s because I probably would have taken a different approach if I were to do this piece now for the first time. But I think it holds up well. I think the dancers find it challenging.”
“Prawn Watching” is set to music that composer Michael Nyman originally wrote for the films of eccentric British filmmaker Peter Greenaway (“The Draughtsman’s Contract,” “A Zed and Two Naughts”).
“I don’t know if it was what Michael Nyman intended, but I always heard the rock ’n’ roll in his music,” Caniparoli said. “Of course, what I think of as rock ’n’ roll is a little different from what the kids these days think. The reference points I used when I was creating the piece — James Dean, Elvis, the sort of swagger and attitude you associate with those people — just didn’t connect with these dancers.
“So I had to spend a lot more time and go into more detail about what I wanted from them,” he said. “There is no deep meaning to this piece, but it does have an emotional quality that has to be there for it to work. You want that emotional connection between the dancers, something that starts in the back and works its way through the eyes.
“One thing that is going to be interesting is seeing this piece in such an intimate hall (at Tulsa Ballet’s Studio K),” Caniparoli said. “Every other time it’s been done has been in a large theater. I’m kind of curious to see how it will look when it’s as in-your-face as it will be here.”
A light in the darkness
Ma Cong wants to make sure that people understand his newest ballet, “Escaping the Weight of Darkness,” is not a reflection of his current state of mind.
“I really do not know when I started to think about, and sort of gather up, all these very dark thoughts,” Cong said. “I’m sure that a lot of it comes from the music, and from the story of the composer’s life.”
Ezio Bosso, a musical prodigy who was able to read and play music at the age of 4, underwent brain surgery in 2011 to remove a tumor, but the consequences of the surgery was his developing a neurological condition that, for a time, made it impossible for him to speak or play music.
Bosso would ultimately regain enough of his faculties to continue his career, which included writing and recording the album of solo piano music, “The 12th Room,” that Cong used as the score and the inspiration for his new ballet.
“His story is so inspiring,” Cong said. “But at the same time, it makes you realize that any moment may be one’s last moment. And that can be a frightening thing — that sense of danger lurking around the corner.
“So this ballet is about trying to survive in a dark world, of finding that light that shines through,” he said. “This is a quite intense work, but it is not hopeless. The focus isn’t on the darkness but on the ways of escape.”
For Cong, being on the same program with Caniparoli has a unique appeal.
“When I started with Tulsa Ballet in 1999, the first choreographer I worked with was Val,” he said. “He was creating the ballet ‘Going for Baroque,’ so that was my introduction to Val and to Tulsa Ballet.”
Sculpting in flesh
Garrett Smith’s career as a choreographer pre-dated his career as a dancer — he would create solo dances for himself to perform as a youngster — so it is not surprising that creating dances “just sort of took over” performing dances.
“I was always interested in choreography,” Smith said. “I was making dances for Houston Ballet’s second company when I was still in their academy, and those ended up being performed at galas.”
Smith danced for Houston Ballet for several years, then was a member of the Norwegian National Ballet before giving up performing to focus on his choreography career.
He has created works for Ballet West, Texas Ballet Theater, Salt Contemporary Dance, Odyssey Dance Theater, Milwaukee Ballet and Cincinnati Ballet, as well as the Bolshoi Ballet and the Mariinsky Theater in Russia.
To describe the concept for his first piece for Tulsa Ballet, “Fading Figures,” set to music by Philip Glass, Smith uses a scene from the Harry Potter books.
“There is a moment when Harry Potter looks into a mirror and he sees his family,” he said. “It’s like he sees what he desires, but it’s something he knows at that moment he can’t have.
“We all have these relationships that we think bind us to others, but these fade and grow into something else,” Smith said. “Even though these relationships fade over time, we remain connected to them.”
Smith had little knowledge of Tulsa Ballet before coming here to work with the dancers.
“I’ve been impressed with how talented and open to new things the dancers here are,” he said. “When we started, we did some directed improvision, mainly for me to get to know the dancers better as artists.
“I don’t like to come in with things planned out,” Smith said. “I prefer to work in the studio with the dancers. I’ll come up with some movements, the dancers will mimic what I do, and then it becomes a matter of sculpting that into a dance. That’s really what a choreographer does — he uses dancers to mold things out of nothing, tailor-making the movements that will become the ballet on these dancers.”