Donald Rosenberg | March 11, 2012
Ballet Memphis revels in refinement in Cleveland debut
Some dance companies make an impression by trying to leap past the footlights and into the audience's lap. Others are content to share their art with more poise and subtlety.
Ballet Memphis is among the latter. In its Cleveland debut Saturday at the Ohio Theatre under the auspices of DanceCleveland, the company revealed that refinement, detail and unity are paramount. The dancers are beautifully trained and expressive, equal to all of the tasks set before them.
The repertoire Saturday gave the company ample opportunity to convey both extroverted and introspective ideas within compact frameworks. Each piece made its points directly, providing a clear sense of structure and intention, minus material that might extend the narrative beyond its natural boundaries.
Steven McMahon, the company's choreographic associate, explores joy in "Being Here With Other People," which is set to the third movement from Beethoven's Violin Concerto. Although this transcendent music needs no visual component to work its magic, McMahon's response to Beethoven is a genial frolic, with buoyant unison patterns, head and hip twists and playful waving that keep the action light and lively.
Matters are much darker in Julia Adam's poetic "Curtain of Green," a setting of a Eudora Whelty short story about a woman dealing with loss. Danced to piano etudes by Philip Glass, the piece focuses on memory and anguish, with the woman (Crystal Brothers) recalling her lost love (McMahon) in agonized gestures.
As the woman tries to resuscitate him, an African-American boy (Kendall G. Britt Jr.) appears to add mystery and drama to the tale. Adam finds a fine line between violence and compassion as the woman substitutes a caress for a slap. The dancers gave the piece a sweeping and touching performance.
Brothers was back as another troubled woman in Jane Comfort's "S'epanouir," whose title (French for "to blossom") refers to the protagonist's journey from calamity to emotional health. Kirk Whalum's score thrusts the scenario forward from blues to gospel, allowing the deeply communicative Brothers to interact with her vibrant colleagues with increasing hope and elation.
The company comes into full contact with its Southern heritage in Trey McIntyre's "In Dreams," set to six songs performed by Roy Orbison (who also speaks in one clip). Five dancers convey the songs' passionate sentiments in configurations of romantic and athletic design.
McIntyre's choreography is an ideal fit for the Ballet Memphis dancers, who abounded in personality, yet were always mindful of their place as team players.
The night's only work that eschewed elegance for virtuosity was an addition to the program, Robert Battle's "Takademe," a solo based on an Indian dance and performed to Sheila Chandra's dazzling bit of vocal chattering, "Speaking in Tongues."
Battle, new artistic director of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre (which performs at PlayhouseSquare in May), mirrors the rhythmic eruptions in Chandra's creation with whiplashing arms, taffy-like bends and convulsive leaps. Britt gave the piece a performance of coiled and elastic brilliance.