Friday, April 15, 2016

"A Cappella - Our Bodies Sing"

Oakland Ballet
A Cappella – Our Bodies Sing
Malonga Casquelord Theater, Oakland
April 14th, 2016

At many contemporary and classical dance performances, the relationship between the score and the choreography strikes. Is the movement unlocking nuances in the music? Are the musical phrases enhancing the physicality? Do the compositional elements have an even or uneven association in the work? Perhaps the music and movement are purposely co-existing in dissonance, the discord and tension between the two suggesting deeper narrative or structural themes. These are just some of the thoughts, questions and observations that arise when witnessing and considering these two fields in a single theatrical container.

With its 2016 spring program, Oakland Ballet, under the Artistic Direction of Graham Lustig, puts a unique twist on the simultaneous experience of sound and motion. A triple bill, A Cappella – Our Bodies Sing brings the voice together with the body. Each work on the program features a different a cappella score, provided by three Bay Area choral organizations.

All three pieces on the A Cappella – Our Bodies Sing program were multi-chapter suites - longer works comprised of short sequences. While an obvious commonality, each dance was incredibly distinct. First up was the world premiere of Val Caniparoli’s Beautiful Dreamer, a joyous, youthful, exuberant eight-part composition, set to music by Stephen Foster, performed by the Berkeley Community Chamber Singers under the direction of Derek Tam. With its combination of classical ballet, contemporary dance and rhythmic footwork, there was much to love in Beautiful Dreamer. The seated lift in the first movement; the Appalachian-inspired phrases where the upper body and arms remained still while the feet percussed in varied patterns; the driving motion of the entire work. Cristian Laverde König and Brent Whitney wowed in the structurally diverse “Oh! Susanna” duet – a combination of canon, unison and partnering. Abandon and surrender were at the heart of “Jeanie with the Light Brown Hair” pas de deux (danced by Chloe Slade and Gregory DeSantis) with its spinning, soaring circular lifts. At the end of the fourth sequence, the dancers slid across the stage and then relevéd into the wings in arabesque. And the final movement (the work’s namesake) was a swirling physical statement of multiple turns and recurring footwork. Such a dynamic start to this special evening.  

Pictured: Coral Martin, Chloe Slade and Evelyn Turner in
Photo: John Hefti
While a glorious all-female sextet (Vajra Voices, directed by Karen R. Clark) sang the early music of Hildegard von Bingen, the company swept in and out of the stage left wings. This was the beginning of the program’s second world premiere, Divining, an uplifting five-chapter dance choreographed by Janice Garrett and Charles Moulton. Divining was prayerful, spiritual and meditative, but not at all quiet or solemn. Everything reached forward and outward, drawing the viewer in with drama. Arms extended into allongé; limbs into arabesque and second position. Bodies crept downstage; eyes looked to the horizon. Each movement was attentive and emotive whether in the serpentine torso, the unexpected hand positions or the scissoring legs. And there was room in the conceptual narrative for a variety of interpretations and responses to the work. Divining was a standout piece, and the entire company danced phenomenally on opening night.

Closing the A Cappella – Our Bodies Sing program was Lustig’s Stone of Hope (2015), an Oakland Ballet company premiere. The final dance suite of the evening, Stone of Hope was set to spirituals, energetically furnished by Nona Brown and the Inspirational Music Collective (directed by Brown). A wealth of enraptured choreography unfolded in the work’s seven movements – parallel jumps, embraces, grand battements, stag leaps, cabrioles. Coral Martin and Rudy Candia’s duet to “My Soul’s Been Anchored in the Lord” was a noteworthy moment. I loved how Lustig played with the notion of ‘being anchored’ in the choreography. The word ‘anchored’ certainly evokes images of strength, purpose and resolve, but it is equally about elation and exhilaration. Lustig demonstrated this breadth with vast jumps and gorgeous double attitude lifts. The gestural choreography and accented movements that accompanied Dr. Martin Luther King’s famous speech (brilliantly offered by Nelvin Moss) were well chosen and didn’t take the focus away from the power of the words.

But the biggest contribution that Stone of Hope makes is in its structure and format. Lustig has crafted a truly ensemble work. Stone of Hope is not for dancers and musicians; it is for a group of artists. They were together on stage; they interacted with each other – it was one cast, and an amazing one at that. Collaboration across fields is pretty common in contemporary performance but real-time, live creative collaboration like that in Stone of Hope is rarer than you might think. 

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