The “Ballet Works Project” Project
By Thomas O. Haakenson
Orange, Marge-Simpson-like hair floats above tight, neon green jackets and swaying, tapping bodies. Undulating into and out of each other like agitated lovers, Nic Lincoln and Erin Thompson engage each other as hyperkinetic specters, then overflow from a video feed into the performance space of the James Sewell Ballet at the Cowles Center.
The collection of performances and provocations titled Ballet Works Project is for the uninitiated dance and performance critic a confusing delight, like the strange array of candy spilling from the hollow, plastic pumpkin head of a Halloween trick-or-treater. Why are the rest of the dances so, so serious?
Choreographed by a diverse array of established and emerging talents, the program for the Ballet Works Project writhed from the sheerly silly to the somber serious. What began as playful shadows from a campfire flames illuminating and cloudy two dancing bodies vanished too quickly as dance became “real” dance again.
Sally Rousse’s “Salmon Marshmallow Bear Dance” set a confusing, fun, promising tone. The playful interaction of camper and bear, dancing their way around fire ring and with marshmallow, was echoed with the longer, telekinetic visual buffet of Judith Howard’s “The Lounge Twins Die and Go to Heaven.” Howard’s focus on two odd bodies, Lincoln and Thompson, in semi-parallel motion serves as a response to the naturalistic investigations at the heart of Rousse’s playful woman-bear interactions.
The evening’s other performances—though powerful, fierce, serious—seemed detached in comparison, as if the beautiful, fit bodies, engaging in powerful parallels and explosive perpendiculars, viewers like me longed to return to the neon lounge and the whimsy of campfire flames.
To be sure, Karen Charles’s impressive “Call” provided a feast of precision and ferocity, of dance as dance should be, with strictly choreographed plans and bodies that followed the rule. The “less formal,” the seeming spontaneity of other pieces, whispered the promise of something new, especially for those, like me, new to the knew, to the “knew” of knowing what dance is supposed to be. Pounding feet, panting breath, erotic interplays. Textbook. Masterful. My heart longed, like a bear for a marshmallow, for more, much more here, now, with this so-disciplined piece, and then for those pieces that followed.
Cory Goei’s touching remarks introducing his work, “The Meaning of Ilk,” left the dance itself feeling oddly detached. Goei’s tenderness left us audience members feeling as if only he could get in on the pain behind the loss to which the dance alluded. His effort to reach out verbally in introducing the work, as painful and meaningful as could be, conveyed a struggle to suppress obvious hurt over the loss of the mysterious figure at the center of it all. Bodies disconnected the movement from the sadness Goei seems so wanting them to convey. There was loss. But no one told us really what it was during this performance of Goei’s piece. Outsiders to the hurt. Hurt ourselves.
Chris Schlichtling’s “Intervals,” a collaboration with the many performers, seemed confused by all the voices it hoped to keep in play. Costumes seemed both gratuitously minimal (on the men) and excessively secretive (on the women). The image burning into me still involves the spectacle of powerful bodies moving toward me, costumes revealing a bit too much flesh, too much to not see it as flesh. The meaning of the dance is lost in the dark recesses of the body’s invitation to wander elsewhere. But maybe that is the meaning of this dance. Their bodies. My wandering.
My body takes me elsewhere too. I long for the whimsy of the bear, the deliciousness of color, the lounge where twins die and go to heaven.
In the lobby of The Cowles Center during this performance, at intermission, two twins, dressed in sparkly white and asleep on the floor, awaken. As if floating backwards they enter an elevator, bid farewell to the gathered and bemused lobby audience, and say farewell. The twins. Their lounge. We are visitors, only if for a moment. The heaven of amusement and the sadness of seriousness. The bodies. The flame. We are the marshmallows. Unless we are the bear.