Tulsa Ballet's Creations in Studio K, the company's fourth annual showcase of new choreography created especially for its dancers, demonstrated just how far this troupe has come in the years since the series was introduced.
Ma Cong's "Blood Rush" premiered in the first such program, which coincided with the opening of the luxuriously intimate Studio K at the company's headquarters in Brookside.
The piece established Cong as a choreographer to watch and confirmed Tulsa Ballet's commitment to becoming a creative force in the dance world. Seeing it again on this year's program was like watching two Tulsa Ballets at once: the company of 2008, new to such a bold creative venture, and the contemporary company, far more sophisticated and adventurous than anyone could have imagined four years ago. "Blood Rush" was energetic and well performed this time, too, but these dancers (and Cong) have grown beyond it.
Cong's new ballet, "Tethered Pulse," is the work of a much more experienced choreographer. Cong has evolved from a dance-maker with evident talent into one with the skills that allow him to make absolutely anything he chooses with bodies in space. What he chooses here is delicate and fresh, with amplitude and an emotional multi-dimensionality that is new in his work.
In comments after the performance, Cong described this meditation on relationships as "bread and butter" -- comfort food -- in contrast to the combative intensity of "Blood Rush." To the rich tones and syncopated rhythms of cellists Jean Jeanrenaud and Zoe Keating, Cong had six couples in white lean toward and away from each other, then burst across the stage with breezy steps in three-quarter time.
Rodrigo Hermesmeyer, whose strengths as a dancer were exquisitely revealed in this ballet, emerged from a corner wing tied to a thin yellow band of fabric; he flicked himself over and under it and wound it around his body, pulling it tighter and tighter until Alexandra Christian appeared at the other end. Stretched between them, bright against a glowing blue backdrop, the fabric eventually held a whole crowd of dancers, who appeared not bound by it, but rather embraced.
Cong made astute use of the dancers' natural talents, particularly Diana Gomez's exceptional flexibility. Bodies seemed to be moving every moment, but the stage picture was never confusing. Sometimes dancers mirrored each other, other times they twined into pretzels. The ballet ended with a series of bold solos on a dark stage shot across with streaks of light, with men and women merging and separating all at once, and a final vision of a warm glow toward which the "pulse" moved them. (Les Dickert's lighting, like Jo Wimer's costuming, was masterful throughout the evening.) While each dancer circled around him -- or herself, the group moved together toward an illuminated upstage corner, with Gomez in the middle soaring above in a lift, pulling the yellow fabric along with her.
Where "Tethered Pulse" was warm and bright, Tony Fabre's "Blur" was dark and cool. "Blur" is the edgiest work Tulsa Ballet has ever presented, a sign of how far Tulsa has come in its ability to appreciate contemporary dance. Fabre described it as a struggle between instinct (represented by men in black suits) and spiritual conscience (women in black leotards with a block of bold color around their torsos).
Having worked with Tulsa Ballet over 13 years, teaching the ballets of Nacho Duato, Fabre has a remarkably trusting relationship with these dancers, which came through in the fearlessness and commitment with which they moved in his sometimes unsettling, continuously fascinating choreography. The opening image brought the first shiver down the spines of audience members: a woman sitting on the shoulders of a man, walking in silence, with her hands cupped over his eyes. One of these couples after another moved onstage, until all eight dancers crumpled to the floor and began a series of smooth duets, full of mind-bendingly slow lifts.
Running into this humming calm, the fierce Alexandra Bergman and Alfonso Martin slammed to a halt, to shrieking strings, in the middle of two lines of dancers, first taking their pose and then blasting out of it into their own agonistic world. Martin bent double; Bergman hung upside down with her flexed feet hooked over the back of his neck. They did a quiet, menacing leapfrog. In a particularly uneasy moment, Martin pulled Bergman up from the floor by the back of her leotard. Over and under each other they wrestled, with the utmost subtlety and precision.
Fabre's choreography was intense, intelligent, and thrilling as it played out this inner conflict. The men beetled onto a dark stage, flopped onto their backs, tilted onto their heads and grabbed their ankles behind them, all at top speed to stunning atonal music. Stroked by the women, they barely responded, until suddenly the whole group settled in a downstage corner. They looked all the way down, then all the way up, as the scrim behind them changed from black to a cloudy blue, and each couple slowly left the stage in gentle duets that echoed the calm at the beginning, made richer now by the conflict they'd gone through. Different though they were, both new ballets powerfully explored the idea that, whether it be difficult or delightful, whatever one experiences can ultimately take one to a place of peace.
Tulsa Ballet's Creations in Studio K stages through Sunday, May 8. Visit tulsaballet.org or call 918-596-7111 for tickets.
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