Music painted with moving bodies: Festival Ballet Providence’s ‘Blue Until June’

Festival Ballet Providence's Brenna DiFrancesco in Trey McIntyre's 'Blue Until June'. Photo by Dylan Giles.
Festival Ballet Providence's Brenna DiFrancesco in Trey McIntyre's 'Blue Until June'. Photo by Dylan Giles.

The Woodman Family and Cultural Center, Providence, RI.
April 30, 2022.

”Dance is music made visible,” affirmed George Balanchine. Some dance artists would quibble with that sentiment, because beautiful dance can have no score but the sound of dancers’ feet and breath. Yet, dance can make music physical in ways that deepen the meaning at hand, and at other times simply create something indefinably soul-stirring. 

With live musicians performing beside the dancers, and choreographic work that painted music with moving bodies, Festival Ballet Providence’s Blue Until June exemplified this ability of dance to bring music into kinetic form. Inventive, bold and poignant, the program closed out the company’s 2021-2022 Season – and is not one to soon be forgotten.  

Bariolage, from Festival Ballet Providence Artistic Curator Yury Yanowsky, kicked off the program. The work brought together thoughtful movement and striking design to pique both the mind and the heart. The curtain opened on small lights resting on the stage, in pentagon formation, while dancers stood in a line at the back – facing upstage. 

They moved toward the lights and picked them up, and for some time moved with them in hand. With low lighting (from Alicia Colantonio) overhead, they also lit themselves. I pondered on finding the light inside when all else seems dark. As they danced with their private lights through various shapes and pathways, I thought about intentionally directing the light – for ourselves and those we love. Wearing fleshed-toned costumes, the ensemble could be any community or any individual in the audience. 

Their bodies were an open canvas for such reflection and life experience, but also to paint the music in another form: right on the stage before our very eyes. Moving through Yanowsky’s choreography – audacious softening and re-molding of classical vocabulary, as always – the dancers also brought the score (from Shinji Eshima) to kinetic life. They moved in unison, but not robotically so. With cellist Emmanuel Feldman and bassist Pascale Dalache-Feldman mere feet from the dancers, and from us as audience members, I could feel the meeting of music and movement – as a total experience – down into my sinew and bone. 

Later in the work came duos and trios, with the movement and changes between these sections mercurial: unpredictable, dynamic, exciting. In these later sections the dancers also placed their little lights on the Marley by the wings, making a vertical line from up to downstage. Their personal lights had spread light beyond themselves. For the end of the piece, the collective returned to dance in this wider light. They had truly brought the music and their own inner lights to full life, for each other and we in the audience to enjoy. 

Following Bariolage was another Yanowsky piece, at the end of. As per the Festival Ballet Providence norm (at least in the post-height of COVID programs that I personally have experienced), each piece in the program was preceded by a short film contextualing the work to come – with rehearsal footage and testimony from the choreographer and ensemble members.

This work’s introductory film, in particular, framed its forthcoming work in a thought-provoking way. Yanowsky explained how COVID put the staging of the work on hold, and – as something we can likely all relate to, to some capacity – he continued to wonder if we were “at the end of” this global pandemic, and the work could finally be brought to the stage as he was envisioning it. “It’s at the end of things where we seem to get stuck,” Yanowsky noted: a sentiment that feels cogent and poignant beyond COVID times. The last mile can feel the longest, wherever that mile takes us. 

Just as with Bariologe, movement vocabulary brought the music (Bach’s Cello Suites) to physical life on the stage before us – with music of a solo cellist filling the theater. Slower movement, sometimes filled with pauses and holding a shape, embodied a steady harmony line. Much quicker gestural work, as well as technically challenging shapes and transitions, embodied an active melody line. Toward the beginning of the work, these two modes of movement were asynchronous – with dancers moving in turns – bringing to mind a tension between action and stasis. 

The score shifted into another orchestration, yet the dancers remained painting the music with their very bodies. In pairs, dancers entwined and untwined, converged and diverged, as the harmony and melody lines in the score did the same. An elegantly stripped-down aesthetic – earth-tone costumes in uncomplicated cuts, lighting that blanketed the stage in similar earth-tones with no superfluous effects – supported this sense of the dancers as media to bring the music to moving, breathing form; the absence of other visual layers allowed the dancers to come across as such visual agents, as blank canvases. 

Yet, the soulfulness that dancers offered could also lead some to see something more human, and perhaps even more narrative, at hand – and, as with all art, no one could call that invalid. The ending, though initially striking me as curious, could be interpreted in such a human and narrative way. One dancer moved away from the ensemble – vigorously, voraciously – while they more slowly formed a tableau upstage of her. The dynamic here was one of the individual and the collective. 

In the individual or collective, that last mile can have us feeling like we’re not moving forward at all. In action or stasis, in quieter or more active approaches, from within ourselves or in community, we can find the strength and wisdom we need to keep stepping forward – and pieces like at the end of can make that all the clearer. 

Trey McIntyre’s Blue Until June, both thought-provoking and viscerally captivating, closed out the program. Testimony from McIntyre also illuminated this piece, in terms of narrative and concept, in a video introduction prior to it. He noted how, for him, pop music can give young people hyperbolic and saccharine views of romantic relationships. Much of the piece – which illustrated many romantic relationships, and situations within those relationships – came from that, he explained. 

[I did ponder if having artists so explicitly share the meaning of their work, for them, does have a downside: that of shaping audience members’ views before they’ve even seen it. The alternative would be them coming to the work with no preconceived notions, and drawing the conclusions they will from seeing it Yet I personally enjoy getting a lot of context about a work before seeing it, and I think the advantages of deeper understanding and appreciation outweigh that potential downside.]

Throughout the piece, the ensemble members shed the weight and stickiness of what pop culture has shaped their conceptions of romance to be, he added. As such, this work shaped music and physical form in a different way than Yanowsky’s work – bringing narrative, rather than elements such as tone, rhythm, and aural atmosphere, into physical form. 

Indeed, the work shared little episodes within romantic relationships: one’s partner leaving them for another person, the consuming infatuation of new relationships, the unique kind of loneliness that arises from being single when (at least it might seem like) everyone else isn’t, and many more. Intriguing choices in structure, staging, and movement quality also surfaced questions of how much these situations impact a broader community beyond the person or pair of people who directly experience them. 

The ensemble danced all of these narratives to the layered, haunting voice of Etta James (“blues royalty”, as the program entitled her). McIntyre’s choreography rode the waves of her crooning and riffing, a surfing over the music that the ensemble accomplished with tenacity and technical comfort. The ballerinas wore pointe shoes, and much of the movement felt fairly classical – more or less in different sections. Yet, McIntyre also infused full breath and spinal release into that classical base. The result was something formed and supported, but also grounded and hauntingly evocative. 

Costumes (from Sandra Woodall) helped further build this world of perhaps – ahem – melodramatic love stories: pedestrian yet also bright and with a 1960’s flare. Lighting (from Alicia Colantonio) served a similar purpose. In the beginning of the work, dancers walked forward to downstage while bathed in a deep red light – red being associated with passion, romance, and also conflict. In more harmonious sections, and also some somber ones, blues of various hues lit the dancers – blue as a color of harmony and contemplation, but also of sadness. 

Despite the presence of such heated conflict or lonely, sad contemplation in the piece, the end brought something lighter and softly joyful – qualities through which I could most clearly see shedding of those pop culture narratives and mores around romance, those which McIntyre had referenced. Two dancers sweetly slow-danced. In that moment, it seemed like for each other, their presence was enough. 

In the overall program, the company’s embodied presence – in harmony with their own bodies, those of fellow dancers, and with the layered complexity of each musical score – was more than enough. Blue Until June demonstrated the aesthetic and visceral force that can result when movement paints music in physical form. In a world of constant striving, judgement of ourselves and others, and pervasive uncertainty, let’s remember how much more than enough that can truly be. 

By Kathryn Boland of Dance Informa.

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