The fire of dance in us: Newport Contemporary Ballet’s ‘Catch Fire!’

Newport Contemporary Ballet's Margot Aknin in Danielle Genest's 'Firebird'. Photo by Eric Hovermale.
Newport Contemporary Ballet's Margot Aknin in Danielle Genest's 'Firebird'. Photo by Eric Hovermale.

Waterfire Arts Center, Providence, RI.
May 20, 2023.

Chi, ki, prana, baraka, mana: terms from different cultures and spiritual traditions that reference the same thing – the elemental lifeforce in us humans. We might call it “soul”, our very human essence. Whatever one calls it, dance both reveals it and calls upon it. It’s the fire in us – and Newport Contemporary Ballet had it burning bright in its latest program, Catch Fire!

The program was a compelling demonstration of how an imagistic idea can thread works together. It also made evident that the classical and traditional can sit comfortably beside the post-modern, the groundbreaking and risk-taking. The company is stepping forward under a new name, a new vision and new leadership – and doing so with tenacity and clarity. 

Catch Fire! opened with the world premiere of Tristian Griffin’s Ashes, a work both clear and full of mystery, daring but also welcoming. It began with dancers slowly crawling in, the only score the quiet rufflings of their grey costumes (by Naomi Tanioka) and their movement across the stage. The score (from Michael Wall) gradually rose, as did they – yet, they remained weighted in space and in energy. A soloist, elevating and moving more quickly, acted as some sort of catalyst for the rest of the group; soon, they were all moving more vertically and with the score’s quick wanderings.

More riveting layers evolved from there. Beats in the score became like a heartbeat: consistent, almost meditative. Dancers added to that with clapping – reminding me just how wonderfully musical dancers are (they have to be!). They also moved fully attuned to that heartbeat, limbs like waves. Griffin’s curvilinear vocabulary in this piece felt a bit more classical and less abstract than that in prior works of his I’ve seen (such as The Missing Peace, 2022) – yet no less intentional and no less satisfying. 

Both works demonstrated Griffin’s ability to build an explosive group energy but also softer moments – such as with a tender duet and an impassioned solo (from Athena Flournoy) later in Ashes. Many further sections graced the stage, each a neat package tied with a bow — complete and cohesive.

At some point along these sections, the energy notably rose. Reds and oranges filled the stage (lighting by Stephen Petrilli). With stomps, claps and moving with full abandon, the dancers exuded a primal spirit. They moved spaciously and hungrily. “Dancing embers above the ash,” I thought – and that’s when it all clicked for me. Whether intentional or not, the work made kinetic the life cycle of fire. “Ashes to ashes, dust to dust,” I also thought. 

That idea felt all the clearer for me as the work returned to one soloist dancing above dancers in gray, lunging and crawling low and slow. “A-B-A” structure – in other words, coming “full-circle” – can sometimes feel a bit trite. For this work, however, it simply worked — thematically, kinetically, energetically. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust – but in between, we dance. We are illuminated. 

After intermission came Artistic Director Danielle Genest’s 2023 memorable reimagining of the classic story ballet The Firebird (1910). Genest has a commendable ability to make the classical breathe free – to release, to be weighted, to find serpentine ease – and she certainly brought that to this work. 

The first thing we experienced of the work was the score (from Igor Stravinksy) — emotional, bracing. Then came the backdrop (set design by Shawndavid Berry) — meshing midnight grays and fiery reds, it reflected the atmosphere to come. Gregory Tyndall as The Wanderer danced in, moving with a softness on top of his strength, a quality that embodied the uncertainty and waywardness of his character. 

The Firebird herself, danced by Margot Aknin, soon entered. She moved with pure energy through every finger and toe, as vibrant as her costume (by Eileen Stoops). Yet, she also didn’t overdo a thing; she let the movement and her artistry do its magic. Portraying a timeless dynamic, The Wanderer became enraptured and – tightly embracing her – seemed intent on possession. At first, she protested, but before long submitted to his capture. She molded to his firm support as they partnered. 

Soon, The Dreamers entered. They danced with a sweetness – a lightness, a warmth – evincing their placid nature. Formations formed and dissolved in a way that felt like a story unfolding — apropos for the story ballet at hand. With the stage buzzing in this way, and the music coming to crescendo, this part of the story felt like big news spreading through a tight-knit community. Brooke DiFrancesco also entered as The Protector, moving with her signature effervescent, yet also understated elegance. She danced with just the right quality to support her character’s guiding of the itinerant The Wanderer.  

The slinking and foreboding The Monsters, having made one earlier appearance in the work, soon returned. At their helm was The Sorceress, danced by Kelly Moeller Rabe, the root of these furtive creatures’ darkness. Program notes seemed to affirm that these creatures were not inherently ill-willed or malicous – that came from this witch. Soon came an epic battle between these forces of light and dark — another timeless dynamic.

The Firebird faced off against The Sorceress, and the contrast between them – between their fundamental natures – could not have been clearer. The freedom and light that The Firebird brings — that’s what at stake here, I thought. Ultimately, the Sorceress fell and stumbled, struggling for life. Those who limit the freedom of others only limit themselves in the end, I mused. A giant egg seemed to hold some sort of Sorceress essence; she was extinguished when characters on the side of The Firebird, and what she represented, destroyed it. 

That also meant that The Monsters were no longer under her spell, and they could dance free with the benign characters in the story. They danced a Nutcracker-type ending, moving together in lines to booming, joyful music – then ended in a rather classical tableau, The Firebird lifted high. The work as a whole was infused with the values and aesthetics of 2023, however. 

Classic or modern, old or new, then or now, the fire in the human soul dances and shines all the same. Catch Fire!, with two disparate works nevertheless kindred in spirit, was a beacon of that truth. I look forward to seeing what fire and soul Newport Contemporary Ballet will continue to bring. We dance on! 

By Kathryn Boland of Dance Informa.

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