Carrying the classics forward: Ballet Rhode Island’s ‘Death and the Maiden’

Ballet RI in José Limón's 'The Moor's Pavane'. Photo by Dylan Giles.
Ballet RI in José Limón's 'The Moor's Pavane'. Photo by Dylan Giles.

Woodman Family and Community Arts Center, Providence, RI.
October 15, 2023.

Baroque notes rang through the theater, and the curtain rose on dancers in Medieval court regalia. Had I found a time machine and traveled back centuries to the Middle Ages, or even just decades back to modern dance’s early days? Alas, no time travel here – yet, thanks to Ballet Rhode Island (Ballet RI)’s 2023-2024 season opener Death and the Maiden, I did experience the spirit of the past right in 2023. 

The Providence, Rhode Island-based company consistently works to push the boundaries of concert dance forward into a more dynamic future, on a foundation of a storied past. This program was in no way an exception to that overarching objective. 

With the assistance of former Limón Dance Company member and repetiteur Kurt Douglas, the company restaged José Limón’s iconic The Moor’s Pavane (1949). Act II offered a world premiere work set to Franz Schubert’s string quartet composition Death and the Maiden (1824), meshing and molding a classical score with melty, luscious contemporary ballet vocabulary. The past and present moved together in harmony, for all attending to savor. 

Indeed, part of The Moor’s Pavane magic is how it can transport you back into the past, with its full atmosphere of a European court – with, for one, elaborate period costumes (on loan from Miami City Ballet for this program). In a video introduction to the work, Douglas explained how Limón structured the work as a narrative delivered within the context of a court dance. He noted how the narrative – a distillation of Shakespeare’s Othello – comes through nuances of movement and expression. 

Douglas’ points allowed me to experience the work with more depth and understanding than when I saw the Limón Company perform it. True, this ensemble didn’t seem to be as fully, truly home in Limón’s movement language as those dancers who’ve had it in their bodies daily for years. Yet, one couldn’t expect them to be. 

On the whole, they danced that language quite commendably, offering something rich and honest. Their theatricality was also superb, truly bringing these four characters to full vibrant life. All of that is a true testament to both ensemble and répétiteur. Experiencing this work from Ballet RI made me intrigued to see what could transpire if more ballet companies were similarly so bold as to take on such mammoth classics of modern dance. 

Yury Yanowsky and Ken Ossola’s Death and the Maiden similarly opened with an introductory video – demonstrating the centrality of the score, as well as cross-disciplinary collaboration, to this work. We saw the work’s string musicians, of the Aurea Ensemble, playing the score right in the dancers’ rehearsals. The ensemble’s Artistic Director, Consuelo Sherba, discussed the high physicality of playing this composition – and how it’s thus only fitting that it should come together with dance. Music and movement were engaging, cross-pollinating and exchanging: both ways. 

The work began with the curtain rising on a dancer resting on the stage, slowly raising her torso to vertical. A flower of billowy white fabric encircled her. She slowly, thoughtfully tilted her head and curved her torso. The score moved faster than her, I quickly noticed. As with much of the work, Yanowsky and Ossola didn’t feel the need to match every note with movement. The score was quite allegro, overall, yet the movement offered an enticing variety of tempi. That’s to great effect; without contrast, speed – or any quality – comes to lose its effect. 

The first ensemble section came not long after, and it felt almost as if the score had awakened it – with lights rising (lighting design by Jon Gonda) and movement gaining fervor right after the score did the same. The string instruments’ resonant, lilting notes stirred the very air of the theater – as did the dancers’ grounded, yet sinuous shapes and pathways. Doubtless, they came together to be far more than the sum of their parts.   

The movement vocabulary, for its part, was full of gracefully arching shapes and breathy release of an upright balletic spine. A swooping quality at hand felt like part dancing willow branch, part bird in flight – both riding an easy breeze. This style fit hand-in-glove with this ensemble’s lanky limbs and supple spines. These dancers also matched the emotional intensity of the score in a way that felt genuine rather than forced. 

That intensity came from dramatic abstraction, from something enigmatic, rather than narrative. Enhancing such mystery was how dancers moved in and out of spotlight and shadow – a duet with light itself. The mystery deepened further, but also became even more thought-provoking, as the dancer in the long skirt returned. She crossed the stage, leaving two dancers in a fetal position behind her trail. What do we carry? What can we leave behind? What carries us?  

More athletic, vigorous sections followed – helping to build that pleasing variance of tempo and movement quality. A tenacious pas de deux, for example, further demonstrated what these dancers can deliver, and how these choreographers know how to capitalize on their strengths.

A slower, more reflective section then brought a sense of resolution – certainly a fine place to end the work. Yet things aren’t always so predictable; a large group returned to bring the energy back up to a climax, creating an explosion of moving shapes. The work ended not long after, quite abruptly at that. A sense of continuance came from the lack of resolution at hand. 

In these ways the work was fascinating, fresh and innovative. Yes, it’s very possible to create something with those qualities from the groundwork of the past’s artistic treasures. Ballet RI is particularly skilled at that, at pushing the art form forward while honoring its past. 

Their restaging of The Moor’s Pavane also demonstrated that balance, as well as the courage to step into a whole new lane. This program was the first I’d seen from the company after its rebranding, and I look forward to many more – in the 2023-2024 season and beyond. Innovation, risk-taking, historical preservation and beyond: I’m in!  

By Kathryn Boland of Dance Informa.

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