Moving multiplicity: Ballet RI’s ‘Off the Charts’

Ballet RI's 'Off the Charts'. Photo by Ian Travis Barnard.
Ballet RI's 'Off the Charts'. Photo by Ian Travis Barnard.

The Woodman Family and Community Arts Center, Providence, RI.
March 17, 2024.

One could explore the possibilities within dance art for a lifetime and only scratch the surface. Generations of artists have done just that (and continue to do so). Some dance companies are particularly skilled at venturing through those possibilities, thoughtfully and courageously. Ballet RI is one of them. The classical, neoclassical, modern and contemporary, and all of the qualities that those separate genres contain – they’ve done it all. The company’s most recent program, Off the Charts, was an Exhibit A of such bold and versatile programming. 

George Balanchine’s Who Cares (Concert Version) (1970) opened the program, staged by répétiteur Margaret Tracey. It’s an elegant neoclassical work wrapped up in jazzy packaging: vibrant, sultry and plain fun. Balanchine’s innovations of shape and movement pathway were right there on offer – with jazz vocabulary peppering the more conventionally balletic. That vocabulary both accentuated and was accentuated by Gerschwin jazz standards. It was clear why Balanchine is universally seen as groundbreaking and foundational for American ballet. 

Also evident was his belief that “ballet is woman”; the piece shone a bright spotlight on the graceful strength of the female persona. With a mix of poise and sass, the ballerinas in the ensemble walked on tip-toe when not supported by a partner. They could do both, thank you very much. The work gave time and space to both ways of being.

In that balance of independence and connection, the work toggled between those ballerinas dancing solos and pas de deux with their stalwart partners. Those various sections brought a feast of performance and movement qualities. Heather Nichols felt like the dictionary definition of effervescent in her solo, full of sparkly musicality and pure vitality. The following pas de deux, from Alexandria Troianos and Clay Murray, was flavored with more sweet romance than many of the others. 

The following solo brought Ashley Griffin dancing with spunk and a devil-may-care daring. Following solos ranged from the more wilty and ethereal to pulsing with raw power. A male solo came toward the end, too, from Garret McNally – suave as can be. 

The whole ensemble then danced to “I’ve Got Rhythm”, closing out the work with a splash of energy. Do we “have rhythm” when we’re in community? Just maybe! Either way, it’s a great way to be. I wondered if that vibrant effect could have been even more impactful with a larger cast. Perhaps the size of the ensemble as it was stayed true to Balanchine’s original vision, and there’s something to sticking right with that. 

Katarzyna Kozielska’s Ode (2021) infused the atmosphere with a whole different feeling. Both abstract and poignant, it employed movement – both ferocious and sensitive – to explore the loneliness and loss that COVID brought. As is this company’s norm, the work opened with a short video sharing more about the work and the process that brought it to life. 

Kozielska explained how that loneliness and loss was particularly salient and widespread following COVID, and that’s what got the wheels turning for her with this work. Yet, those experiences are only part of life, particularly as we trade genuine connection for scrolling screen time.  

This work brought a second feast of movement qualities. To pulsing scores from Ezio Bosso and Gabriel Prokofiev, dancers traversed various places on the spectrum from the tenacious and fiery to the more internal, more ponderous. Not making eye contact, or any other kind of direct contact, they embodied an experience many know well: having people all around, yet feeling achingly lonely. Partnering, as a notable strength of the piece, was especially innovative and engrossing. 

Much of the movement was unconventional and abstract, with potentially stirring meaning if one were to look more closely and reflect. Pulsing and shaking illustrated raw inner turmoil. The frenetic, frequent shifting of formations brought my mind back to those early stages of the COVID pandemic when we were learning things all the time, yet no one knew quite what to expect. Surges of fatalities, or oneself or loved ones getting infected, could be right around the corner – quite unsettling. 

The work’s highly musical quality felt like something for any audience member to access, if such perception might not be available or interesting to them. Indeed, music felt like a key part of what helped the final section feel particularly impactful. 

The energy eased. The score – a cover of Sinead O’Connor’s Nothing Compares 2 U from Jimmy Scott – was much slower and softer. Katherine Bickford danced a solo with 150 percent heart, soul and body absorbed. She was the (moving) picture of a dance artist’s generosity in performance. Reaching long limbs, she sought what seemed to have been painfully lost. Grounding into the stage floor but then rising high above it, she found the strength and will to step forward, as impossible as that might feel in the throes of grief. 

All combined – Bickford’s memorable performance, a solo instilling the sense of loneliness, and the score speaking to life after deep loss – this is when I felt truly emotionally captivated by this work. Earlier sections captured my mind and artistic sense, yet this section truly pulled at my heart and soul. The stakes of the emotional minefield at hand were poignantly clear. 

That was the case throughout the program’s closer, Blue Until June from Trey McIntyre (2000). I’ve reviewed this work before, but I in no way minded experiencing it again – not in the slightest. This time, I saw even more of what McIntyre described (in a video shown before the work) of popular music “caking on” expectations of what romantic love should be, especially all over young people – and then them “rising out of the mud” of all that weight. 

The work’s high level of athleticism – while it still held space for gentler, quieter moments – also struck me even more this time. In both emotional interpretation and pure command of McIntyre’s dynamic, intricate choreography, this ensemble grabbed every part of me. In different ways, at different points, every piece in this program did. 

That’s one beautiful thing, out of many, about dance art: it can bring chills and make the chest ache in an arguably infinite number of ways. Thank you, Ballet RI, for always boldly exploring that vast terrain of possibility and sharing with us what you find there! 

By Kathryn Boland of Dance Informa.

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