Filed under: review | Tags: ballet nouveau colorado, chris ransick, contemporary ballet, dance review, denver, garrett ammon, lighthouse writers workshop, ma cong, mark godden, michael henry, poetry
Garrett Ammon, creative director (genius) of Ballet Nouveau Colorado, sat at the Denver mayor’s cultural awards last year and got an inspiration. Lighthouse Writers Workshop, Colorado’s working writers group, had just won the Mayor’s Award for Excellence in the Arts.
“I was so inspired by the work they were doing,” Ammon told an audience at a preview event on January 29. “I am always looking for new jumping off points for my ideas. When I heard about the work they are doing, I said we absolutely have to work with them.”
The project born of this serendipitous meeting is Love. a joint venture, a series of three works created collaboratively between three Colorado poets and three choreographers. The show opened last night at the Lakewood Cultural Center, and it runs throughout this weekend, and again next weekend at the Pinnacle Events Center in Thornton.
“When Garrett approached us with this idea, I thought, This is going to be very interesting,” said Mike Henry, poet and executive director of Lighthouse Writers. Ammon had selected two other choreographers to work on the project: Ma Cong, who won BNC’s Dancemakers choreography competition in 2008, and Mark Godden, a freelance choreographer he and wife/associate artistic director Dawn Fay met while at the Memphis Ballet. The choreographers, using a blind process, selected the poets they wanted to work with. The final pairings: Ammon and Henry; Cong and Denver Poet Laureate Chris Ransick; and Godden and Lighthouse instructor David Rothman.
Basically, Henry recalled, Ammon’s instructions for the writers and choreographers was this: Love. Go.
Each pair had a different process of creating the poems and the dance pieces. Music was an integral aspect, suggesting theme on both ends.
“So much of the work of a poet is done in isolation,” Ransick told the audience on January 29. “It’s almost the only way I can create. I’ve practiced all my life. This process forced us out of isolation. It’s how you recreate yourself as a writer.” He later told me that having someone create ballet from his work, and to see his work performed in this unusual manner was “a once-in-a-lifetime deal. It’s not something you ever think would happen. And now that it has, it’s overwhelming.”
Ammon said he wanted to be careful with the words Henry gave him. “When he first sent them to me, I was very overwhelmed because then (the characters in the poems) were my responsibility. That’s a very personal thing.”
After listening to the poets read poems and watching rehearsal video at the preview event, I was very excited to see this show. I was one of Henry’s original poetry workshop students back in 1997, an inaugural Lighthouser. I’ve known him as a teacher, as a friend, and as poet. The idea of this collaboration, of bringing my passion for words and my passion for dance together in one place, was thrilling. I looked forward to last night’s opening with excitement.
Cong selected tango music for his dances and Ransick responded with two poems in form. The tango collaboration was a sexy, sultry push and pull of words, bodies and music. Tango, especially Argentine tango, is a round dance: bodies curving into each other, the curve of embrace, the ochos, the sacadas. Cong captured the essence of tango in fiery red (to Ransick’s Tango Villanelle) and sexy blue (to Ransick’s Passion, There). These dances and poems were about the dances we do when we are in love. The choreography contained some eye-popping moments, including several seconds when dancer Elizabeth Towles leaped into her partners embrace in a standing split, her arabesque impossibly loose-hipped, and her partner (forgive my lack of his name) spun her, swallowlike, around him. Another moment could be labeled the Tossing of Julie King, when the petite blonde was flung passionately between two male partners. The viewers around me gasped. So did I. Ransick’s Tango Villanelle, a poem in form, pulled the audience along with the dancers:
I move toward you into a dark
where a blue flame burns on a desert plain.
I move from you, but I must come back
again to your hair, a swarm of birds so black
in flight round your face, a wild skein.
I move toward you into a dark
opaque as coal, as incense smoke
arising from your gown’s red terrain.
I move from you but I must come back.
This piece, danced with a red-lit background, gave me chills. Passion, There, contained poetic images that still sit with me:
where two figures by bare trees come close,
her hand on his hip, unaware of all else
where they spin each other like silver coins,
glinting, glinting, glinting in the sun
This second piece, the blue piece (back wall lit in midnight blue gels), was sexy as hell. At one moment, my friend Robin said, “Damn, that’s hot.” She’s not one to mince words, and she was right. It was damn hot.
I’ve said before that I enjoy dance that I can understand–pieces with a strong storyline, or pieces with a followable theme. The Ransick/Cong collaboration was an excellent example of the latter. The music, the poems, the movements came together in a sensual dessert. The dancers seemed to have a few issues with synchronization that were a bit distracting in some of the group moments; I hope that more run-throughs will work out those kinks. The women were the standout dancers in this section. I swear Ms. Towles has no ligaments; her flexibility is astounding. She, Ms. King and Meagan Coatney were so beautiful in their execution that I barely noticed the men, who were there (as it should be) to make the women look great (and they did).
After a brief pause, the collaboration of Ammon and Henry took the stage. I must say this was the piece, When the Power Goes Out, I was most looking forward to because of my personal connection. Also, Henry, like me, tends to write narrative poems. I’m a sucker for a good love story, even if the story isn’t happy. My first taste of Henry’s poems, read the previous week, told me that this collaboration would give me what I love most, and I was right.
Six poems, six dances, six stories. One emotional rollercoaster. We are introduced to a widower and his ghost wife (See What’s Become of Me), a single woman who settles for what she can get (Jeopardy), a couple still in love after many years (Already, Nostalgia), entwined monologues of the widower and single woman (Beginning), and an estranged couple (The Things We Know). I was amazed at how each piece pulled me from one emotion to another, each story a car in a roller coaster, each character someone who I have been, at least figuratively, throughout my love life. These pieces contained so many moments of beauty and power. I want Sarah Tallman to give me my heart back, seriously, because her performance in Jeopardy ripped it out of my chest. In that piece, Henry writes:
I get up, make my face, go to work.
I come home, make dinner, watch Jeopardy.
I brush my teeth, go to bed.
Sometimes Joe comes over. We turn on
the hockey game. He drinks a six-pack, a twelve, a quirk
he got when he torn his arm up at the mill.
We like the fights, slapshots, the Zamboni.
Sometimes he stays awhile: never till dawn.
Like a ghost, he slips away.
This piece is set to my favorite Chopin nocturn–one I listened to relentlessly as I labored with my daughter. The repetition, the waves of words, the sadness of settling for what you can get, if that’s all you can get to break up that repetition of your daily life: Ms. Tallman says this is the piece she’s waited for all of her life, and from the passion she put into her performance, sitting in front of a TV on stage, she executes it as if it were the last performance she will ever give. She left all of herself on the stage, a gift for us.
All of the pieces in When the Power Goes Out moved me. The choreography of the preternaturally talented Ammon is exactly what each poem needed. The dancers lived their characters. Jason Franklin, playing the widower, showed us what mourning looks like from the inside out. Julia Meng, in the very Michael Cunningham-esque The Things We Know, was me in the last years of my marriage. She danced all of my emotions, my frustration, the passion I yearned to express yet had no outlet for. Henry wrote:
But the table is adequately set,
the food has flavor, the china gets washed
and restacked. Silence is safety,
service is comfort, looking away, respect.
I still have goosebumps.
The piece ends with a power outage, one in which “You can’t say the city doesn’t love you,” according to Henry. Ammon wanted a happy ending for the piece, Henry told me, and he got one. When the Power Goes Out has touches of Henry’s life, including a tiny ode to his wife, Andrea Dupree (or so his mother-in-law told me during intermission):
… her dress
falling off her shoulder, her hair a gold mass, wild and everywhere, the way
you like it. When she smiles you know
your life is over. Gladly say goodbye to it.
And when the piece concludes, the ensemble on stage, we also “suffered a sea change,” a change of mind that poetry and ballet are two worlds that could never entertwine.
And then, after intermission, the final piece, imagine me, imagine you, by Godden and Rothman. This is the piece that fell apart at the seams. Rothman’s poems, again in form, are spectacular, stacatto knife thrusts of the pain of love lost. Reading them on the page in the poetry book we received upon entering, I love the force of the words. I can remember feeling this hurricane in those moments of my divorce when everything was being pulled apart. The first part of the poem When the Wind and Dark Waves Come instructs the reader to be gentle; part two instructs us to be angry. It’s a study in oppositional forces that drive us in love: one moment we can’t get enough of each other, the next we want to murder each other.
Rothman’s words are passionate, about loss, the dark side of love. But we hear them read in a seemingly single breath at the start of the piece. The words, the poetic rhythms are lost in the clumsiness of the execution, in the decision by Mr. Godden to destroy their impact before we can even feel it–a storm wall buffeting the waves. Read this slowly, then try again in a single breath:
I’m wiser now. So what? It’s like the rack.
I loved my stupid youth, its limber luck.
I want my perfect love and anger back.
Each day was like a bone that I could crack.
Each night a ripe fruit I could bite and suck.
I’m wiser now. So what? It’s like the rack.
Slowly, you hear the repetition, you feel the rhythm. Fast, it’s like a blur of advertisements as you speed along the road. It’s noise.
The ballet itself was disturbing and confusing. The company, which usually has impeccable execution, seemed overwhelmed by much of the choreography. Perhaps it was the choice of music–Aaron Copeland, John Cage, Johann Sebastian Bach–that threw it off. The first piece, the Copeland, was so devoid of any rhythm (which of course is Copeland’s style) that I believe it would be impossible for the dancers to dance precisely together in ensemble. Maybe it was the lighting, which left many of the dancers literally in the dark on the edges of the stage, and which added an odd pink glow to hands and feet that made me wonder if someone had slipped some LSD into my lemon bar during intermission. Perhaps it was merely the placement of the piece, following two more literal interpretations of the poetry. Had it been placed first, or had it been simply placed before the spectacular Henry/Ammon collaboration, would I have liked it more? I think yes. But as I’ve written before, I don’t go to the ballet to think, to figure, to understand. I do enough of that in my workday. I go to be entertained. Had I not heard strong negative opinions of this piece from others in the audience, I might think that my taste is simply more cotton candy than what Godden’s piece offered.
Somewhere in the piece, a sparkly book, wielded by the brilliant Meredith Strathmeyer, suggests a book of knowledge, the kama sutra perhaps. But I never get the significance. At one point, she teases her male partner (I really need to get to know all of their names, forgive me) by holding the book between her knees, and when he removes it, her legs fall open suggestively. She is pure temptation, yes. At another moment, a female dancer is wheeled to the back of the stage in a wheelchair, holding a blue balloon. Mr. Franklin stands across from her in a bathrobe. He kneels and lights many candles on a cake. The ensemble runs out on a darkened stage and blows them out. I didn’t get it.
There are some moments of beauty and choreographic loveliness in the piece. Ms. Strathmeyer has a beautiful solo, and when I watch her dance I can’t help but agree with my own theory that true grace in dance originates in the collarbones and shoulders. Other strong moments: when Ms. Towles advances slowly across the stage pushing her feet in perfect turnout, extending a leg behind her with a deeply arched back into arabesque; when a male dancer is held, then dropped, by a succession of the female dancers, until he falls on his own from Ms. Towles’ embrace, again and again, and then she catches him. There are times when we are only cruel to each other in love, and then … and then someone comes along to teach us gentleness again. We relearn to trust and hope that such relearning happens but once.
Unfortunately, imagine me, imagine you took the wind out of the rest of the program. I didn’t hate it: it simply didn’t work as well as the other collaborations. Having had a conversation with Mr. Godden a week before the performance, I had really wanted to like it.
“Delving into (the project) was a phenomenal adventure,” Mr. Godden said at the preview event. “I wanted to understand (Rothman). He spoke the way I spoke, and he spoke the way I hear myself thinking. I kept reading his poems … and I finally came to realize that many of the poems had something really incredible to them, or something really sad, or some kind of loss, and then everything turns … and you can see the day and all of its beauty.”
Love. a joint venture is a lesson in the fact that not every experiment works. Even in its difficulty, the Godden/Rothman collaboration makes the others shine even more. I hope that Ammon continues to take such creative risks. The dance world is better for it. And so am I.
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