Tag Archives: Shane Ballard

Company SBB Takes to ZOOM and the Outdoors

Review: Company SBB at Duke Performances’ Show Must Go Online

By Perry Tannenbaum

Company SBB narrowly missed me in 2018 when they decided to tour the Spoleto Festival in Italy instead of Spoleto Festival USA. If the company founded by Stefanie Batten Bland had turned south instead of east from their New York HQ, my first encounter with them would have given me a more typical sampling of the Jerome Robbins Award winner’s work as a dancer and choreographer. On their recent appearance with Duke Performances, rebranded for the pandemic as their “Show Must Go Online” series, Company SBB veered away from stage presentation in both of their new pieces.

“Mondays at Two” gathered its dancers onto the ZOOM platform, building upon the troupe’s weekly meetings with additional footage shot by individual dancers, in imaginative – often surreal – TikTok fashion. “Currents” liberated us from the confines of the SBB dancers’ webcams and cellphone cameras, taking us outdoors to a secluded stream in upstate New York, where a trio of dancers, including Batten Bland, were part of a cinematic design that was ominously surreal and naturally serene.

Batten Bland’s relaxed webcast introductions not only yielded useful insights on the works that followed but also offered us hints and glimpses of how she inspires her dancers. “Mondays at Two” began with the sort of ZOOM tableau we’ve become accustomed to during our prolonged lockdowns, only instead of crosstalk between 18 participants, there was music by Paul Damian Hogan. Warmups no longer happened haphazardly on a studio floor or on ballet barres against walls and mirrors. In a ZOOM universe, dancers mostly limbered up close to their webcams, stretching their necks or rapidly bobbing their heads so that multiple waves of hair dotted the screen. The claustrophobic confinement of ZOOM meetings was quickly established, humorously followed by stillness, dejection, and undisguised boredom. We could all commiserate.

If dance under normal circumstances explores the possibilities and meanings of motion, it was clear that, in creating her pieces during quarantined pandemic conditions, Batten Bland also wished to convey the sheer preciousness of movement. While all her other dancers slouched, moped, or blankly stared at their monitors, one of the screens in the second row lit up yellow along its frame, inevitably grabbing our attention. The dancer who owned that screen, Claire Gieringer, clearly relished the attention, for the busy eye-catching scene that filled her screen was revealed to be a cellphone as she drew it away from her webcam. At that point, there was a doubled “through the looking glass” reveal sucking us in: we were rushed into the dancer’s bedroom while we zoomed into the dancer’s screen until it was the only screen, all the ZOOM frames stripped away.

Now there was a succession of privately filmed and edited videos from the dancers, individually or in pairs. In-production and post-production editing created assorted surreal effects, and occasionally multiple videos from multiple sources were juxtaposed. Prevailing themes among the dancers’ videos were walls, halls, and doors. One dancer trembled before a formidable double- or triple-locked front door, another writhed and danced against her door, while yet another dancer emerged from a closet into her partner’s bedroom. One of the cellphones was propped inside a drawer or storage nook, yielding a similar feel as a dancer peered in.

Perspectives were often strange and unique as the experiences of cabin fever and confinement were explored. Only in the final sequence, filmed by a middle-aged couple, did anybody venture outside – even then, the excursion was brief and plagued with distrust. The turning back of the male partner to the anxious female partner waiting at the front door circled us back to the full troupe on their ZOOM screens. They could have been kissing us or each other goodbye as we faded out, but the meaning of their parting moues was ambiguous.

While “Current” took us outdoors, neither the weather nor the mood was sunny. Jean Claude Dien’s cinematography left the opening sequence a bit cryptic, for he was expecting us to notice the falling of a single yellow leaf – the preciousness of motion – against a relatively vast forest scene. Unlike Gieringer’s antics, the falling leaf could be overlooked, though the principle was the same: a small spot of activity amid a vast surrounding stillness. We cut to a leaf, presumably that leaf, as it floated downstream until it collided with the arm of Jennifer Payán, lying motionless in the shallow water.

Soon we had a shot of a canoe adrift on the stream and then a gloomier cliffside scene along the shore, where the three dancers performed individually or collectively, never really connecting or acknowledging each other’s presence. In the dim light near the cliff, movements seemed particularly anguished, desperate, and despairing. The dancers’ wide-eyed blankness put me in mind of how the insane Renfield is usually portrayed onstage in productions of Dracula. Joining Payán in these eerie revels was Batten Bland and Oluwadamilare Ayorinde. Neither of the women’s full, silky dresses, designed by Shane Ballard, was especially intended for camping or canoeing, and Ayorinde’s outfit, pants and vest cut from a khaki-colored tweed, was more suited for a night on an urban street than an afternoon on a lonely stream.

As the camera repositioned and we saw the dancers positioned in front of the stream, movement became more dazed. Batten Bland was the most inert, seemingly catatonic. When his tempo quickened, Hogan’s music came to the forefront of the cinematic concept as the dancers began shaking and trembling. Intercut with this suddenly spasmodic choreography, we saw shots of the rushing water, and the sound of the water suddenly became prominent in the soundscape, hushed as suddenly as it was unleashed. More spasmodic action and quicker cuts ensued as the drumbeat reached the apex of its crescendo.

All three dancers were shown individually in the water – luxuriating, lazing, or warily hunting – or collectively huddled onshore, still emotionally disconnected from one another, perhaps too enervated to connect. As if all we had seen since the opening sequence had been a flashback, the music and the action subsided. The pace of the water’s flow was greater now than before, and we saw more leaves going with the flow. At last, the leaves led us back to the dancers, all recumbent in the shallow water, as lifeless as before. Rather than morbidly fatalistic, the lingering impression was of a lyrical beauty, of a place where nature’s eternal cycles prevail.

“Beyond the Mint” Crosses the Street for Inspiration

Review: Charlotte Ballet’s Innovative Works: Beyond the Mint

By Perry Tannenbaum

Dispersal

Programmatic works seem to come more readily to choreographers than to symphonic composers. For many who love the art of dance, a ballet without a story to tell isn’t a ballet at all. So it’s natural, while choreographers at Charlotte Ballet search for music for their dancers, they’re also in quest of stories, ideas, and images to give their works added edge.

In her three seasons as artistic director at Charlotte Ballet, Hope Muir has enriched this collaboration by formally reaching out to other organizations in town – including UNC Charlotte, who collaborated on last season’s Innovative Works program, Shakespeare Reinvented, with two of their distinguished professors of literature. Surrounded by two neighboring museums at Knight Theater, where they are the resident company, it’s completely logical for Muir to reach out now to one of them for new inspiration – across the lobby to the Bechtler Museum of Modern Art or across the street to the Mint Museum Uptown.

The title of this year’s Innovative, Beyond the Mint, spells out her choice. Three choreographers have visited the Mint Uptown and soaked in their current exhibition, Immersed in Light, an installation of five works by Studio Drift, an influential Dutch studio established by Ralph Nauta and Lonneke Gordijn in 2007. Inspired by “Franchise Freedom” and “In Twenty Steps,” Chelsea Dumas created Journey Home. Christopher Stuart took his cue for Dispersal from “Fragile Future 3,” while Duane Cyrus was more general in citing the basis for his Colony of Desire, quoting the exhibit’s mission statement: “creating a dialogue between opposites, exploring the relationship between nature, technology, and mankind.”

Chelsea Dumas_Journey Home_Peter Mazurowski & Elizabeth Truell_Photo by Taylor Jones[1]

All three of the choreographies were certainly satisfying, but Dumas’ seemed to fulfill Muir’s objectives best, drawing the most from the Immersed in Light exhibition. Taking her cue from “Franchise Freedom,” she sought to juxtapose the freedom of the individual with the safety and security provided by a group, while “In Twenty Steps” prompted her to visualize the group like formations of birds in flight.

Costumes by Anna De La Cour had the spare simplicity and uniformity of futuristic sci-fi cults we often see skewered in movies and TV, while the John P. Woodey lighting design carved out the boundaries of two realms at the McBride-Bonnefoux Center for Dance: the circumscribed area of the individual, Peter Mazurowki, and the territory of the group, seven other dancers. Writhing around on the studio floor in his egg-shaped area, Mazurowki could hardly be described as comfortable or happy in his own little world, but you could construe Dumas’ sequence of movements as a birth of sorts.

Only Elizabeth Truell separates herself from the group, and only she traverses the divide between and the group. Yes, she invades Mazurowki’s space – his discomfort zone? – and coaxes him out of his isolation, but there’s little that is human in her efforts and nothing sexual or alluring. Truell’s actions are a pathway to joining the flock and an invitation to flight. Music by Philip Glass seems apt for this chaste avian action, but there are mellower moments when the score shifts to a track by composer Mark Yaeger and cellist Gautier Capuçon. Amid the flattery and fluttering that engulf Mazurowki, it’s obvious that there is tension – and a yearning to return to his former solitude.

Stuart told the opening night crowd at the post-performance talkback that he had worked on Dispersal for a mere 18 days and that he had called back to Nashville, where he is established as the resident choreographer of Nashville Ballet, for Christina Spinei to compose the music. Maybe because the choreography was so rushed, Woodey’s lighting and Katherine Zywczyk’s costumes seemed more spot-on in capturing the dandelions of “Fragile Future 3” and the floating essence of dandelion seeds. Relying heavily on pas de deux for four couples, Stuart seemed to be tugging against his Dispersal concept and a vision of their epic journeying.

Yet the couples and the composer certainly weren’t tugging against each other or Spinei’s original music. Sarah Hayes Harkins paired with Colby Foss, followed by Alessandra Ball James partnered with Josh Hall, displayed the kind of mutual trust and simpatico that takes time to develop. These couples, with their individuality and chemistry, surely helped shape the choreography and infuse the new music with their unique imprint. They are also, no doubt, motivating the newer couples – Juwan Alston with Amelia Sturt-Dilley, as well as Maurice Mouzon Jr. and newcomer Nadine Barton – to develop a comparable rapport.

Although his concept was the most abstract of the three choreographers, untethered to any specific work at the Studio Drift installation, Cyrus in collaboration with Emmy Award-winning costume designer Shane Ballard has produced the most exciting of the new Innovative Works – and arguably the work that goes furthest “beyond the Mint.”

Colony of Desire

Utilizing five men and three women, going from white to black costumes late in his piece, Cyrus’s give-and-take with opposites was not at all concerned with symmetry. Nor were Ballard’s glamorously bizarre costumes with their military silhouettes. No tidy pairings here, either. Foss is as likely to lift a man as a woman, emerging once again as the guy who does the splits. Unlike the other two choreographers, Cyrus takes a strong hand in conceiving the set, joining John Tringas in the scenic design to frame the splashy entrances that climax his scenario. Woodey adds drama to these entrances, widening the spectrum of his lighting design with orange, green, and violet after Ballard’s black costumes appear.

Cyrus is no less restless in the dance idioms he uses, as likely to pillage hiphop vocabulary as classic ballet moves. The soundtrack ranged from the contemporary beats of Angus Tarnawsky and Jonboyondabeat to the choral chants of David Lang. In contrast with Dumas’ superb synthesis and transmutation, Cyrus worked his wonders in a spirit of adventure and experimentation – plus a dash of showmanship.