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Monday, April 2, 2012

Eyes Wet and Mouth Agape

Milwaukee Ballet's Spring Series of Contemporary Dance

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Milwaukee Ballet's Spring Series of contemporary dance was meant to appeal to a range of tastes. I found the new works—The Last Glass by Matthew Neenan of Philadelphia's BalletX from 2010, and Extremely Close by Alejandro Cerrudo of Hubbard Street Dance Chicago from 2009—to be entirely remarkable. Lila York's celebrated Celts, created in 1996 and presented here in 2003, seemed old-fashioned by comparison, but there was plenty to enjoy about the dancing.

The fraught, plaintive songs of the indie-rock group Beirut inspired the demanding choreography of Neenan's The Last Glass and supported the tender-brutal relationships, desolation and hurt love it portrays. 
Surreal group passages (an intoxicated carnival parade? a Breugel painting? a ferocious parody of commercial music videos?) framed heightened but realistic portraits of young humans in extremis.  It wasn't to everyone's taste, but I was among a sizable number who leapt up to cheer at the end.

Courtney Kramer played a vain girl given consummate attention by an obsessive Petr Zahradnicek, and perilously drawn to a controlling modern caveman, played effectively by Isaac Sharratt. 
He, in turn, was the catcher in a virtual trapeze act in which his endangered girlfriend Valerie Harmon was completely dependent, Brandon Funk and Janel Meindersee played a troubled couple together and apart.

Marc Petrocci took himself to his formidable limits, which sometimes seem not to exist. As terrified drug addict alone on that enormous stage, he tore the place up. 
Rachel Malehorn was just as good as his self-immolating caregiver. David Hovhannisyan played a ghost turned magnificently corporeal in a sensuous duet with his aching widow, played by Kara Bruzina in an outstanding performance.

The white feathers that covered the black floor in Cerrudo's Extremely Close were too big for pillow stuffing. They must have been angel feathers. 
Heaven knows what to make of the gliding white walls that served up, wiped away, framed and supported the excellent dancers, but the effect was gorgeous.  Kramer, Malehorn and Petrocci were joined by Alexandre Ferreira, Susan Gartell, Ryan Martin, Nicole Teague and Mengjun Chen, all dressed in black, the exposed flesh of arms, legs and chest gleaming in muscular counterpoint. Rhapsodic piano music by Philip Glass and Dustin O'Halloran created a fragile, fervent atmosphere. The ballet ended in an unusually intimate (mouth to mouth) duet suggesting love and death, danced to perfection by Ferreira and Teague.  More than one audience member was left with eyes wet and mouth agape.

Celts gave us a cadre of dancers in Balanchine-like columns performing unison ballet versions of the hops and fast footwork of traditional Irish dance to traditional Irish music.  Martin was the star among a cast of twenty-seven, but the role didn't offer him much.  It's a flashy display of muscles and speed with no point but to impress. That he did.  Each of his solos was met with warm applause.

In featured roles, Gartell and Hovhannisyan perhaps represented ancient Celtic royalty. Perfectly matched, they danced with serene authority, executing lovely difficult lifts. Hovhannisyan's negotiations with gravity were characteristically uncanny. Gartell was as beautiful and commanding as I've ever seen her.


With a major role in each of the evening's ballets, Courtney Kramer had a great night. I marvel at her stamina and fearless commitment to the range of roles. 
Each was fully conceived.  In Celts, she was a joyous youthful free spirit.  Her partner was Matt Frain in a dynamic performance that bodes well for his future.  Frain was also part of the evening's silliest sequence, which offered the male company as Irish gladiators battling in crimson loincloths.  Its pleasures were undeniable.