REVIEW: Ballet Spartanburg Shakes It Up in Four New Pieces that Champion the Power of Women

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BY SANDY STAGGS
ARTS CRITIC

Ballet Spartanburg celebrated International Women’s Month this weekend with two tantalizing performances of its 9th annual Dansynergy program of original works that integrate dance with other art disciplines.

“Celebrating the Power of Women” featured four new ballets inspired by both real and mythological figures from American poet and author Sylvia Platt to Mexican painter Frida Kahlo and local poet Elizabeth Cox to the legend of Pandora.

Company member Analay Saiz danced the role of Pandora in a ballet choreographed by Michelle Thompson Ulerich to an original score composed by Damien Simon for this momentous event. Taken from the Greek myth about the first woman on earth, Pandora is presented to mankind by Zeus, played by guest artist and local actor Alastair Mann, who, though not a professional dancer, has a sinewy build and pleasant form that blended right in with the pros.

Basked with gifts by a trio of gods and goddesses — clothing by Nichola Montt as Athena, beauty, of course, from Dominique Green’s Aphrodite and speech from Meghan Lohman’s Hermes — Pandora is also presented a box (a human vessel) that Zeus warns never to open.

Simon’s brooding musical vignettes featured heavy woodwind (flute, oboe, clarinet) as Pandora first experiences the world (and the open arms of Will Scott’s Epimetheus) like a newborn Pinocchio, and morphs into a dramatic crescendo of cello and harp and riveting rhythmic pulses that reminded me of the post-wedding movement from the score of the film “Muriel’s Wedding.” But like Eve, Pandora’s temptation is too great and she opens the box and unleashes the evils of the world as a quintet of dancers in Melissa Kimbrell’s fiery red costumes rain down pestilence, death and war in a scene reminiscent of Dante’s Hell. But the resilience of humankind prevails and Hope perseveres.

Ballet Mistress Lona Gomez based her ballet “I am, I am, I am” on Sylvia Plath’s Roman à clef novel “The Belle Jar” in what was the most illustrious, moving dance of the evening. Nichola Montt brutally conveyed the tortured poet’s severe mental crisis as she physically attempted to excise the demons from her head and escape from the bowels of depression. In a serene pas de deux with Will Scott as her husband and fellow poet Ted Hughes, Montt emotionally displayed Plath’s pain and disenchantment with the restraints of opportunity placed on women in the early 1960s, as Analay Saiz hauntingly moved in and out of the ballet as a sort of inner doppelgänger. Platt’s suicide made her a martyr for the feminist movement, and this point is pummeled home delicately but with bravado, all set fittingly to the Philip Glass score from “The Hours,” which was also used in Ms. Gomez’s “Passages” last year albeit a different movement.  And just as the film portrays the tragedy of Virginia Woolf who took her life in an Ophelia-like act of drowning, Gomez’s work here captures Plath’s madness, boldly and efficiently.

In the program’s most ambitious and truly synergized, collaborative piece, Artistic Director Carolos Agudelo mounted a mesmerizing, lyrical dance inspired by a poem penned by local educator and poet Elizabeth Cox, author of several novels including “A Question of Mercy,” “Familiar Ground” and “Slow Moon,” among others.

Opening with a black-and-white film (by Julie Sexeny) of Ms. Cox reciting “I Have Told You” with music by Glass, Scott Robbins, Joshua Bell and local actor/composer and Hub Bub assistant director Tim Giles, “I Have Told You” featured the full Corps de Ballet and ten students from the company’s Center for Dance Education in an airy ballet of lightness and grace that celebrates the poem’s resounding affirmation of nature and the simple pleasures in life.

Featuring the visions of two artists Kim Matthews and Susan Floyd (one of the artists in the “Lighten Up Spartanburg” project), the visually-stunning dance was dramatized by Joseph Walls’ lighting and a trio of paintings and a series of three-dimensional sculptures of spiky pods from a sweet gum tree. Both modern and steeped in classical ballet, Agudelo’s unique perspective lead the troupe to fantasia-like frolicking and pyramid formations that bravely and atypically faced the backdrops upstage instead of the audience.

But the most anticipate ballet on the Dansynergy program was “Frida” based on the life of celebrated Mexican artist Frida Kahlo. The genius behind two U.S. premieres last year of “Largotempo” and “24/7,” Cuban choreographer Nelson Reyes, sets her agonizing story to the music of Yo-Yo Ma, Chavela Vargas and the great Lila Downs (who was featured prominently in the Julie Taymor biopic “Frida”).

Will Scott, in the role of famed muralist Diego Rivera, worships both her beauty and her art (in a series of projected stills of Kahlo’s self-portraits) in the first movement, while Ms. Montt (sans unibrow) as the young Frida dances and rejoices with her friends (Analay Saiz and Meghan Loman).

Adorned in beautiful corsets inspired by Kahlo’s works and painted by artist Guayo Sosa, and traditional folklorico skirts, and flowers in their hair, the ladies embraced youth and vitality to the sounds of Mexican/Spanish guitar. And Ms. Montt stridently conveyed the emotions of her heart floating about just like it did in many of Kahlo’s surrealist paintings.

Reyes blends traditional folklorico steps with more seductive movements that embrace the couple’s passion in very literal terms; at one point the men lifted their partners on their shoulders in a very provocative position and danced blindly while the skirts covered their faces. This was not “The Little Mermaid” folks.

And Reyes ingeniously incorporated the costumes in the movement as well, with Mr. Scott and Will Robichaud dragging their partners by their shawls and even swinging their ladies around. The narrative was spiced further when Ms. Montt flirted with Dominique Guerra as photographer Tina Modotti in a tango-esque stance and later courtsed communist writer Leon Trotsky (Will Robichaud).

A patron sitting behind me remarked during the intermission that she didn’t see the “power” in the title of women. Sadly, she seems to have missed the whole point.

Production manager for “Dansynergy 9” was Spartanburg Little Theatre’s Peter Lamson with Bethany Lancaster on the lighting board and Martin Aigner on sound.

Get you tickets now for the company’s final presentation in its historic 50th season, “An American in Paris,” a new full-length ballet choreographed by Mr. Agudelo and presented April 21-22 at the Chapman Cultural Center, 200 E. St. John St. in Spartanburg. Call (864) 583-0339 or visit www.balletspartanburg.org.

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