Forte is finale for Ballet Arkansas 40th season

Image result for ballet arkansas forteForte, the season ender for Ballet Arkansas in many ways encapsulates the work of the company over its first 40 years.  The combination of classical and modern styles of dance performed with both live and pre-recorded accompaniment played to the company’s strengths.

(A frustration I have with ballet is that different dancers alternate roles at different performances – I want to see all of them, but I cannot attend all performances. So my comments are based solely on the performers I saw.)

The first half was “Act II” from Swan Lake. As the central couple Odette and Siegfried, Lauren Bodenheimer Hill and Zeek Wright were well-matched. During their pas de deux, they were graceful as the executed their movements.  Because it was not the full ballet, one did not get the chance to fully explore the chemistry between the couple.

The swans were beautifully attired in the classic white, feathered tutus one would expect from Swan Lake (kudos to designer/creator Callie Rew). And the ladies dancing as the birds had movements that both honored the choreography and the birds they were evoking.

The highlight was (as it usually is when considering Act II), the Danse des petits cygnes. And it did not disappoint. Meredith Short Loy, Amanda Sewell, Hannah Bradshaw and Isabelle Urben danced as one unit. But though the movements were in sync, one was aware that it was four individual dancers and not four automatons. The audience was so appreciative of their talent that it broke out into spontaneous applause at least twice during the section.

An added bonus to the Swan Lake performance was the presence of Dr. Drew Mays, the Van Cliburn winning pianist, providing live accompaniment.  Having the live music provided an additional layer of richness ot the piece.

After intermission, Tchaikovsky returned, this time by way of George Balanchine.  The “Tchaikovsky Pas De Deux” featured Paul Tillman and Meredith Short Loy. The couple exhibited true partnering. Whereas in more classical ballet, often the male dancer may be there to merely support the ballerina, in the Balanchine piece, it is a symbiotic partnership with definite interplay.  The piece allowed Tillman to showcase his graceful athleticism, while Loy displayed her elegant footwork, especially during some delicate and fast moments.  Artistic Director Michael Fothergill wisely put this moment to open the act as a transition from the pure classical piece to the works yet to come.

Fothergill’s “Forma” was next up. It was a very kinetic dance with Toby Lewellen and Amanda Sewell at the center of it. Together with Deanna Stanton, Deanna Gerde, and Isabelle Urben, the dancers employed a variety of movements often so interconnected they resembled cogs in a machine. But even with the mechanical nature of the movements, Lewellen and Sewell displayed an emotional connectivity. These were not just dancers going through the paces of executing modern movements.

The performance concluded with Ma Cong’s “Calling.” Set to music inspired by a variety of Mediterranean and lower European cultures, it put its six dancers through their paces. As the styles of music changed, the dancers changed from more brisk movements to more fluid motions.  The work allowed the dancers to showcase a variety of styles of dance without seeming like it was saying “look what else we can do.”

While the partnering of the three male dancers with their ballerina partners was nice throughout the work, what was most striking was the opening moments when it was just Zeek Wright, Paul Tillman, and Matthew Larson on stage. These three are different heights and different builds. To see them move in sync with these varied physiques was a lesson in movement. No one was overshadowing the others, but one was much more aware that these were three distinct dancers working together. Likewise when they were partnering with Lauren Bodenheimer Hill, Megan Hustel, and Lynsie Jo Ogden (respectively), the juxtaposition highlighted each dancer’s abilities.

As the latest in the long line of Ballet Arkansas leaders, Artistic Director Fothergill and Associate Artistic Director Catherine Garratt Fothergill have both honored the legacy of the past while putting their own stamp on the company.

Throughout the 2000s the company wandered through the wilderness of a revolving door of plans that, more often than not, failed to materialize. At a time it had no staff, it was held together largely due to the grit and determination of Jana Beard, her daughter Allison Stodola Wilson, a few supporters, and an annual presentation of The Nutcracker. Emerging from that cocoon, the company now has a presence on Main Street. It is pleasing to see the Fothergills build on the work of Beard and recent artistic director Michael Bearden to launch Ballet Arkansas into a new level.

(Ballet Arkansas’ emergence as a full-fledged professional dance company is complemented by the burgeoning dance program at UA Little Rock. It is kismet that these two tracks are happening parallel considering that both programs were coincidentally at their nadirs in the early 2000s.)

Completing their second season of leadership, the Fothergills have expanded Ballet Arkansas’ number of performances, number of dancers, and community outreach. In so doing, they have forged new partnerships and unsurprisingly attracted new patrons.  But they have not let the quest for “the new” move them away from the core mission. After forty years, Ballet Arkansas is focused now, more than ever, on providing quality ballet performances and experiences to audiences throughout Arkansas.

Under the Lights raises the barre for Ballet Arkansas

UndertheLights_ProgramCover_27july2015a-183x300Ballet Arkansas’ 2015-16 season concludes with the concert Under the Lights, currently on stage at the Arkansas Repertory Theatre through Sunday, May 22. In what has become a hallmark of Artistic Director Michael Bearden’s leadership, it offers an eclectic mix of styles of dance and music which not only highlight the strengths of the dancers, but also allow the dancers to push themselves in new directions.

The concert takes its name from Chris Stuart’s Under the Lights, which is set to the music of Johnny Cash. Created for Nashville Ballet, this piece receives its Arkansas premiere just one hour north of Cash’s birthplace in Kingsland. Being the scion of a longtime Cleveland County family, I grew up listening to Cash’s music. I approached this piece with a great deal of excitement, but also wondering exactly how ballet would meld with Cash. The answer is, they fuse very well.

Ballet is, at its heart, about expression. So are Cash’s songs. At Ballet Arkansas’ performances, the songs are performed live by Sugar + the Hi-Lows, which played them in the premiere. The central dancer, in black of course, is Toby Lewellen. He does not try to mimic Cash in any way, but instead combines lyricism and athleticism as he leads the company in “Walk the Line.” He and Amanda Sewell partner nicely on the piece’s penultimate song, “I’ve Got You Covered.

Deanna Karlheim and Paul Tillman perform a pas de deux to “Ring of Fire” which captures the raw longing of that song. Megan Hustel leads the company in a poignant “Hurt.”

After all the emotions of the piece, it ends in the joyous “Jackson” which allows each of the dancers a moment to showcase their talents. This is no balletic hoedown with forced folksiness; it is a true “let down your hair” moment of release for the dancers at the end of the piece and of the concert.

The concert starts with George Balanchine’s Glinka Pas de Trois which featured Justin Rustle, Megan Hustel and Lauren Bodenheimer at Friday evening’s performance. This 1955 piece requires the dancers to show not only classical ballet training, but also speed and subtle movements which are more inspired by modern dance. The three dancers perform alone and in various combinations. Intricate and challenging, the three dancers were up to the task.

Harrison McEldowney’s Group Therapy was an audience favorite. The four couples portrayed different sets of phobias, neuroses, or other problems. Set to pop standards of the 1930s and 1940s, each couple got a chance to display not only dancing prowess, but also a flair for comedy. In “Treat Me Rough” thankfully Toby Lewellen and Lynsie Ogden were not called upon to actually abuse each other that in this enlightened day would not be funny. But they aptly captured the on-again, off-again status of some couples with a comic edge. Justin Rustle’s uptight “Mr. Clean” was paired with Meredith Loy in a pas de deux set to Gershwin’s “Embraceable You” which was both witty but also filled with longing as Loy tried to break through Rustle’s veneer. His expert lift work was on display throughout the piece.

Megan Hustel dances not only with Tony Sewer but also with a peripatetic cigarette.   She constantly hides it from Sewer in a movement that never stops throughout the number. Sewer gets his chance to shine in a response to her, which is infused with equal parts jazz and ballet. Narcolepsy has never been so funny as when danced by Paul Tillman and Amanda Sewell in “Narcoleptic.”   Sewell goes limp in a variety of poses while Tillman tries to keep her up. This creates opportunities to show the gracefulness and strength of both dancers as Sewell sweeps and Tillman juggles her throughout the number.

The evening also contained two world premieres. The first, (e)motions by Ilya Kozadayev, was the winner of the 2015 Visions choreography contest. Featuring three couples, it was abstract and athletic. Yet each couple created a connection as they partnered. Deanna Karlheim and Paul Tillman, Meredith Loy and Toby Lewellen, and Lynsie Ogden and Tony Sewer, were definitely put through the paces on this piece.

Kiyon Gaines’ Memoryhaus was at its best when it created stark pictures whether it was Amanda Sewell alone in a spotlight, Paul Tillman approaching Deanna Karlheim, or the entire company dancing in unison. Its style is a blend of classical and modern, which is matched by the music of Max Richter.

Ballet Arkansas continues to be a company on the move. Less than a decade ago, the company was on life support existing to produce The Nutcracker in December. Now it is firmly establishing itself as an innovative member of Arkansas’ arts scene with a resident company which tours throughout the state. Not content to be a mediocre provincial dance troupe, Artistic Director Michael Bearden has programmed work that explores the depth and breadth of the ballet world and brings it to Arkansas.

The fact that the company has been granted permission to perform Balanchine selections two years in a row is no accident. It is a testament to the vision and hard work of Bearden and the dancers. Ballet Mistress Laura Hood Babcock and Production & Company Manager Erin Anson-Ellis aid Bearden in this effort. It is exciting to have seen dancers return over several seasons and have the opportunity to dance a variety of styles. Under the Lights is the culmination of a great deal of hard work, not only for the rehearsal process this season, but also for the company over several years.

Ballet Arkansas’ THE NUTCRACKER continues through Sunday

Celebrate the season with Ballet Arkansas, the state’s professional ballet company, as they continue a favorite Christmas tradition performing The Nutcracker accompanied by the Arkansas Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Maestro Geoffrey Robson. The Nutcracker tells the story of Clara and her magical nutcracker doll and their wondrous journey to the Land of Snow and Kingdom of Sweets.

Every year this fun filled production creates lifelong memories for hundreds of Arkansas families. With gorgeous scenery, enchanting costumes and original choreography, Ballet Arkansas opened The Nutcracker at the Maumelle Performing Arts Center last night and continues today at 2pm, tonight at 7:30pm and tomorrow at 2pm.

Under the direction of Artistic Director Michael Bearden with choreography by Ballet Mistress Laura Hood Babcock and choreographers Allison Wilson, Jana Beard, and Traci Presley, Ballet Arkansas’ Nutcracker will be the highlight of the holiday season.

Accompanied by the largest ever cast of local actors and dance students from across Arkansas, this year’s production will feature Ballet Arkansas company members Toby Lewellen, Justin Metcalf-Burton, Lauren McCarty Horak, Paul Tillman, Amanda Sewell, Lauren Bodenheimer, Deanna Karlheim, Tony Sewer, Hannah Bradshaw, Lynsie Ogden  and Meredith Loy.

This year’s guest artists include audience favorites Stephen K. Stone as Herr Drosselmeyer, Eric Harrison as Mother Ginger and Ballet Memphis’ Brandon Ramey as Arabian Prince.

The Nutcracker is the perfect yuletide gift, the ideal means of introducing children to the power and beauty of classical dance, and a delightful way for the entire family to ring in the holiday season.

Make Ballet Arkansas’ Nutcracker part of your holiday celebration this December! To purchase tickets for the December 11th, 12th or 13th public shows to The Nutcracker, visit balletarkansas.org or call 501-666-1761. Tickets range from $20-$52.

THE NUTCRACKER this weekend performed by Ballet Arkansas with music by the ASO

nutcracker_1Celebrate the season with your professional ballet company as we continue a favorite Christmas tradition performing The Nutcracker accompanied by the Arkansas Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Maestro Geoffrey Robson. The Nutcracker tells the story of Clara and her magical nutcracker doll and their wondrous journey to the Land of Snow and Kingdom of Sweets. Every year this fun filled production creates lifelong memories for hundreds of Arkansas families.

Under the direction of Artistic Director Michael Bearden with choreography by ballet mistress Marla Edwards and choreographers Allison Stodola Wilson, Jana Beard, and Traci Presley, Ballet Arkansas’ Nutcracker will be the highlight of the holiday season. Accompanied by the largest ever cast of local actors and dance students from across Arkansas, this year’s production will feature Ballet Arkansas company members Leslie Dodge, Toby Lewellen, Justin Metcalf-Burton, Lauren McCarty Horak, Paul Tillman, Amanda Sewell, Lauren Bodenheimer, Deanna Karlheim, Megan Hustel, Tony Sewer, Hannah Bradshaw and apprentice Georgia Quinn. This year’s guest artists include audience favorites UALR professor Stephen K. Stone as Herr Drosselmeyer and Eric Harrison as Mother Ginger, Tom Mattingly appearing courtesy of Visceral Dance as Cavalier opposite Leslie Dodge as the Sugar Plum Fairy and Colin Hathaway appearing courtesy of Ballet West as Snow King opposite Megan Hustel and in Arabian.

The Nutcracker is the perfect yuletide gift, the ideal means of introducing children to the power and beauty of classical dance, and a delightful way for the entire family to ring in the holiday season. Make Ballet Arkansas’ Nutcracker part of your holiday celebration this December! To purchase tickets for the December 12th, 13th or 14th public shows to The Nutcracker, visit balletarkansas.org or call 501-666-1761. Tickets range from $20-$52.

Performances began last night and continue today at 2pm and 7:30pm and tomorrow at 2pm.  This year The Nutcracker is being performed at the Maumelle Performing Arts Center.

Ballet Arkansas’ THE NUTCRACKER this weekend

One of the sure signs of the Christmas season is the return of The Nutcracker to ballet companies across America.  Ballet Arkansas presents the annual production this weekend.  Performances started last night and continue this evening and tomorrow afternoon.  (School performances are going on throughout the week.)

Celebrate the season with your professional ballet company as we continue a favorite Christmas tradition performing The Nutcracker accompanied by the Arkansas Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Maestro Geoffrey Robson. Every year this fun field production creates lifelong memories for hundreds of Arkansas families. With gorgeous scenery, enchanting costumes and original choreography, Ballet Arkansas will present The Nutcracker at Robinson Center Music Hall.

The ballet will come to life through the efforts of Ballet Arkansas’ ten professional company members and a handful of guest artists leading two casts totaling more than 200 dancers, actors and students (of all ages) from across the state.

Ballet Arkansas is under the leadership of Artistic Director Michael Bearden and Executive Director Lauren Strother.  Marla Edwards is the Ballet Mistress.  Company members include Lauren McCarty Horak, Leslie Dodge, Toby Lewellen, Amanda Sewell, Laurel Dix, Katchiri Feys Tillman, Paul Tillman, Lauren Bodenheimer, Justin Metcalf-Burton, Deanna Karlheim and Julianne Zilah.

The Nutcracker is the perfect yuletide gift, the ideal means of introducing children to the power and beauty of classical dance, and a delightful way for the entire family to ring in the holiday season. Make Ballet Arkansas’ Nutcracker part of your holiday celebration this December! To purchase tickets to The Nutcracker, visit www.balletarkansas.org or call 501-666-1761.

Ballet Arkansas performances of The Nutcracker are generously sponsored by: Orthodontic Associates, Little Rock Convention & Visitors Bureau, Arkansas Democrat Gazette, Pleasant Ridge Towne Center, The Dance & More Store, Arkansas Times along with support from the Arkansas Arts Council.