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.

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Nutcracker and New Pieces are part of 2015-16 Ballet Arkansas season

BA_Visions_PromoImageWhile it is only the start of July, cultural institutions are already focused on their 2015-2016 seasons.  This is especially true for Ballet Arkansas, which has its first event on August 22nd.

Ballet Arkansas starts off with the second annual Visions Choreographic Competition to be held in the Center for Performing Arts at UALR on August 22nd at 7:00pm. Thirty-one emerging choreographers from around the country competed for five spots in this competition of which the winner will receive a commission to create a complete new work on Ballet Arkansas’s company dancers for their 2016 spring show. Selected choreographers include Boston Ballet’s Boyko Dossev, former Houston Ballet’s and current University of Oklahoma dance faculty member Ilya Kozadayev, former Ballet West and Visceral Dance Chicago’s Tom Mattingly, former Pacific Northwest Ballet’s Barry Kerollis and Post: Ballet’s Aidan DeYoung.  The guest judge for Visions is Glenn Edgerton, Artistic Director for Hubbard Street Dance in Chicago. Tickets for Visions will go on sale July 1st on the Ballet Arkansas website.

BA_Nutcracker_PromoImage 2In December, Ballet Arkansas joins forces with the Arkansas Symphony Orchestra to present the  annual holiday ballet, Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker at the Maumelle Performing Arts Center.  With music provided by the Arkansas Symphony Orchestra, a cast of 200+ youth and adult dancers from the central Arkansas area, professional guest artists and featuring Ballet Arkansas professional company members, The Nutcracker will continue its tradition as a holiday must-see. The Nutcracker performance week includes student matinees for statewide school groups on December 10 & 11, along with the four public performances on December 11, 12 and 13th.  Tickets for The Nutcracker will go on sale in early September on the Arkansas Symphony Orchestra’s website.

BA_UndertheLights_PromoImageOn May 20-22, 2016 Ballet Arkansas will present its annual spring mixed-repertory show,  Under the Lights at the Arkansas Repertory Theatre. This year’s show contains an eclectic group of works of various dance styles including Nashville Ballet dancer Chris Stuarts’ Under the Lights set to Johnny Cash songs including “Walk the Line” and “Jackson”.  This show also features a world premier of a Kiyon Gaines work and Group Therapy, a comedy ballet created for Hubbard Street Dance Chicago by Harrison McEldowney and the expanded Visions winning choreography. Ballet Arkansas is also delighted to announce that itwill again be performing a George Balanchine work, Glinka Pas de Trois. Tickets will go on sale in early fall on the Arkansas Repertory Theatre’s website.

Ballet Arkansas also announced that it has engaged Kiyon Gaines, recently retired Pacific Northwest Ballet soloist, to a 3-year Resident Choreographer Contract.  He choreographed Bolero for the 2013-2014 season.  In addition, Laura Hood Babcock has been named the new ballet mistress.  She worked with Ballet Arkansas last season on the Balanchine Who Cares?  Michael Bearden is the Artistic Director and Karen Bassett is the Executive Director.

On Their Toes – Ballet Arkansas announces 2015-2016 season

BalletArkOn April 17 through 19, Ballet Arkansas will conclude the 2014-2015 season with Who Cares? featuring choreography by George Balanchine and music by George Gershwin.

Not content to rest on their laurels, they have announced their 2015-2016 season.

The season will kick off on August 22 with the second Visions Choreographic Competition.  Several choreographers will be invited to create dance pieces which will be performed that night.  A panel of experts and the audience will select a winner. The winner will be developed further and performed in the spring of 2016.
The annual Nutcracker will take place December 11, 12 and 13 at the Maumelle Performing Arts Center.  (It will return to the re-opened Robinson Center Music Hall in December 2016).
The spring show will be titled Under the Lights and will be at The Rep on May 20-22. Under the Lights is the show’s headline piece set to Johnny Cash music. It was premiered in Nashville recently and now comes full circle to the state of Cash’s birth and boyhood.  Also on the bill for that evening is Glinka Pas de Trois by George Balanchine and Group Therapy by Harrison McEldowney which is a very funny piece.  In addition there will be two new pieces being performed.  Kiyon Gaines, who choreographed a new version of Bolero performed by Ballet Arkansas recently will be back in his first year as the company’s resident choreographer. He will create a new work for a world premiere. The other new piece will be the Visions winner.
Michael Bearden is the Artistic Director of Ballet Arkansas; Karen Bassett serves as Executive Director; Marla Edwards is the Ballet Mistress and Ballet Arkansas Youth Division Director; and Erin Anson is Company & Production Manager.