Review: Ballet + Broadway is a Marvelous Showcase of Versatility

If there’s one thing Grand Rapids Ballet has proven in its 50-plus years, it is the company’s terrific versatility. This isn’t simply the only professional ballet company in Michigan; Grand Rapids Ballet continuously stretches the boundaries of what’s possible for magnificently classically-trained dancers to create on stage, from the lexicon of classical ballet, yes—but also beyond.

And with their latest program, “Ballet+Broadway”, they offer a marvelous range of works, from the classic of the classics to new narrative-driven choreography that’s inclusive in its accessibility, yet nothing like a storybook ballet, and just might do something no other iteration of storytelling has done before. 

Grand Rapids Ballet resident choreographer Penny Saunders has brought exciting new works to the company for years, drawing the best of the company members’ expressivity through movement as well as acting chops. However, what they achieve in her new work “Jump Cut”, originally created in 2020 on Oklahoma City Ballet but never performed because of the pandemic, is utterly bold, artful, and cinematic, an inventive period piece that speaks volumes about our current cultural climate, and brings the dancers to new artistic heights.

An homage to old Hollywood, “Jump Cut” brings the feminine glamour of yearning starlets and the sexy grit and masculinity of Westerns, mashing them up with great humor as well as the terror of the McCarthy era’s witch hunt and the ways it pitted artists and friends against one another to the end of utter destruction.

But what creates this glorious, layered storytelling is profound beauty—in the inventive choreography that includes dragging, crawling, pushing, pulling, playful slapstick, backwards somersaults and pushups, an achingly gorgeous pas de deux between cowboys, and plenty of righteous, fun swagger and extraordinary use of rotating platforms; and also in the set and lighting design that evokes mood, both symbolic and otherwise, as well as terrific style and grace. Gasps are audible from the audience during the extraordinary movement that unfolds on stage—so convincing are these moments and the dancers’ creation of distinct characters and dramatic story.

In a similar vein, choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler, celebrated for his work on Broadway for shows such as “Hamilton” and “In the Heights”, creates an utterly cinematic experience with “Remember Our Song,” a heartbreaking short story sprung to life with 13 stunning dancers that restores humanity to the horrors of war. With music from Regina Spektor as well as big band recordings from Benny Goodman and his Orchestra, young men go off to war and dance the nightmare of a submarine voyage gone terribly wrong only to give way to big swing partner dances with their beloveds they left back home dressed in festive 1940s garb designed by Lisa Zinni. It’s the juxtaposition of youthful exuberance of youth, life lived as a dream, and the nightmare of life cut short all in one. 

Also a youthful period piece though without such distinct narrative elements, George Balanchine’s 1970 homage to Gershwin, “Who Cares?”, opens the program, supplying the classical ballet portion of “Ballet+Broadway” in spades, and making marvelous use of the entire company, including apprentices and trainees. From big corps numbers (“Strike Up the Band” and “I Got Rhythm”) to really terrific character and partnering work in “S’Wonderful” to romantic pas de deux (“The Man I Love”, “Embraceable You”, “Who Cares?”) that match an exceptionally charming and debonaire Josué Justiz with Yoka Oba-Muschiana, Yuko Horisawa, and Sarah Marley, to vivacious solos from each of the aforementioned principals, this 40-minute ballet is indeed a throwback to New York City Ballet’s heyday, feeling every bit its 1970s glory with women dressed in pastel skirted leotards and men donning black pants and vests and set to recordings of Hershy Kay’s orchestrations danced against a black-and-white chalk drawing of the Manhattan skyline designed by Peter Farmer, courtesy of Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre. 

The intention of Ballet+Broadway was to “take the artistry and technique of our ballet dancers and season it with the theatricality and glamour of show business,” according to Artistic Director James Sofranko in his program note. In presenting such bold new works as well as bringing back a Balanchine classic, this fantastic show certainly achieves its intention—and also illustrates what a capable and versatile company they are, and the heights to which they can leap as both dancers and actors when given exciting new choreography as well as tried and true classics.

Ballet + Broadway
Peter Martin Wege Theatre
April 21-30