Review: 'Contemporary Visions' Sets the Stage for a Brilliant Season of Grand Rapids Ballet

In Grand Rapids Ballet’s season opener, “Contemporary Visions”, “contemporary” refers to the once revolutionary style of dance that offers storytelling through a blend of classical ballet, jazz, lyrical, and modern dance; as well as breath and emotionality with freedom of movement and musicality; but it also speaks to this particular revolutionary cultural moment—and says it is one through which this company is walking with eyes wide open.

Indeed, with “Contemporary Visions”, Grand Rapids Ballet is not only walking the talk, they’re dancing it exquisitely.

In a nearly two-hour, all-new program of four pieces, with several world premieres, the choreography in “Contemporary Visions” was created entirely by women and artists of color, but without overtly calling attention to this fact, and the company of phenomenal dancers are a more diverse group of artists than ever. And the result is astounding. 

In his program notes Artistic Director James Sofranko wrote of the company’s commitment “to presenting world-class dance in our city” and he makes good on this promise. 

Darrell Grand Moultrie’s “Le Grand Jazz” is but one world premiere in this program, a high energy, sophisticated, multi-layered dance of pure, unadulterated joy created for the company. It blends the most precise pointe work and flashy classical ballet moves such as grand jetés, stag leaps, and piqué and fouetté turns with freestyling, flirty jazz hands, shoulder rolls, all with a sexy swagger. Full of stunning pas de deux and virtuoso performances including a final moment in which Sarah Marley, one of the night’s most dynamic performers, is lifted and twirled overhead, the dance is a grand revelation, indeed, a contemporary vision of Moultrie’s hybrid work that blends classical ballet, modern, and theatrical and street dance—and in effect embodying the project of jazz itself.

Another world premiere here comes from longtime celebrated Grand Rapids Ballet prima ballerina Yuka Oba-Muschiana in her “Land of the Gods”, a big, existential drama that envisions the ultimate rite of passage and also makes use of the entire company. Here the corps de ballet is veiled, dressed in black, and their choreography at times is percussive as they slam the ground rhythmically; they encircle two different men who each ultimately endure terrifically beautiful violence with a God figure (Josué Justiz) who comes down from a white staircase (ostensibly to heaven). Notably there is a nod to the classic “Pas de Quatre" in tableau, with four women dressed distinctly in white with bold headpieces made of large flowers. Nigel Tau dances a particularly anguished solo full of tension that results in the ultimate payoff.

Though Donald McKayle’s three solos in this program aren’t new works, they are performed together for the first time here, presented as “Spirit of Women”. Dressed in blue and green, Yuka Oba-Muschiana’s movements flow and body undulates like a tortured river set to music with lyrics from Langston Hughes’ poetry in “I’ve Known Rivers”, excerpted from McKayle’s “Suite Langston Hughes”;  Rowan Allegra is like the sun in yellow and orange in the anti-war “Johnny Has Gone For a Soldier”, excerpted from “Heartbeats”; and Sarah Marley, dressed in a gorgeous white and black lace gown, offers a gripping “Angelitos Negros” with stunning arabesques and cambres set to aching music sung by Roberta Flack and excerpted from McKayle’s heritage masterwork “Songs of the Disinherited” first performed by his Inner City Repertory Dance Company of Los Angeles in 1972. It’s a dynamic and deeply affecting call for representation: “Every time you paint a church you paint beautiful little angels/ But never have you remembered to paint a black angel . . . we also go to Heaven . . .”

Grand Rapids Ballet’s “Contemporary Visions” indeed presents “world-class dance” that is both contemporary on many fronts as well as visionary in its scope. It’s a very promising kickoff to a new season as well as to the future of this company and its art form.

Contemporary Visions
Grand Rapids Ballet
Oct. 6-8