There is no art form better suited to expressing romantic love than classical ballet. And in “Wild Sweet Love,” Grand Rapids Ballet’s glorious season opener, the company shows its range and skill as an ensemble as well as tremendous individual artists exploring the many facets of romance and ballet itself.
This is new Artistic Director James Sofranko’s first program of his tenure with the company. He comes to Grand Rapids after 18 years with San Francisco Ballet as a principal dancer, and his vision clearly informs the program — expressed in the program notes: “a strong and diverse repertory that nods to the past while continually pushing the art form forward is . . . a key to a robust and successful ballet company.”
The show opens with George Balanchine’s neo-classical work “Allegro Brillante,” a quietly thrilling 12-minute dance, that in trademark Balanchine style, utterly exalts the feminine with his signature speed and agility. Four male-female couples make up the clean, bold corps de ballet, and are led by exquisite principal dancers Yuka Oba and Branden Reiners. The women are especially expressive in their port de bras, the men leap and twirl to great heights with the cleanest of beats, and Oba’s lighting-quick chene turns give way to her melting in Reiners’ arms in a dramatic solo that embodies the wild mood swings of love.
It sets the tone wonderfully for what’s to come. A nod to the recent past, a great tradition of the art form, with graceful long, flowing, pastel tutus, and set to Tchaikovsky, it’s deeply romantic with a touch of realness.
In stark contrast to this more traditional ballet, “Wild Sweet Love,” a modern-influenced 2007 premiere from sought-after American choreographer Trey McIntyre, goes for the jugular of the mood swings of romantic love through the jubilance, fury and violence, as well as the heartbreak of marriage. Set to a variety of contemporary pop and rock music, including familiar songs from Queen, Lou Reed, Roberta Flack, The Partridge Family, and The Zombies, a narrative emerges from a traditional bride dressed in a white tulle dress and gloves, who is joined by other brides, and ostensibly, their grooms dressed in what look like tennis whites.
Wonderfully fun and athletic, with acrobatics and tumbling, the dance is characterized by interesting movements, such as awe-inducing lifts and leaps with the women straddling the men's necks. Throughout the piece at various moments a cast of 15 marches behind a scrim and break into a run, as if trying to escape the institution that binds them.
Soloist Cassidy Isaacson is a tour de force as the original bride who undergoes a metamorphosis, presenting an extraordinarily emotional journey from start to finish, ending with an unforgettable tableau—she rises like a phoenix held up by the ensemble who lifts and surrounds her, fluffing her tutu, and then she disappears like a puff of smoke down the center—that communicates volumes.
“Ghost Light,” from Grand Rapids Ballet’s resident choreographer, the creator of last spring’s smashing “The Happy Prince & Other Wilde Tales,” is perhaps the most innovative dance of the program. Both light-hearted and shot through with a dark Victorian aesthetic, a woman, bare legged and dressed in a strapless evening gown and gloves, peers beyond a ghost light down stage left, and is danced and dragged in a sensual, creepy way by three men. When she leaves the stage the music and dynamic changes, and the trio of the men become blissful and percussive in a delightful series of solos and pas de trois.
A planned performance of Petipa’s “Pas de Deux from Le Corsaire" most notably danced by Rudolf Nureyev would have rounded out the classical portion of the program, but was unfortunately canceled due to injury. Such is the reality of live performance of a living art form.
To which Sofranko nods toward in his program notes. His “Ballade,” a world premiere, is more classical than modern in style, though it leaves room for more moodiness than the plastered smiles of “Allegro Brillante.” Set to Dvorák, two beautifully paired couples, offer two very different visions of love relationships: one buoyant, one temperamental and tempestuous. In the latter, she clutches him and he throws her off; she pulls away; they move in isolation, then end twirling in a spot light. It’s a lovely dance, especially so given the talents of Gretchen Steimle and Ednis Gomez as well as Alexandra Mester-Upleger and Nathan Young together; however, nestled amid the other dances feels somewhat downplayed.
But all of these dances together create a gorgeous program to kick off Grand Rapids Ballet’s season, celebrating — with surprising depth — romance, the complex human experience that though inexplicable, is most gloriously represented in ballet.
Wild, Sweet, Love
Grand Rapids Ballet