In the final moments of Grand Rapids Ballet’s MOVEMEDIA: Handmade, dancers onstage transform into an underwater human merry go round. With linked arms, an outer circle moves clockwise, while an inner circle moves in the opposite direction in Nicolas Blanc’s world premiere “Aquatic Hypoxia.”
It’s a beautifully symbolic image for the state of humanity right now.
The depth and range and diversity contained within this extraordinary two-hour program of world premieres is astounding, and though some pieces are more resonant than others, they all speak to the present moment. It is dark and strange and scary and wonderful, this moment, and through the remarkable dancers and choreographers of the Grand Rapids Ballet, it is exquisite.
Blanc’s “Aquatic Hypoxia” intellectually brings awareness to the oceans’ dead zones as one aspect of environmental crisis, but it also transports the audience to the ocean floor, with Mark Neumann’s stunning projected images of moving water onto a white floor and cyclorama against which 13 dancers pulsate like waves, or heartbeats, to highly dramatic and cinematic music by Joby Talbot and wearing short, white body suits by Brennan Smith and Nicolas Blanc.
Also offering a political statement, Penny Saunders’ “Testimony” visually creates the emotional experience of the now-infamous Supreme Court nominee hearings in which men accused of sexual misconduct are now sitting on the bench. With mashed-up audio clips from media coverage of the hearings, there’s tension, anger, and frustration as 19 dancers, both women and men, all dressed in trousers, sleeveless collared shirts, and ties with which they symbolically choke or even hang themselves, interact with a moving box — a television, perhaps, that also doubles as podium — that ghoulishly lights the faces of those who lean over it or leap on top of it. At times, it’s hard to watch because of its emotional honesty and accurate symbolic reflection of how devastating those hearings, and all that they represent, are.
As the second and third acts of this ballet, from two highly-acclaimed and celebrated choreographers, both received standing ovations. And yet, the first act of five dances created by the dancers themselves, offered some of the most riveting work of the night.
Prima ballerina Yuka Oba’s dramatic “Eriha,” offers a meditation on the life of a Geisha, inspired by Oba’s sister. Micaelina Ritschl dances in red with two men wearing fox masks in a pas de trois that gives way to dueling pas de deux in which she is at turns submissive, joyful, somber. Oba designed the lovely costumes, and Matthew Taylor’s lights draw even deeper emotionality from this wonderful piece.
Principal dancer Cassidy Isaacson’s, “The Rise” is a powerful opener to the show. With bass-heavy ambient music by Glass Animals and moody lighting from Matthew Taylor the blend of angular, edgy movements and elegant lyricism make a wonderful juxtaposition. The dance is both elegant and dark, a little break dancing mashed up with classical ballet to marvelous effect.
Nicholas Bradley Gray’s “Divine Light” is gentle, romantic, sacred; Issac Aoki’s enigmatic, almost apocalyptic “what are you” has a transcendent moment in which two women lean into each other to arabesque; and Nigel Tau’s “Errant Thoughts” centers on one woman, an artist at the center of what spins into glorious chaos with impish, zombie-like dancers representing inspirations and unfinished works of art.
Though the dances are terrifically distinct and diverse, what is wonderfully consistent throughout the program is impeccable technique and artistry.
Written in the program are pithy explanations of each choreographer’s intent; before each performance Artistic Director James Sofranko offers a talk to prepare audience members for what they are about to see; and the artists offer a talkback following each show. Not only is the Grand Rapids Ballet successfully bringing brand new boundary-pushing works that remain true to their high standard of artistry, professionalism, and excellence, but they also take seriously their responsibility to educate their audiences in the most generous ways, ensuring this art form will continue to thrive for generations.
The profoundly moving series of dances in MOVEMEDIA: Handmade inspire such a powerful emotional response, and resonate so deeply in this cultural moment without explanation, that it is all the invitation we need to keep us clamoring for more.