With house lights up, white feathers float, twirl, glide, dive, and crash onto the black floor during the intermission. So begins the invitation into the hypnotic movement of Grand Rapids Ballet’s “Extremely Close,” the titular and closing piece of their current production, an elegant mixed bill of classical and contemporary dramatic ballet that draws inspiration from literature, Americana and inventive forms.
Spanish choreographer Alejandro Cerrudo made “Extremely Close” on Hubbard Street Dance Chicago while in residence there in 2008, and it translates beautifully on Grand Rapids Ballet dancers.
Using movable square white walls, the dancers push, pull and glide the walls across the stage and from upstage to downstage through the feathers, sometimes pushing dancers in formation who glide in socks against the walls. There’s a downward momentum to much of the mesmerizing choreography — the dancers roll, glide and slide with undulating torsos and move in tandem. Tanja Ruehl’s exquisite lights emerge through cracks between the walls and create fascinating shadows and silhouettes while also highlighting the gorgeous movement and teal and black color block unitards designed by Janice Pytel (recreated by Danielle Truss).
The dance concludes with a tremendously intense pas de deux between Yuka Oba and Matthew Wenckowski in which each movement is a response to the other’s touch. She head bobs his bent elbow and gently sends it flying like an arrow; both bodies follow. The dance ends with him drawing the fabric floor upstage, clearing the stage of all feathers, all dancers, all evidence it had ever happened in a stunning finale.
A strong upward energy comes with “The Sweet By and By,” a world premiere from Artistic Director James Sofranko, reminiscent of Alvin Ailey’s “Revelations” in its jubilant nod to an American past set to old, lively spirituals performed by Preservation Hall Jazz Band.
It opens with a big, dynamic, playful dance to “When the Saints Go Marching In.” Twelve dancers wear summery 1940s costumes, and the men leap and lift the women with Steven Houser as the joyful focal point, all smiles and twirls and high-energy fun.
The music and mood changes with each section. In the more somber “Precious Lord,” Alexandra Meister-Upleger rolls out onto patterns on the floor in a solo that gives way to eight dancers encircling and uplifting her, then they sway and turn together in fluid, bluesy movements. “Down by the Riverside” offers a series of joyful duets and trios with Adriana Wagenveld as the girl who shamelessly dances with all the boys, loving every minute.
The focus returns to Steven Houser in “Amen,” in which he appears to be possessed by the Holy Spirit, leading with his caboose, then backbending to the floor, somersaulting from a standing position, and doing fouetté turns as if it were as simple and effortless as whistling. It’s a silly, energetic delight. The entire work of six dances is utterly pretty, fun, and a physical embodiment of happiness itself.
And the opening dance, Val Caniparoli’s “Ibsen’s House” offers something completely different, and yet every bit as entrancing. A study of five of 19th Century Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen’s plays and their characters, it’s a terrifically dramatic classical piece of solos, pas de deux, and thrilling moments in which the five women — Hedda Gabler, Nora Helmer (of “A Doll’s House”), Mrs. Alving (from “Ghosts”), Elinda Wangel (of “Lady from the Sea”), and Rebecca West (from “Rosmersholm”) — dance together, separate from the men who, largely, torment them.
Set to Dvorák’s Piano Quintet in A Major, Op. 81, performed live by a wonderful visible quintet down stage left, it’s a gorgeous, moody, romantic, period piece that explores the emotions of complex relationships and challenges the conventions of Victorian gender roles. Each relationship and each woman’s personality, struggle and mode of resistance comes alive in a gesture motif: a lift, a backbend, a chest thump and fist release, a push away. It’s gorgeous.
As is the entire program, distinct in its parts, yet overall a marvelous display of this company’s range and power. “Extremely Close” is intellectually stimulating, heart stirring, and a spectacular evening of high art.
Grand Rapids Ballet