Dell Hall, Long Center for the Arts
February 12–14, 2009
Reviewed by Clare Croft
Truth and Beauty. Photo by Tony Spielberg, Courtesy Ballet Austin.
An evening of ballet inspired by J.S. Bach’s music might seem an odd fit for Austin, Texas, the city that swears by the motto “Keep Austin Weird.” With “Truth and Beauty/The Bach Project,” Ballet Austin proved clever enough to be Austin’s go-to company for classical and contemporary fare. Three new ballets, all choreographed by company artistic director Stephen Mills, paid tribute to Bach’s regal religiosity and dared to re-imagine the baroque composer in the context of modern art.
Mills—whose work accounts for most of Ballet Austin’s current rep—has talent for comedy; sensual, rippling pas de deux; and smart design and dancing combos. Program opener Truth and Beauty added a new element to Mills’ body of work: strong ensemble choreography. The entire company strode onstage together, each dancer’s floor-length, deep purple dress sweeping the floor, immediately setting a majestic tone that continued through a mix of airy partnering and statuesque sobriety. The dancers always maintained powerful, lifted posture. Most remarkable about the corps’ coherence is the company’s lack of cookie-cutter ballet bodies. They prove that dancing together—feeling each other—can matter more than everyone having the same proportions.
Still, there are standouts. Joseph Hernandez, a fantastic grab from the dancers New York City Ballet dismissed last season, led the ensemble with easy grace. In Truth and Beauty’s pas de deux, Jaime Lynn Witts and Frank Shott were a perfectly matched, bright and buoyant couple. Until this season, Schott was one of Austin’s few strong partners. Now Edward Carr, Hernandez, and the steadily improving Paul Michael Bloodgood offer great possibilities.
Clad only in nude briefs, Hernandez and Bloodgood were the central couple in Angel of My Nature, a moody ballet to a collage of Bach and Philip Glass. Angel’s best feature was Michelle Schumann’s gorgeous live piano work. The program’s emphasis on live music reached risky climax in Bounce, to a score composed by Austin’s new music darling Graham Reynolds and inspired by Bach’s Suite in A Minor. The brass-heavy music exploded from the pit. Witts, a relative newcomer to feature roles, best harnessed Bounce’s intensity. Kirby Wallis’ gift for angling her body to accentuate negative space multiplied the choreography’s spatial dynamics.
Two years ago Ballet Austin moved into its new downtown studios and a new theater, the Long Center. The shift seems to have precipitated an artistic growth spurt. They are now a more consistent company, at their best when they present creative programming like “The Bach Project.”