Saturday, May 10, 2014

Cincinnati Ballet does Frampton (Not) Live!

Hummingbird in a Box. Photo: Peter Mueller
Cincinnati Ballet made its Joyce debut this past week, bringing an ambitious slate of three large ensemble works. The big attraction was Hummingbird in a Box, a premiere to seven songs by rock icon Peter Frampton and Gordon Kennedy, choreographed by Adam Hougland. Caprice by Val Caniparoli and Chasing Squirrel by Trey McIntyre followed.

The first few bars of a pop tune can define its character, and this was true for the leadoff song in Hummingbird, "The Promenade's Retreat." During the introductory vamp, the dancers popped onstage one by one to strike a pose on the beat before moving fluidly across the stage; their pacing underscored the catchy rhythm. The acoustic guitar's sound was clean and bright and felt like a tangible presence in the theater. My familiarity with Frampton's music is from his famous Live! album; the Joyce evening's songs rang faint bells, and though they didn't recall the shimmering utopian folksiness of his massive '70s hits, they were catchy and pleasing. The cast wore sharp looking black sequinned bras and tutus; the men, white jeans; the costumes are designed by Diana Adams.  

Janessa Touchet in Hummingbird in a Box. Photo: Amy Harris.
The suite held pleasures—the aforementioned crisp sound, the muscular pliancy of the admirable dancers, in particular an explosive Patric Palkens and a very expressive Janessa Touchet. But apart from a romantic duet, some gestural allusions to environmental caution, and some strict rhythmic obedience, the dance didn't seem to relate to the songs. The dance and music ran parallel, as if the dance could be paired with different music. The structure set a pattern among the three dances comprising the evening—the cast is introduced, and each of the subsequent 7-9 songs or movements features a smaller group or soloist until the last section when everyone returns for the finale. And other than Chasing Squirrel, which seemed to have a loose narrative underpinning involving men chasing women (recreationally, or as a business arrangement; could've gone either way), the movement and music were casual partners. Perhaps another viewing might reveal more connections.

It's a pattern that's familiar because it works, providing dynamic shifts within a typically 20-25 minute work, a showcase for the strengths of each individual dancer, and a reason to
use music with the correlative characteristics of range and virtuosity. And often an evening is made up of three such works, modules that have become the norm due to a viewer's attention and duration span, and the realities of putting together a major dance which include rehearsal scheduling and music management. And so it happens that while watching a show such as Cincinnati Ballet's, it breaks down to 20 or so short movements that begin to feel like déja vu.

Caprice featured music by Paganini played live onstage by violinists Haoli Lin and Yabing Tang, who alternated solos. The costumes, by Sandra Woodall, are flattering, elegant dresses and tank tops/pants of pewter, with darker yoke accents. I have to confess that the music was so devilish and the playing so virtuosic that I often found myself watching the violinists rather than the dancers, who were giving it their adrenalized best. They landed in arabesques from cartwheels, held super high extended legs for an extra beat, and when they were still, it was often in a running pose.

Trey McIntyre's suite, Chasing Squirrel (2004), employed an odd recording by Kronos Quartet, Nuevo, a survey of Mexican tunes that at times hewed toward shrill. The gorgeous backdrop, a matrix of flower bouquets, was designed by Woodall, as was the well-worn boudoir wear of the women and the mens' zoot suits, which were either hot pink, or faded rose. The women, their hair teased out, infused their performances with more individual character than the other dances. One wore a gown with a big train, which several men partnered in addition to its wearer. McIntyre makes memorable stage pictures and infuses the dancers with little characteristics, thereby distinguishing his dances.

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