REVIEW: Cincinnati Ballet playful, contemporary and, at times, daring at New York's Joyce Theater

Company makes a statement about ballet today

Editor's Note: WCPO arts and entertainment reporter Matt Peiken is in New York City and will be tweeting as he follows arts and business leaders working to market the Queen City to the Big Apple. You can follow his tweets here.

NEW YORK CITY—There’s something significant happening in American ballet—an embrace of humor, innuendo and bravura—that, during much of the 20th century, few choreographers would have countenanced.

Beauty, grace, precision and refinement are no longer the sole, or even premium, measures of greatness. Companies today, and the choreographers they hire to build movement on their dancers, have to work much harder to tease our senses, tug at our emotions and engage and hold our attention.

Some see that work as a liberation. This brings us to the Cincinnati Ballet and the wholly contemporary, playful and, at times, daring program it has brought to New York City for its debut run at the Joyce Theater . Performances, which crown the company’s 50th anniversary season, continue at the Joyce through May 12. 

It’s no easy feat creating ballet for people who may not necessarily consider themselves fans of ballet. Over three works of roughly 25 minutes each, we see modernism, multiculturalism, narrative and character arcs and, if my interpretation is correct, a ribbon of social statement—all without the compromise of ballet’s classical foundation. I’m not sure how George Balanchine would have cared for it, but on opening night, May 6, the nearly full audience—many trekked from Cincinnati for the occasion—left wowed and surprised.

Smartly, artistic Director Victoria Morgan only brought 16 dancers—about two-thirds of her company—lending the feel of a chamber ballet company. There’s no corps de ballet here—the choreography, costuming and lighting left plenty of room for individuals to stand out.

Much of the anticipatory attention fell on “Hummingbird in a Box," the ballet set to music co-composed by Peter Frampton and premiered by the company last season. Frampton was on hand at the Joyce to introduce the piece.

The music and dance are pleasant enough. Principal dancer Janessa Touchet, in a smoke-black tutu and black sparkle bustier, excels in a long, limber solo. But the straight-ahead, rooted-in-rock tempos and rhythms are, often, too confining on the rest of the dancers, particularly the men, and make for the least interesting and inventive part of this program.

“Caprice,” choreographed by Val Caniparoli, is a knockout of a ballet. Bookended on stage by a pair of violinists dueling over biting Paganini music, Cincinnati’s dancers engage in one tour de force movement after another. In trios and duets that come at you like 100-meter dashes, there’s angst, athleticism and, if I may cop a “Seinfeld” phrase, unbridled enthusiasm.

I mean, seriously, can we get a smile up in here? Not in the ballet of yesteryear. But watch Abigail Morwood and Rodrigo Almarales go at it and tell me their fun and foreplay here isn’t genuine. Their expression and authenticity on opening night couldn’t be choreographed. It simply came from within and, as much as anyone, helped stamp Cincinnati’s signature on the evening.

Theirs was wrapped into a flurry of gorgeous duets—Zach Grubbs with Patric Palkens, James Gilmer with Sarah Hairston and Palkens, again, with Danielle Bausinger—spilling into a full-cast crescendo that vaulted many in the audience (or at least the Cincinnatians) to their feet.

The program closes with “Chasing Squirrel,” an ensemble piece drenched in the overt but playful sexuality of a Spanish nightclub. Trey McIntyre’s choreography jumps from taut to elastic, and it empowers the women to be as bold as the men.

Again, Morwood sparkles here. So does Courtney Connor Jones, who only appears in this piece. Both are principal-caliber dancers who know how to make the most of a spotlight. Principal dancer Cervilio Miguel Amador, just healed from a ruptured calf, showed a knack for comedy, drawing on Chaplinesque expressions and gestures before leaping and diving onto the floor or into the arms of his male compadres.

There’s a funny and marvelous segment when the women, one after another, scamper across the stage and around the men entirely on pointe. It’s a tremendous and, to my eyes, precarious task. Read into it what you will, but I saw it as a statement on the chase for vanity (or does vanity chase us?). I want to see more choreographers season their food this way.

We certainly haven’t reached the twilight of classical ballet—companies will always make room on the calendar for “Giselle” or “Swan Lake.” But this program says a lot about where choreographers are, where audiences are and where modern-minded companies such as Cincinnati Ballet are. In the not-distant future, we may not see any lines between ballet and what is simply dance.

RELATED: Watch Peiken's documentary on the Cincinnati Ballet's Second Company

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