In ‘MOVEMEDIA,’ Grand Rapids Ballet commits to ballet for and about ‘now’

GRAND RAPIDS, MI — It was a blustery night in Grand Rapids on Friday, but everything was warm and cozy in the Peter Martin Wege Theatre for the opening of “MOVEMEDIA: Handmade,” a night of new works by the Grand Rapids Ballet. The two headliners of the evening: choreographer-in-residence Penny Saunders and Nicolas Blanc, whose “Aquatic Hypoxia” marks his first work for this company.

The latter closes the show, and for good reason. The opening image is stunning: an underwater scene created through masterful projections on a white cyc and floor (by Mark Neumann), and moody, blue lighting by Matthew Taylor. It’s not the first time Blanc’s set a dance beneath the water’s surface, and unlike many of his contemporaries, he works with a refreshing degree of transparency, leaving little doubt about the subject of his piece.

In the case of “Aquatic Hypoxia,” Blanc’s inspiration is “dead zones,” or regions of the Great Lakes and other large bodies of water which, due to pollution and climate change, can no longer support marine life. Joby Talbot’s cinematic score, together with the immersive world created by Neumann and Taylor, and the dancers’ simple long-sleeved biketards by Blanc and Brennan Smith, make it easy to imagine this cast of 13 as a school of fish as they carve sweeping unison patterns through the space.

Nicolas Blanc’s “Aquatic Hypoxia” | Photo by Jade Butler

But how does one connect emotionally to a dead zone? I don’t know, really, and I’m not sure they do either in the adagios near the beginning of the piece. A series of pas de deux, while beautiful, fall a bit flat. But when Talbot’s tempo picks up, the whole stage turns green, and these fish are ready to fight for their lives. Here, Blanc’s stunning choreography is danced with overt passion. Swirling lifts and gorgeous lines are contextualized by reminders about the theme such as when a single dancer, or the lot of them, flail and fall to the ground, or they bring their hands to their throats as if starved of oxygen. Blanc doesn’t hold back on these dancers — this is quite a difficult piece — and with the exception of a few picky spacing issues, they deliver.

Ahead of “Aquatic Hypoxia” is Saunders’ “Testimony,” inspired by Judge Brett Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court confirmation hearings before the Senate Judiciary Committee and the testimony of Dr. Christine Blasey Ford surrounding allegations of sexual assault in 1982.

I don’t know if the use of Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’s music “Hand Covers Bruise,” the theme from the movie “The Social Network,” was intentionally tongue-in-cheek, or if Saunders just liked it for her piece. Whatever the case may be, this adds a layer of complexity when we consider the role of social media in perpetuating division about current events.

That’s not to say that the Kavanaugh hearings were more divisive than those of Justice Clarence Thomas, which are often referenced as a historical parallel due to allegations of sexual harassment by Anita Hill. Saunders makes the comparison, too, weaving in memorable bits and pieces of audio from both — Thomas’ “And from my standpoint, as a black American, it is a high-tech lynching for uppity blacks who in any way deign to think for themselves,” and Illinois Senator Dick Durban’s “I want to know what you want to do,” for example — in “Testimony’s” opening sections.

Penny Saunders’ “Testimony” | Photo by Jade Butler

Saunders is especially good at painting the space with large groups of dancers; in this case, it’s 10 women and nine men, all dressed in ties and trousers. In the beginning the narrative is subtly, but uncomfortably demeaning toward the women — their gestures are soft, submissive and doubtful compared to the posturing of the men as they puff their chests and raise a dismissive hand. Saunders extends the dancers’ gorgeous lines by having them pull at their ties every which way. It’s not morbid, but a self-inflicted choking quite often comes to mind.

By the end, the men have gone and to be honest, I hardly noticed them leave. This is obviously the point, having the company’s women perform a gorgeous passage of gestures in which they figuratively and literally hold space. I wouldn’t call “Testimony” a political piece, per se; rather, Saunders beautifully lays bare the strength and resilience of women without pandering to any particular platform on an issue which deeply divided our country, now and a generation ago.

These works from Blanc and Saunders could easily stand on their own, and at two and a half hours, “MOVEMEDIA” is too long. Yet, each of the five dances in the first act, by choreographers chosen from within the company’s ranks, has a flavor of its own.

Cassidy Isaacson’s “The Rise,” is like an elegant parkour, as her dancers bound up, down and over the top and sides of a tiered staircase leading high into the upstage wing. Nigel Tau’s “Errant Thoughts” is the quirkiest of the lot, alluding to the often maddening cycle of creating a new work of art. “Divine Light” is Nicholas Bradley-Gray’s sweet tribute to a loved one, and Isaac Aoki’s trio, “What Are You,” is like a slow-motion club scene, mixing exuberant shapes with gestures of defiance, like a nod of the chin, or a tilted head with an intense stare.

Yuka Oba’s “Eriha” comes last in the first act, a mythical narrative based on her sister’s life as a geisha. Set to Arvo Pärt’s ominous (and overused) “Fratres,” dancer Micaelina Ritschl, dressed in a simple garnet dress designed by Oba, finds herself trapped between good and evil, portrayed by Steven Houser and Josue Justiz in wolf-like masks. Who is good and who is not turns out to be more complicated than it seems.

Indeed, cramming seven world premieres into a single evening is probably two or three too many, but it’s to artistic director James Sofranko’s credit that Grand Rapids Ballet is pushing hard to bring currency to Midwestern audiences and making sure they get their money’s worth.

And it should also be said that the Wege Theatre is an extraordinary place to see dance. It has all the technical bells and whistles of a large, state-of-the-art venue and the intimacy of a scrappy black box. Comfy stadium seating for about 300, all with great sight lines and a front row inches from these excellent dancers — It honestly doesn’t get much better than this.

Grand Rapids Ballet’s “Movemedia: Handmade” runs through Feb. 10 at the Peter Martin Wege Theatre, 341 Ellsworth Ave. SW, Grand Rapids. Tickets are $48, available at (616) 454-4771 Ext.10 or Seats are very limited.

Headline photo of Penny Saunders’ “Testimony” by Jade Butler

Author: Lauren Warnecke

Lauren Warnecke is a reporter for NPR affiliate station WGLT and freelance arts and culture critic, primarily reviewing dance for the Chicago Tribune. Lauren enjoys cooking, cycling and attempting to grow things in her backyard. She lives in central Illinois.