DES MOINES, Iowa—A modest crowd, in comparison to the number of available seats, filed into the immense Des Moines Civic Center on Oct. 29 for Ballet Des Moines’ season opener, “Kiss,” a full-length evening created in collaboration with Chicago’s Stephanie Martinez and Para.Mar Dance Theater. Martinez’ pre-pandemic life often included moments like this: bowing to an audience of strangers in a city she does not call home. But until now, she never brought dancers with her, nor a work that was already made.
Born out of the pandemic and her desire to find a way to keep working, Martinez formed Para.Mar in 2020. The new company came out of the gates running with about 45 minutes of work to a mixtape of classical hits and an introspective soundscape by composer Darryl J. Hoffman folded in. Titled “Kiss,” this piece, performed in masks on industrial carpet in a parking lot on the North Side of Chicago, is what I thought I was seeing (again) Saturday, with Ballet Des Moines’ industrious dancers sprinkled throughout.
And I suppose on the surface that’s what this was, though to say a dance show merely happened is to underestimate its profundity. In creating Para.Mar, Martinez’ overarching goal was to do something different and break the mold—different for her personally, as a way to get off the lonely hamster wheel of life as a freelance choreographer, and different professionally by incorporating community engagement as a central aspect of her mission, holding equal weight to making dances.
Truthfully, by the time I showed up at the Civic Center Saturday, much of the magic of Para.Mar’s residency in Des Moines had already taken place. They travelled to parks, studios and community centers, sharing the stage with youth for outdoor performances in Oakridge and Perry akin to Para.Mar’s parking lot origin story. Ballet Des Moines and Para.Mar dancers taught bits and pieces of “Kiss” and scrambled it together, as Para.Mar has been doing for more than a year.
I have frequently wondered what is next for this company; it crossed my mind that nothing that happened here could mean more to me than that cold day in Avondale witnessing one of the first dance performances in Chicago since the beginning of the pandemic. Since then, “Kiss” has been performed nearly to exhaustion, but it’s never quite the same and somehow is not stale. “Kiss” is not a dance so much as a coloring sheet filled in differently each time it’s performed.
A more apt metaphor might be a game of Yahtzee. Each vignette—group dances, solos, duets and unison, side-by-side pas de deux—is a die, tumbled out on the stage in a different order each time. But honestly, it was only now that Martinez, with these two companies of dancers, rolled a Yahtzee. It took nearly two years to get the formula just right, giving weight to Martinez’ new approach to spend time—lots and lots of time—with each work. Kudos to Ballet Des Moines for taking that risk, particularly now and without an artistic director steering the ship. (It was recently announced that Tom Mattingly, of Madison Ballet, was appointed to that role.)
Throughout this iteration of “Kiss,” Para.Mar dancers Chase Buntrock and Ching Ching Wong are a near constant presence. At the very top, Buntrock squats at the lip of the stage peering at Ballet Des Moines performing a newly-choreographed entr’acte to bits from Massenet’s “Cendrillon”—Cinderella—the end of which finds dancer Cameron Miller donning a puffy white and red track jacket flown in from the rafters like the eponymous subject’s ball gown, circa 1987. In fact, “Kiss” maintains a vibe that is at once aristocratic and ridiculous, blending overexaggerated gestures that not-so-subtly hint at pomp and circumstance (accentuated by Elizabethan ruffs about the dancers’ necks) with moments of genuine humanity. In between, there is, of course, superb dancing framed by dormant dancers perched on an upstage table or in a row of chairs lining the sides of the stage—like us, they are voyeurs on this magical mystery tour.
Much of the evening (now expanded to just over an hour) ping-pongs between companies, evidenced by more balletic vocabulary for the Ballet Des Moines dancers including an exquisite pas de deux for husband and wife Amelia Grubb Hillman and Logan Hillman. But the real kryptonite comes at the end when all 16 dancers from both companies come together for an absurd, rousing finish, bookended by Buntrock’s upstage musings lounging on a simple folding table and swivel chair as “Ave Maria” sang through the loud speakers and straight into my heart. I guess I was willing to see “Kiss” again, after all.