Building new dances takes people, time, real estate, money, faith.
Richmond Ballet’s New Works Festival offers all of these to both emerging and established choreographers, to the benefit of audience and artists. As with most RB Studio productions, each of the four dances was preceded by a video conversation with the choreographer, offering a glimpse into the process and intention behind the dance. While this spring’s program showed mixed results of the 25-hour per dance rehearsal process, Sunday afternoon’s audience embraced these works-in-progress with enthusiasm.
“Figure in the Distance,” choreographed by former RB dancer Tom Mattingly, is set to music by Philip Glass and features a backdrop projection of an abstract painting by Taylor A. Moore. The eight dancers moved with clean precision, and while several individual moments drew me in, I never saw the entire stage activated by movement. The music felt more kinetic than the dance. I appreciated a rare moment of partnering among four men, with one lifted, back arched, above the other three.
Bradley Shelver’s “2Rooms” was a highlight, with a moveable set of red fabric panels behind which the dancers hid or crept or popped out unexpectedly. Quirky movement, comprised of fluttering or shaking hands, waddling walks in deep plies, and abrupt direction changes led into equally quirky partnering. At one point, a dancer bent deep into a forward fold, and her partner stooped, picked her up still folded, and shuffled her along.
An unexpected kiss at the end of a later duet, dropped on the female dancer’s mouth while her hands fluttered, appeared as unwelcome as it was confusing in the context of the dance. Later, dancers moved the panels to create the eponymous “2Rooms,” and while a dancer performed a solo in the right-hand room, the others crowded into the left, staring at the wall between them as if they could see her through it. The moment evoked the strangeness of lives lived staring at flat surfaces, as if they reveal more than life beyond the wall, or the screen. “2Rooms” appeared the most inventive work on this program; its movement vocabulary and even stage set strongly echoed the work of Swedish choreographer Mats Ek (see his “Appartement,” created in 2000 for the Paris Opera Ballet).
The program’s second half consisted of two dances by female-identifying choreographers -- still a rarity in the world of ballet. Mariana Oliveira’s “My Lost Melody” was inspired, she said in the introductory video, by the joy and pain of falling in love and was set, appropriately, to French music mostly sung by Edith Piaf. Ten dancers performed charmingly, but revealed very little new about love, and nothing new about gender. Men kept leaving women; women stood with heads bowed. I wondered, why don’t the women in this dance get to have relationships with each other? Even friendships? And, what does it mean, in a dance that emphasizes the male/female gender binary, for one woman to dance with five men?
The program closed with Francesca Harper’s “The World of Sleeping Cats.” In her video introduction, Harper mentioned questioning gender roles and sharing the experimental, genre-bending music of Haitian-American composer Daniel Bernard Roumain as inspirations for her work. Costume designer Emily DeAngelis dressed ten dancers in simple black, with the women in little mesh tutus held by a hoop so that they swung like bells around the hips. I could not discern much questioning of traditional gender dynamics among the ten dancers, except perhaps in Fernando Sabino’s removal of Elena Bello’s tutu, as if to set her free, and in their slow, deliberate partnering sequences, as if they were carefully considering how to treat each other.