IU Ballet Theater opened its season last weekend with an exceptionally engaging program of works that together showed how three choreographers carried ballet into new emotional and technical spheres. The pieces challenged dancers to grow outwardly and inwardly from their classical training while inviting audience members to learn how dance evolved so that it might evoke how we feel in real time. In each case, the youthfulness of the dancers added poignance. With the bare stage and lighting as the students' only companions, movement and the essence of the body were uppermost.
Balanchine’s sparkling “Emeralds” continues IU’s celebration of Distinguished Professor of Ballet Violette Verdy. She had a long association with Balanchine, who created “Emeralds” for her in 1967. It’s a work so exquisite we think it can’t be hard, but watch the ever changing footwork with those extra little steps and tiny jumps. And witness the expressiveness of arms flowing and capturing the very essence of weightlessness and the intertwining of bodies into and out of intricate configurations. In calmness there is speed. It's an atmospheric work set on music by Faure and with no story but the one we conjure up for ourselves.
The mood totally changed with Antony Tudor’s “Dark Elegies,” which opens with the stark outlines of immobile bodies grounded to the stage floor. Gone are the sparkling costumes. Now it’s the plainness of peasant clothing and Mahler’s piercing and jabbing music, mirrored by the steps of a woman who darts into the stoic scene, anger raging. Spent, she is absorbed into the group as a man and a woman enter with supplications that break your heart, followed by yet another distraught couple. Something too terrible for words has happened.
And then learn the truth from the fourth song, a role Tudor originally created in 1937 for the young Agnes deMille. Through this mother and the following father-role, we realize a sudden epidemic has taken not one, not two, but all their children, and all that is left is the parental recreation of what it was like to witness children at play. Resignation to fate does not erase grief; it merely helps alleviate unbearable pain. With this seminal work, Tudor bridged ballet into what we now know as modern dance, and we recognize how de Mille absorbed his genius into her own choreography from the 1940s forward.
The evening closed with "The Envelope," choreographed by David Parsons to a compilation of Rossini overtures. The piece found propelling black clad dancers — who resemble cogs in a conveyor belt — to engaging and disengaging themselves with an envelope that has dropped into their midst. They go through a series of hilarious hither and yon episodes with bodies twisting and contorting into a mash-up of Chinese acrobats, Marcel Marceau and Pilobolus-like situations before that envelope gets a swift toss to where? “The Envelope” premiered as a modern dance work in 1984. It still deftly defies knowing who exactly is in charge and why this envelope is so special.
Live music always is a plus with IU Ballet Theater, as are professionals whose careers intersect with the works being presented. Their residencies at IU benefit us beyond Bloomington.