Shaping Sound… Shaping the way for dance

While ballet has its often downfalls of lackluster performances and vague storylines, Travis Wall’s Shaping Sound Company delivers with a punch with After The Curtain. With cast of mainstreamed dancers, amazing sets by Greg Anderson, lighting design that puts most ballet shows to shame by Nathan Schemer and Terese Porterfield, costumes in a subtle and refined palette by Gabrielle Letamendi and produced by Break The Floor; Travis Wall reiterates his Emmy win, and makes way for contemporary commercial dance company and dancer.

 

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Photo by Amber Skaggs (@ambernovella)

 

Founded in 2012 by Travis Wall, who does not need to list his accomplishments, pioneered a new type of dance company. The commercial contemporary dance company. Slowly, it evolved to create full storyline productions, integrated various styles of dance, and made way for the commercial contemporary dancer. (Yes, Bad Boys and Kings of Ballet and Complexions were there, but Travis Wall made a company that accommodated the dancer coming from the jazz studio competition circuit, not just the ballet cross-trained dancer.)

So, I was supposed to go review the performance in Charleston in February, but since I found myself in Arizona this week, I was lucky enough to go see it. As I arrived, I was blown away by people begging for tickets on the street, scalpers, and the entire dance scene of Arizona attending. (If you are from Arizona or have spent some time there, you would know it is very rare to have comp studios, ballet academies, professional contemporary dancers, and post-modern dancers all in one place.) Children from Ballet Arizona, Master Ballet Academy, Club Dance and tons of other studios flocked to the theater tonight. But that wasn’t the best part, the majority of the theater was filled with dance lovers, nondancers, and spanned generations. Not to mention it was packed, if not sold out.

Now, the cast was filled with beyond exceptional movers. The dancers included Travis Wall, Nick Lazzarini, Chantel Aguirre, Barton Cowperthwaite, Michael Dameski, Mia Dilena, Jay Jay Dixonbey, Rory Freeman, Kate Harpootlian, Michael Keefe, Lindsay Leuschner, Channing Cooke and Riley Kurilko. And, since it was a Break the Floor Production and Gil Stroming was the executive producer, the standard was set pretty high. And I won’t lie, I was a little skeptical if I would make it through the whole show. (We all know I have a tendency to fall asleep at the theater)

You walked into the arena, yes it was at the Comerica Theatre so you got to have snacks inside. So of course, I got popcorn. Now I thought, “I am here with my nugget what did I get myself into?” As we walked into the theatre, you walked into the stage completely exposed and the ghost light on center-center.

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As the story unfolded, I was intrigued, and while the first twenty minutes were hard to get into, it then became mesmerizing. Literally, an entire story unfolded examining the complex issues and relationships between humans. Something that dance often lacks, overshoots, or translates poorly. As things slowly started to unfold it almost felt disjointed and choppy, but as it progressed you start to realize that all of those nuances and slight phrases that were out of place all actually have a place. (It was quite brilliant.) The choreography (Travis Wall, Nick Lazzarini, Teddy Forance and tap choreography by Anthony Morigerato) was exceptional. Most notably the pas de deuxs between Travis Wall’s Character Vincent and Barton Cowperthwaite’s character Sebastien were beyond exceptional and carried such weight, that I was moved. (And we all know, that performances rarely move me.) While the crowd adored all the special effects (lights, sticks, ropes, papers… if you go see the show, and you should, you will understand) I could have done without sticks.

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So, without giving a lot away, because you should just go see the show for yourself, I will tell you what was so moving about this production. The story examines everything from sexuality (if you are conservative Christian family with kids, this show might not be your cup of tea), alcoholism, adultery, promiscuity, murder, life, after-life, relationships, and family dynamics, and Shaping Sound delivers it in two hours. While some characters are more fleshed out than others, all of the characters evolve, change, and bring a sense of human conflict into their dancing. Nick Lazzarini‘s character evolves so beautifully that just a huge changes how you perceive the character. Lazzarini takes such care and exception of his character that his endless turns, and gravity-defying jumps don’t overshadow the character. Barton Cowperthwaite‘s character not only evolves after death, but Cowperthwaite is able to fuse the standard balletic emotions, but makes them sincere and thought out. The young Michael Dameski, 21, played Wall’s alter ego. The Audience Favorite from 2014 SYTYCD Australia kept up with Travis in quality, technique, and emotion giving him a great promising start in the American dance scene.

While the men delivered extremely strong performances, I think the women are still growing into their roles. Their characters are beautiful and all of the women moved beautifully with qualities most dancers lack. But, when the men are delivering beyond exceptional performances and beautiful technique it almost distracts when the women are not keeping up. Chantel Aguirre‘s role of the women was the most technical and versatile but since she lacked the 180 penché, the line and effect were lost.

Overall, as the show came to an end, I think the audience was stunned. Not just because it was a great produced show, but it also demanded the audience to think about social issues today. With the New York Times just publishing the dynamic of man on man duets and applauding NYCB’s Justin Peck… Travis Wall just blew him out of the water tenfold and created a work that not only explored all depths of sexuality, but was accepted by the general mainstream public (especially in Arizona…).

It was given a standing applause almost immediately after the lights went out and this was only the second time this production was performed. 

Additionally, each dancer as they came out to bow individually, were so sincere and humble that they each only bowed for maybe three seconds before running off, even Travis. Their bows were not the long overdone ballet bows, and that made it even more effective in humanizing dance stars.

While many have mainstreamed ballet with these contemporary pop/ballet shows, and contemporary ballet companies offer triple-bill programs, no one has really pulled off an entire story evening of contemporary dance. While, new ballets like Wheeldon’s Alice for Royal Ballet, Scarlett’s Frankenstein for Royal and San Francisco’s collaboration, and Possokhov’s Hero of Our Time, the art of storytelling in ballet sometimes falls short. And while other productions have popularized dance and pop culture like Joffrey’s Billboards to the music of Prince, Kings of Ballet, Bad Boys of Ballet and numerous collaborative productions (including Broadway and film); Travis Wall’s Shaping Sound really has created a space for competitive contemporary dancers to have a chance at a full-time job in a company, and has proven you can tell a two hour story with no speaking parts, move beautifully, produce an elaborate production, and sell tickets in a single stroke. This is a performance that is a must see. I urge you all. Even if you are uncomfortable talking to your kids about homosexuality, alcoholism, and other social problems- it does make you remember that good, quality, exceptional dancing and technique can be human and doesn’t always have to be about a princess who needs saving.

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What is Contemporary Ballet?

contemporary ballet history

In the world of ballet, well the world of dance, everyone is throwing around the genre of contemporary ballet. But, what is contemporary ballet? If we look at the dance spectrum as a whole, contemporary would fall somewhere between classical ballet and post-modern. If we looked at a progressive timeline, contemporary ballet would fall somewhere in the 1920’s-1940’s between the Ballets Russes (active 1909-1929) and the birth of New York City Ballet (f. 1948).

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Partial timeline from my new book… The Illustrated Guide to Ballet

 

 

So, by definition, contemporary is defined by living or occurring at the same time, or belonging to or occurring in the present. So, by definition, contemporary ballet really can only be defined as ballets that are currently being created. That really doesn’t work for us, since dance historians are classifying the emergence of contemporary ballet somewhere in the 1960’s. This being different from neoclassical ballet. Neoclassical ballet referring to the Balanchine/Massine ballets. All the meanwhile jazz and modern dance emerged.

From the 60’s choreographers, directors and dancers started new innovative collaborations; taking the best in music, costume design, vocabulary and more. From here, a new vocabulary emerged and the idea of cross-training in all genres emerged.

In the 80’s a strong group of choreographers created a vocabulary of movement that manipulated the classical technique in such a way it became part of the standard repertoire of today. Some of these men include John Cranko, William Forsythe and Jiri Kylian.

From this group of innovators, a new group of individuals emerged: Alonzo King, Dwight Rhoden, Desmond Richardson, John Neumeier, and Matthew Bourne, just to name a few.

This created the current group of individuals leading contemporary ballet: Alexei Ratmansky, Yuri Possokhov, Christopher Wheeldon, Benjamin Millpied, Justin Peck, Annabelle Lopez Ochoa, Crystal Pite, Liam Scarlett, Wayne McGregor and more.


How do you classify what is a contemporary ballet?

If we classified contemporary ballet as dances done on pointe to different music, or incorporating other dance vocabularies… then Christopher Wheeldon’s After the Rain wouldn’t be considered a contemporary ballet. But, if we look at contemporary ballet as a dance that uses the ballet vocabulary, then it would be a contemporary ballet.

If we said that a contemporary ballet is based on the vocabulary of classical ballet, then every genre of classical dance would be considered contemporary ballet.

Here is how I like to classify what is contemporary ballet and what is contemporary dance (by no means is this the standard rubric of classifying dance, just mine):

  • If the dance is on pointe, it is contemporary ballet.
  • If the majority of the dance is based on technique and the principals of ballet, it is contemporary ballet.
  • If the majority of the dance vocabulary derives on a feeling, gestures, or sets it is contemporary dance.
  • If the dance movement is primarily based on the principals of turnout, it is contemporary ballet.
  • If the dance is about lack of control of the body, contemporary dance while the constraint of articulation enforces it is a contemporary ballet.

One of the major differences I think between contemporary ballet and contemporary dance is the purpose why the dance is created. I think contemporary ballets are made with the intent of surviving the test of time and becoming a part of the standard ballet company repertory, where contemporary dance is made for the moment, and truly embraces the word contemporary.

So, as you are preparing for the YAGP and shows, you should ask yourself a few things.

  • What is the purpose of this work?
  • What is the intent behind each of the movements? Is it technique? It is placement? Articulation? Flexibility? Emotion?
  • Is this work going to be relevant in 5 years? 10 years? 20 years?
  • What is the story behind the work?
  • Where is the vocabulary coming from? Jazz? Ballet? Hip Hop? Modern?
  • Who is this work intended for? Judges? Audience? Social Media? Yourself?
  • Why are you dancing this?

The wonderful part of the world of contemporary ballet and dance today is the ability to juxtapose anything together. Whether it is a classical costume to hip-hop music, classical music and postmodern gestures, pointe work and gender, the lack of music and classical ballet technique. The combinations are endless. Just like the world of contemporary ballet, the possibilities of combining gestures and technique, fusing articulation and constraint, breath and technique… It is quite amazing.

A problem that a lot of work is running into is that the possible combinations and dance vocabulary is running out. As dance is moving forward we are exploring the articulation in and out of the technique, timing and pushing the limits of our body, and as this is becoming the standard, classical ballets will no longer be created. We are already seeing it with the Balanchine repertory becoming more common, and the acquisition of the Forsythe, Wheeldon, Ratmansky, Peck ballets becoming a part of standard repertory around the world. While the classics will always be performed, I don’t think very many more classical ballets will ever be created. Tudor, MacMillan, and Neumeier might have been the last ones to create a “classical” ballet.


What makes good contemporary ballet?

This is a double edge sword to answer. But a good contemporary ballet, for me, is something moving. Whether or not it tells a story gives no weight into if it is good or bad. I think the manipulation of the body, control of the articulation is extremely important, but that is half the dancer half the choreographer. The use or the lack of use of the space on all levels. Musicality. Pathways. The manipulation of technique. The idea behind the piece…

Here are some of my favorite works… the list is too long to list them all… Hope you enjoy.

Wayne McGregor’s Chroma

Alonzo King’s Meyer… almost all of his works I love though…

William Forsythe’s … well most things of his as well haha. But, I think right now in the ballet world the two most accessible ballets are In the Middle Somewhat Elevated and The Vertiginous Thrill of Exactitude.

Justin Peck’s… well almost anything as well… but here is his Rodeo.