“Human movement is the basis of all art,” wrote Twyla Tharp. Kansas City Ballet displayed this philosophy with the textural, painterly season closer THARP / PARSONS / FORSYTHE, demonstrating exceptional work from three groundbreaking American choreographers: William Forsythe, David Parsons, and Twyla Tharp.
Friday was the first Kansas City performance for each of the pieces, a first look for Kansas City audiences. The works by Forsythe and Tharp were conceived and premiered in the 1980s and while there’s no doubting the era from which they hail, instead of seeming dated, the works maintain an inventive freshness, even a generation later.
William Forsythe’s 1987 “In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated,” with its pounding electronic score by Thom Willems in collaboration with Leslie Stuck, was aggressive, yet maintained a core of stillness, laced with animosity. Dancers eyed each other, testing out moves, testing each other, moving against and apart and together again.
The strength of these dancers is formidable, and while there were exceptional moments, the success of this performance was due to their unity.
Clothed in evergreen, their faces in shadow, the dancers seemed to dissolve into the background, except for their limbs, contoured by the stark beams from above. The flash of light on the bright swinging arms left visual tracers in the dark scene, swirls of paint on a midnight canvas.
Forsythe built units in different areas of the stage, peripheral activity clamoring for attention—dancers nonchalantly looking away or staring down the soloist while shaking their head—adding a further element of ominous movement.
Time will tell how Parsons’ “A Play For Love” holds up, but this world premiere performance certainly amazed and entertained Friday’s audience. Based on an amalgam of characters and plots from William Shakespeare’s plays and set to excerpts from orchestral standards, it’s genuinely funny and ridiculously athletic.
Parsons is a Kansas City native, though his career centered in New York City and has taken him all over the world. Still, it’s a choreographic coup and heartening connection to see his work return to the Kauffman Center (he recently created a new work on his own company for the Harriman-Jewell Series’ 50th anniversary season).
His piece centered the program. Comedy is a hard mode for choreographers, but fun has always been a core part of Parsons’ output. Fingers crossed, the piece will continue with performances elsewhere, as well as come back through the KCBallet repertory.
Though I didn’t read the plot outline ahead of time, surface-level knowledge of Shakespearean drama sufficed. Parsons had librettist David Glass mash together elements of “The Taming of the Shrew,” “Romeo & Juliet,” “Antony & Cleopatra,” and “The Tempest,” all within one of Shakespeare’s favorite devices, the play within a play. He also used elements from silent films, like title cards and slapstick physicality.
Parsons pulled some of the troupe’s most versatile actors for these roles: Danielle Bausinger, as Katrina, the “intractable shrew,” Courtney Nitting, as Bianca, the flirty sister, James Kirby Rogers as the cavalier and Gavin Abercrombie as his lackey.
Bausinger always brings flair to her characters and Abercrombie was hilarious, somersaulting with Buster Keaton-esque deadpan. Rogers, who is often seems imperious, shook out a little with self-centered pomposity.
Along with the physical humor and operatic bombast, Parsons choreographed a lyrical duet for Romeo and Juliet and a slinky, seductive section for Cleopatra, making a well-rounded display of styles.
Humorous as it was, the lasting impression is that of Bausinger and Rogers’ pas de deux, which included some of the most breathtakingly partnering we’ve seen on this stage, with lifts that seemed nearly impossible.
Essential to the Parsons aesthetic is lighting by Howell Binkley, who served up vivid hues. Sylvie Rood designed these quick-change costumes (since many in the ensemble were double and triple cast), balancing between period-inspired pieces and modern day features. The design for Cleopatra and her handmaidens was especially impressive.
The only unsuccessful element was the music, specifically the recordings of music. The selections were familiar, overtures from famous operas and that sort of thing, and used effectively. But since there was no live orchestra, each excerpt came from a different ensemble, a different recording company, a different recording engineer and these differences made for a jarring sonic environment. Going from the menacing opening of Johann Sebastian Bach’s Toccata and Fugue to the tender melody of Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto no. 2 is dramatic…going from a clean recording to a boomy one sounded amateurish…subtle, yes, but nevertheless distracting.
Tharp’s “In the Upper Room” is a work of genius. In fact, it’s the work of many geniuses, who somehow managed to capture lightning—or at least youth—in a bottle. The work is effervescent, a seemingly endless loop of joy.
She commissioned music from Philip Glass, who provided a bubbling, hypnotic score that seemed just barely tethered. Norma Kamali designed the baggy striped costumes, revealing flashes of red. Jennifer Tipton designed the lighting for the original production and Trad A. Burns realized it for this production, each section given a different angle of light through the haze that covered the stage, the dancers emerging and receding.
Tharp collected an eclectic vocabulary for the piece, the dancers always moving, always shifting, placed in a sort of androgynous, amorphous world that served this idea of celebrating movement.
The dancers could have subdivided better, creating crisper movements, but even so this was an extraordinary performance that emanated playfulness. I loved the sextet near the end, in triple lifts, the gymnastic exuberance and loose hipped swivels.
KCBallet’s Tharp connection is relatively strong, considering that former artistic director William Whitener danced with her for eight years, and brought a lot of her work to the company, but dance careers being what they are, there are only a handful remaining who worked with Whitener. Current artistic director Devon Carney evolved the company’s classical abilities, and it’s energizing to see this new generation of dancers have the versatility to embrace these defining American works and bring them to Kansas City audiences with such full hearted expression.
That’s how it is with classic pieces – they are kept alive and relevant and shared and rejoiced over, because they continue to stimulate our energies and imaginations.
Reviewed Friday, May 10, 2019. Kansas City Ballet performs May 11, 17, and 18 7:30 p.m. and May 12 and 19 2 p.m. in Muriel Kauffman Theatre. For more information visit kcballet.org.