When Dance Theatre of Tennessee's artistic director, Christopher Mohnani, founded his new dance company in 2009, he wanted the primary focus to be "to educate and expose the local community to the beauty, richness and diversity of the performing arts." The company's latest artistic venture, Muses, embodies that mission to a tee.
Premiering March 2 and 3 at Father Ryan Auditorium, Muses celebrates three world-renowned choreographers: George Balanchine, Ma Cong and Darrell Moultrie. Their collective work has made an inestimable impact, not only on the history and artistic vision of ballet itself, but also on Mohnani and his young and extremely talented company of dancers.
"I have followed these choreographers since I was a young dancer," Mohnani says, "and when I thought about which ones I would want to dance myself, these three were it." This show brings three drastically different works to the table, yet they combine to form an amazing repertoire that showcases ballet as an art form, while spotlighting the vast skill and technique of the dancers themselves.
The show is broken up into three separate acts, each showcasing an individual choreographer's (very) distinct voice and style. Expounding on the "muses" theme, each act begins with a short video that features the choreographer discussing the development of the piece and what inspired them, followed by video of the masters visiting the studio to work directly with DTT's dancers (or in Balanchine's case, working with Stacy Calvert of the George Balanchine Trust). By viewing these widely differing works side by side, one can begin to appreciate the amazing physical and emotional diversity available within ballet itself — something that is difficult to get from a more typical ballet performance.
The opening act is Balanchine's "Who Cares?" his ode to New York City, originally staged in 1970 and set to the lively and instantly familiar music of George Gershwin. It features a series of upbeat, energetic solos and duets (and one group number danced to "I've Got Rhythm") performed by only four dancers, with the three ladies en pointe and the male contributing impressive partner work. The whole piece is flirty and fun, while hewing to classical form and style. The standouts were Jennifer Drake and Brian Williamson, who showed real chemistry and charisma; particularly impressive was Williamson's ability to partner piece after piece, seemingly without tiring or missing a step.
Ma Cong's original work "Passion There," featured in Act II, showcases a more modern dance style with all dancers on flat, while still incorporating much of the classical technique seen in Balanchine's work. It's a sultry, emotionally charged piece set to tango music, meant to capture the life and feeling of the people of Argentina, whom he emulates in the Latin-style ballroom steps he mixed into the work. Each rapidly paced section blends into the next, creating a fluidity that immerses the audience in the choreographer's vision. Gabrielle Gambino distinguishes herself in this section through her amazingly expressive face, which conveys the strong passion and emotion of the piece.
The last act, "Points of Interest," an original Darrell Moultrie creation, is quite unique — not only within this show, but within ballet in general. While the female dancers are back en pointe, the performance shifts almost entirely to modern and contemporary style and technique. Moultrie places much emphasis on stamina and strength and has the dancers literally sprinting about the stage. He makes use of both the dancers' beautifully long lines and their ability to perform movements so precise they approach "popping and locking." Using music by Kenji Bunch and Spark Quintet that is often discordant and broken by moments of silence, the dancers are forced not only to move with the music, but in and around it as well. Moultrie showcases the entire company in his work, demonstrating their precision as well as their ability to come together as a cohesive group. In this moment, the performers' sheer joy is palpable.
Muses' true success comes from managing to accomplish so much in only one short performance. Beyond simply educating the audience on the background and style of each particular choreographer, it goes a step further to present a full dance repertoire. From the feather-light classical ballet en pointe to the sultry and modern Latin style, all the way to innovative, cerebral works of sheer strength and stamina, the performance offers something for everyone. And if Muses is your first trip to the ballet, it doubtless will not be the last.
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