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Review: IU Ballet's Fall Program

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IU Ballet performs 'Sweet Fields.'
  • IU Ballet performs 'Sweet Fields.'

Amazing things happened at the Musical Arts Center in Bloomington as ballet and music students embraced artistic director Michael Vernon’s challenging program of cutting edge 20th century-choreography. The IU Ballet season opener kicked off with Twyla Tharp’s Sweet Fields, which saw dancers in simple white body garments with jackets wafting as they moved, showed us the gentle, reverential side of Tharp’s canon. The off-stage chorus, directed by Gregory J. Geehern, intoned traditional Shaker hymns, allowing for the blending of innocence with sophistication, airiness and earthiness. In non-stop movement of arms crossing, rising and lowering, deep lunges from knee to ankle followed by skimming flat-footed thrusts to the floor, always moving in repetitive, reversing symmetry, the dancers flowed in and out of each other. Most amazing was the athleticism, precision and trusting lifting and turning of six male dancers emulating a power machine at work, depicted in the third movement.

Tharp’s emulation of grace was followed by Peter Martins' playfully whimsical Eight Easy Pieces and Eight More, each set to Stravinsky’s compositions. The first paired three ballerinas on pointe in constant playful motion as trios, duets and solos to pianists Daniel Lin and Christopher Miranda at one piano ripping through eight different rhythms: March, Valse, Polka, Andante, Espanela, Balalaika, Napolitana and Galop. For Eight More Stravinsky orchestrated these same piano exercises to create a lustier tone. Three male dancers in sync with exuberant Ballet Orchestra players conducted by Nicholas Hersh vied for attention as they outdo each other in bravura twists, turns, jumps and impishness. We were left breathless.

The program closed with Martha Graham’s iconic story ballet Appalachian Spring, music by Aaron Copland. Set in 19th century Pennsylvania as the then pioneer western frontier, it is a vignette in eight parts-from introducing the characters as separate individualists, to the newly weds finding their place as members of a community. In capturing the “essence of an ideal” at the juncture of World War II, the ballet personifies hopefulness, strength, endurance, faith. Graham’s choreography fills the space with sweeping, extended, expansive movement. With the IU Ballet Orchestra conducted by Hersh and the original minimalist set by Isamu Noguchi, lighting by Jean Rosenthal and costumes by Graham, the company of eight dancers emulated the endless possibilities of people always ready to move forward.

Guest artists staging the original choreography on IU Ballet students were Alexander Brady for Tharp, Zippora Karz for Peter Martins and Denise Vale for Graham. Indianapolis native Christopher Linger was a featured performer in Sweet Fields and Eight More. Sept. 29 and 30 at Musical Arts Center, Indiana University, Bloomington.

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