Tulsa Ballet definitely has something to crow about with “Paint It Black,” which opened its two-weekend run Friday at the Lorton Performance Center.
The three ballets included two Oklahoma premieres –– “Extremely Close” by Alejandro Cerrudo and Christopher Bruce’s “Rooster” –– along with William Forsythe’s “In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated,” which the company first performed two seasons ago.
That artistic director Marcello Angelini chose to open the evening with “In the Middle...” –– the most purely abstract work of the night, set to Thom Willems percussive, almost assaultive, soundscape –– might on the surface seem an odd choice. And if it had been the first time Tulsa audiences had experienced this ballet, it might have been off-putting.
But here, it worked very well, as the nine dancers come together and move apart in seemingly random ways, a kind of perpetual-motion machine of movement.
“Machine” is the operative word with this work –– Forsythe’s choreography requires steely strength and extreme flexibility, and the design of the lighting, recreated by Christina Gianelli, obscures the dancers faces while emphasizing their musculatures. It’s a ballet about the “soft machine” operating at high gear.
It also featured some explosive work by Rodrigo Hermesmeyer, who soared through his solos with controlled abandon, and a slinky, slashing solo by Youhee Son, while Hyonjun Rhee’s deliberate false-starts to his solo gave the ballet its lone touch of humor.
Perhaps it was because this ballet no longer possessed the “shock of the new,” but this performance seemed to be much cooler in tone that what we remember of Tulsa Ballet’s original production of this work. Then, the climactic pas de deux played out as a kind of battle between evenly matched combatants. Friday night, the performance by Rhee and Son was technically polished and fascinating to watch –– but it was very much a duet, the two dancers working together as one rather than individuals asserting their dominance.
“Extremely Close” is the most recent work of the three, created by Cerrudo for Hubbard Street Dance Chicago in 2007. It was also, in a sense, the most theatrical, beginning white feathers fluttering down for about 10 minutes before the ballet’s start, coating the stage floor, and employing three large white panels that the dancers moved and moved around.
The ballet is set to piano music by Philip Glass and Dustin O’Halloran, but Cerrudo uses silence just as effectively –– Jiyan Dai’s powerful solo that concludes the middle section was performed without music, and that heightened the sense of isolation, of loss and pain and rage, that Dai’s dancing so vividly expressed.
“Extremely Close” is a somber piece, dealing with concept of loss, of death, of fragility, of memory. The constantly moving panels create the illusion of people disappearing, of being at the mercy of implacable forces, while the feathers rise up in little tornados as dancers and panels move, signifying that someone or something was here, but now is gone.
The ballet concludes with a long pas de deux, danced by Dallas Blagg and Beatrice Sebelin. Throughout, Blagg is never able to hold on to Sebelin for long –– she’s always elusive, slipping free of his grasp –– until the moment when the only point of contact is the dancers’ lips in a long kiss. And the ballet’s final tableau gives a heartbreaking answer to the mysteries of this particular dance.
“Rooster” uses eight songs the Rolling Stones recorded in the 1960s –– covers of old blues, some of the group’s more acoustic numbers, and classic rockers such as “Paint It Black” and “Sympathy for the Devil” –– as the basis for Bruce’s imaginative vignettes that evoke, and to some degree satirize, the innocence and awkwardness of romance in that time.
The tone is set with Rhee’s exaggerated, bird-like strut through “Little Red Rooster,” his prowling around the stage interrupted only by the need to straighten his tie, slick back his hair, flick imaginary dust from his lapels.
What makes this ballet so effective is Bruce’s captures the spirit of each song through movement –– his choreography works with the songs rather than against them (as opposed to something like Twyla Tharp’s “Nine Sinatra Songs”).
The vaguely medieval air of “Lady Jane,” for example, is set to a modern variation of some kind of antique courtly dance. “Not Fade Away” and “Play With Fire” underscore a couple of a raucously comic battles of the sexes between Cavin Conley and Erin Pritchard, and Andrew Silks and Chelsea Keefer, respectively.
“As Tears Go By” has Silks and Keefer as two romantically lost souls, trying to connect with the trios of men and women, yet being continually rebuffed. Jose Antonio Checa Romero finds himself tormented by a trio of very independent women in “Paint It Black,” while “Ruby Tuesday” underscores a gorgeous solo by Son that could be that of a woman driven mad by loneliness, so that the final leap she makes, into the arms of a quartet of men, could be a leap of death, or a leap of faith.
“Sympathy for the Devil” brings everything together while at the same time hinting at how that sense of innocence, these ways that men and women interact, are about to come apart.
“Paint It Black” continues with performances 3 p.m. Sunday and March 23, and 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, at the Lorton Performance Center, 550 S. Gary Ave. For tickets: 918-749-6006, myticketoffice.com.