Ballet West’s stupendous Choreographic Festival VI: Asian Voices sets gold standard for artistic innovation

In 2017, when Ballet West launched its choreographic festival, Adam Sklute, artistic director, told Dance Magazine, “We want this festival for choreography to do what the Sundance Film Festival does for film—create a hub for creativity in dance.” Judging by the exceptionally enthusiastic response from the opening night audience, this week’s Choreographic Festival VI: Asian Voices has clinched the gold standard for artistic innovation, with marvelous works by four internationally known choreographers performed by Ballet West and the Columbus, Ohio-based BalletMet.

Exhilarating and inventive at every turn, Asian Voices is multidimensional in exploring choreographic storytelling through uplifting themes of nostalgia, the liberating energy of youth, migration, universal journeys of love and relationships and the certainty of historical and natural time cycles. Two world premieres by Asian female choreographers and two Utah premieres by Asian male choreographers electrified the stage at the Jeanné Wagner Theatre in the Rose Wagner Center for Performing Arts. 

Katlyn Addison and Hadriel Diniz, Play On Impulse, by Caili Quan, Ballet West. Photo: Beau Pearson.

Capping an outstanding 60th anniversary season for Ballet West, the stupendous Asian Voices production sizzles with the precise cinematic-like emotional energy that makes such festivals a must-attend destination for dedicated arts audiences of all intellectual and demographic stripes. In each work, as noted in a preview published at The Utah Review, Asian artists effectively draw on techniques that have been practiced for centuries while they also incorporate their own interconnected sense of identity, to forge their creative futures that are ingenious and resonate with the foundations of their own heritage. 

A world premiere for the opener, Caili Quan’s Play on Impulse, nostalgically inspired in part by her quest for personal and artistic freedom as a teenager in Guam, put the spontaneous burst back in pop music classics, reminding us of why these songs became hits when they arrived on the airwaves. The 12 dancers found their groove immediately with Quan’s choreography, clearly telegraphing the meaning  of the songs on her eclectic mix tape. In the opening section, the dancers captured the essence of Björk’s Human Behaviour, as teens who understand each other but could never abide the drama or nonsense of adults around them. From 1990, Deee-Lite’s most commercially successful song, Groove Is in The Heart, became a sassy, funky dance club on stage, which rightly tickled the audience. Likewise, the dancers proved the point of The Cardigans’ Lovefool perfectly, not only showing off the pop rock song’s upbeat, sunny vibe but also the not-so-cheery, desperate-sounding essence of its lyrics:  “love me, love me,” “fool me, fool me” and “leave me, leave me.”

Two duets captured the highs and lows of young love. Katlyn Addison and Hadriel Diniz did full justice to Quan’s choreographic interpretation of the venerable pop standard Blue Moon, as sung by Elvis Presley. Meanwhile, Jenna Rae Herrera and Vinicius Lima were simultaneously poignant, introspective and ravishing in their dance to The Velvet Underground’s After Hours. Quan’s choreographic connection to this song’s sense of escaping from reality was unforgettable. A night with a favorite person after the club can be so vibrant that we want so desperately to preserve it by “never having to see the day again,” a sentiment that resonated in Herrera and Lima’s performance. Quan’s Play on Impulse is a treasured refuge from reality, rendered splendidly in her finely articulated choreographic language. 

Jenna Rae Herrera and Vinicius Lima, Play On Impulse, by Caili Quan, Ballet West. Photo: Beau Pearson.

Receiving its Utah premiere, Phil Chan’s Amber Waves, a duet performed with utmost sincerity by Emily Adams and Hadriel Diniz, provided the evening’s most touching moments. Chan’s Amber Waves was first performed at the Oakland Ballet’s Dancing Moons Festival in 2022. The work is set to a Meditation on America the Beautiful by Chinese-American composer Huang Ruo, which was commissioned by Min Kwon, as part of reinterpretations of America the Beautiful themes from 75 composers.

Ruo’s meditation for solo piano is classic minimalism crafted through repeated phrases and motifs, some of which suggest water freezing and then melting and darkness replaced by sunshine. Nicholas Maughan performed and shaped the music with commendable sensitivity. The metaphorical connections to the immigrant’s alternating cycles of hope and success against apprehension and disappointment are clear, as Adams and Diniz move repeatedly in and out of light. Chan’s poetic choreography lines up elegantly with the juxtaposition: an uncertain and prolonged winter many immigrants know all too well, who know keenly that not everyone will welcome them or even offer a modicum of respect, and then the promise of spring, when opportunities blossom anew for immigrants to thrive in America. In the closing moments of the six-minute duet, the counterpoint struck me vividly and I choked up momentarily, recalling the disturbing volume of anti-immigrant media I had read earlier that day. Amber Waves proves that the power of dance and music, when united, should never be underestimated. 

Emily Adams and Hadriel Diniz, Amber Waves, by Phil Chan, Ballet West. Photo: Beau Pearson.

Just as dramatic and theatrical in scope, Zhong-Jing Fang’s Somewhere in Time, for a cast of 18 dancers, made for grand, fabulous storytelling, accompanied by Deanna H. Choi’s original recorded score, just as resplendent with all sorts of string instrument textures. The music matched the choreographer’s intended emotional pivots in her movement language, creating three scenes that would be as effective on the cinematic screen as they were on the dance stage. The first section is primal fantasy and mythology, with Katlyn Addison as Goddess, who come on stage with a long ribbon cape trailing behind her, and six couples joining her, who function like a choreographic chorus from classical mythology. Once the Goddess unburdens herself of the cape, the evolutionary clock starts ticking for finding human connection. 

The images come through in the choreography: crabs scuttling and sidling along  a rocky beach and birds of paradise ready to take off in formation. In the second section, pedestrians on a busy street in the heart of the city move provocatively like runway models in a signature Alexander McQueen fashion show. Again, Choi’s score pits a deep pulsating rhythm against strings, as partner combos change up frequently throughout the section. Anyone’s chance at lasting romance is fleeting at best, and one is more likely to end up alone. The third movement percolates with an earthy, sinewy sensuality about forbidden love that brings the entire work full circle. The dancers’ theatrical gestures and eye contact are as elucidating as their choreographed movement. Indeed, everlasting love is an elusive goal because it does not thrive as much on the fervor of romance than it does on genuine companionship which can sustain through the ages when we realize that our understanding of the ‘perfect fit’ is not what we thought it might have been. During the intermission, I overheard some audience members praising the visceral physicality and athletic smoothness in Fang’s work.  

Artists of Ballet West, Somewhere in Time, By Zhong-Jing Fang. Photo: Beau Pearson.

Vivaldi’s Four Seasons is ubiquitously familiar, nearly to the point of staleness or boredom. Four Seasons has been played so much and used just as extensively in commercials, retail settings and office buildings as ambient music that it becomes an afterthought. More than a dozen years ago, Max Richter recomposed the Vivaldi set, filled with ambient electronically reconfigured fragments, along with looped and phased samples of about 25% of Vivaldi’s original music. As with many other listeners, Edwaard Liang, The Washington Ballet Company’s artistic director, who is set to leave BalletMet in Columbus, Ohio after 11 seasons and is the first Asian American to lead a major ballet company in the U.S., was struck by the brilliance of Richter’s score, which the composer said was like having a new invigorating conversation with an old friend.

In Liang’s crisp choreographic imagery for Seasons, the BalletMet dancers embody unmistakably the natural characteristics defining each of the four seasons. The stage is marked by large trees painted red, along with a fantastic design of lighting to convey the shift from one season to another. A solo and pas de deux are offered for two of the seasons while a pas de deux marks summer and a solo marks autumn. Jessica Brown (solo) and Caitlin Valentine, and David Ward (pas de deux) are festive, moving like the gentle breezes and brilliant light of the progressively lengthening spring day. Sophie Miklosovic and Alvin Tovstogray in their pas de deux, evoke the heat and maximum brilliance of a summer afternoon, languishing in a pastoral setting. Miguel Anaya’s solo in the still mild days of autumn is ebullient, tight and joyful. In their pas de deux, Grace-Anne Powers and Austin Powers evoke the cold rain and ice of a stormy winter while seeking protection and comfort with each other, while Anaya’s eye-popping solo reminds of the ferocity of winter’s winds. The breathtaking moment is the closing when the entire cast of 12 dancers recreates the opening sculptural configuration as the lighting dims, signifying that the entire cycle is about to start anew.  

Katlyn Addison, Somewhere in Time, By Zhong-Jing Fang. Photo: Beau Pearson.

In Liang’s version and BalletMet’s scintillating performance, Vivaldi’s Four Seasons appeared fresh and vibrant for the 21st century and the audience did not hold back from showing its delight and approval throughout every section of the work. Liang’s Seasons and his embrace of the recomposed score by Richter emphasize that no one should ever feel frustrated about recompositions, remixes or changes to music or ballet works that past generations might have insisted on keeping intact. This harkens back to Chan’s efforts as an internationally known choreographer whose organization Final Bow for Yellowface initially engaged the ballet world’s artistic gatekeepers to resist treating the art form’s most famous classic works as untouchable time capsules. 

Performances will continue today at 7:30 p.m. and tomorrow (June 8) at 2 p.m. and 7:30 p.m.

Ballet West will also return to the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. for its second visit this season, to be part of 10,000 Dreams: A Celebration of Asian Choreography Festival and Gala (June 18 – 23). Chan and Ballet West collaborated to orchestrate the festival in the nation’s capital, where the company will perform along with The Washington Ballet, Pacific Northwest Ballet, Singapore Ballet, Goh Ballet, Dana Tai Soon Burgess Dance Company, Houston Ballet and dancers from the National Ballet of China.

For more information, see the Ballet West website.

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