Truth & Beauty: The Bach Project

This triple bill wasn't all truth or beauty, but it was a good night at the ballet

Arts Review

Truth & Beauty: The Bach Project

Dell Hall, Long Center for the Performing Arts

Feb. 12

Ballet Austin Artistic Director Stephen Mills has nerve. You'd have to in order to title an artwork Truth & Beauty without so much as a hint of cheekiness or camp. It's a bit hard to take.

I mean, actual truth and beauty, products of alchemies that occur at altitudes so high that subjectivity is thin, are, like, really rare goods of art. (Even in – especially in – an art so plagued by its own preciosity as ballet.) But such was the title of not just one of the works on the triple bill of Mills' choreography but the program itself, so audience members had to either swallow or ignore it.

As it would happen, of the three ballets, I found the least truth and beauty in Truth & Beauty, the program opener. The piece began with the cast of 16, all in long dark skirts by Alexey Korygin, moving through a series of poses to Bach's Orchestral Suite No. 2 in B minor, performed by musicians from the Austin Chamber Music Center. At first, as the ensemble moved in baroque-style poses punctuated with deep, elongated back-bends, the mood had a reverence reminiscent of George Balanchine's Serenade (the choreographer's seminal 1934 ballet that begins as an homage to the art form itself). However, as the piece progressed into sections for smaller groups, the choreography was simply bland – little more than a gallop here, a skip there, plus a sliding-on-pointe trick that was repeated often but never lost its awkwardness. Most sadly, the dancers' response to the live music was generally automatic. For example, Anne Marie Melendez, in a duet with Orlando Julius Canova, seemed rushed, as if she were trying to avoid contact with the music. Jaime Lynn Witts and Frank Shott were exceptions, and they seemed to actually enjoy their duet, playing with the musical phrasing and making the most of their steps. In a sextet, the technical weaknesses of the male dancers sadly shadowed their quite capable female counterparts.

The audience seemed to enjoy the second ballet, the more complex Angel of My Nature, more than the first. Accompanied by pianist Michelle Schumann's performance of selections by Bach and Philip Glass, the darkly lit (by Tony Tucci) piece began with Joseph Hernandez and Edward Carr, near nude and all sinews and lines, alternating undulating and broken movement in a lighted frame. This led into a tensile duet for Carr and Michelle Thompson, engrossing because of the movements themselves and Thompson's athletic-yet-expressive arms and upper body. The duet ended in a blackout with the dancers leaning precariously on each other, each balanced by the other's weight. A sextet against a backdrop of projected ocean waves followed by an ensemble section were equally interesting and explored a theme of the dark and deep – cavelike and underwater – until the last minutes of the piece, when the cast traded their dark-green and black leotards and tights for minimal nude ones and stretched toward a bright light high above them.

Last on the program was Bounce, a high-energy but still dark piece to a new composition by Graham Reynolds, inspired by Bach's Suite in A minor. For the ballet, Reynolds transformed the original composition for harpsichord into a big-band-plus-orchestra affair that included some baroque structure and pulsing elements à la Glass. In this piece, an ensemble of eight moved quickly among various groovy moods, including the atmospheric, the military, and the swinging, and overall looked very good – all, including Melendez here, seemed involved with the music. A shimmering backdrop, like those of midcentury variety shows, was a bit distracting, and while the women's brassy dresses worked well, the men's dark-blue T-shirts and black pants (costumes by Emily Cavasar), again lit darkly by Tucci, resulted in a bruiselike palette that didn't seem to quite mesh with the music and movement. My summation: Truth? Hmm. Beauty? Some. A pretty good night at the ballet? For sure.

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Truth & Beauty: The Bach Project, Ballet Austin, Stephen Mills, Michelle Schumann, Graham Reynolds, Anne Marie Melendez, Jaime Lynn Witts, Frank Shott, Michelle Thompson

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