New American Talent / Dance

Energy and choreographic craft keep this competition springtime fresh

Arts Review

New American Talent/Dance

AustinVentures StudioTheater, 501 W. Third, 476-2163,

Through April 4

Running time: 1 hr., 30 min.

The darkest psycho-emotional struggles. Nostalgia thick as cigar smoke. The familiarity and absurdity of ritual. These themes, combined with good design, eager and energetic dancers, and no small degree of theatrical and choreographic craft

made the New American Talent/Dance choreographic competition an evening of dancing as fresh as – oh, whatever – insert your best springtime analogy here.

Finalists K.T. Nelson, Dominic Walsh, and Nelly van Bommel, chosen from a slush pile of 75 applicants, were each required to create a 20-minute work with Ballet Austin dancers using only 40 hours of studio time. Each choreographer also received the services of a rehearsal assistant, costume designer Alexey Korygin, and lighting designer Toni Tucci as they competed for the total of 20,000 smackers, distributed among the artists by judges and audience votes. The judges cast their votes after the March 27 performance: $3,000 went to Nelson, $6,000 to Walsh, and $6,000 to van Bommel. Each night, an additional $500 goes to the audience favorite. (At the March 26 performance, my vote for van Bommel was beat out by supporters of Walsh.)

Nelson's work is by far the darkest of the three and also the most abstract and roughest around the edges. Titled "When Love Is Hard," the piece plunges into an army-green and black place – what one might call an emotionally bad place. The dancers stomp, heave, and writhe in a quite literal interpretation of the dissonant pieces for strings by Borut Krzisnik that accompany it. Sections of flatfooted walking and running link moments of struggle, despair, and abuse. Overall, the piece is rather ugly, and while it is difficult to watch, if Nelson's intent was to capture the ugliness in love, I believe she is at least moderately successful.

Next up is "The Whistling" by Walsh, former Houston Ballet dancer and current director of his own company in that city. Danced mostly to songs by Beny Moré and other Latin singers of the mid-20th century, the movement is relaxed, smooth as Cuban coffee, and punctuated by some cubist-looking poses and cheery humor. The lighting and costume design work to create a warm, sepia-toned setting – it could be a Havana cafe in the 1950s – and the charming argyle socks, sans shoes, on the dancers' feet nudge good humor into the look and bring to mind the subjectivity of memory. A framework for the piece involves a near-nude Ashley Lynn Gilfix and Joseph Hernandez undulating as some sort of apparitions that lead the way in and out of the memory.

"Fanfarnèta," by the French-born, New York-based van Bommel, is the program finale. Eight dancers take on the roles of lads and lasses in an imagined folk culture, the women with their hair in beribboned braids and wearing rosy full skirts, the men in matching bloomers. Barefoot, they bounce through a series of jaunty episodes exploring rituals of courtship. The sheer joy, energy, and humor of the piece makes this microculture endearing, and the absurdity of some of the rituals – such as one in which each woman has to walk between rows of her peers as they hold her braids out at the sides of her head – cleverly questions the little rites we all practice that add up to what we call our "culture." The dancers excel in this athletic piece, letting the energy level climb and never drop. However, the episodic nature of the work allows only snapshots of some ideas. It certainly seems as though van Bommel has enough material to develop the piece into a longer work, and I hope she does.

Besides bringing some very good and interesting work to Austin, the competition illuminates Ballet Austin's best dancers. The choreographers' casting choices were telling. Although any dancer could be cast in a maximum of only two of the three works, those chosen twice were Jaime Lynn Witts, Michelle Thompson, Beth Terwilleger, Oren Porterfield (although she is not performing, due to injury), Frank Shott, Paul Michael Bloodgood, and Joseph Hernandez. This group represents the solid core of the company, those who have a strong technical base, are comfortable in the most diverse repertoire, throw themselves into new work with gusto, and seem to be thinkers as well as movers.

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New American Talent / Dance, Ballet Austin, KT Nelson, Dominic Walsh, Nelly van Bommel, Ashley Lynn Gilfix, Joseph Hernandez

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