Studio Theater Project

The mixed program offers a rich variety of dance that defies easy summation

Arts Review

Studio Theater Project

AustinVentures StudioTheater, 501 W. Third

Through April 3

A mixed dance program in which each work is textured and interesting in some way yet very different from the others makes for a difficult review. But the limitations and difficulties of exploring dance via ever-smaller blocks of text are for critics to contend with. Ballet Austin should be praised for presenting a rich Studio Theater Project that defies critical bow-tying and summation.

For its biennial Studio Theater Project, the company presents a program of short works in the up close and personal setting of its 300-seat AustinVentures StudioTheater. This year, two of the three offerings are choreographed by Artistic Director Stephen Mills. The first, "Luminaria," was commissioned for the San Antonio festival of the same name and premiered there earlier in March. Set to Spanish baroque music, the dance for four couples is springlike and buoyant, but Mills' response to the music pushes the work beyond the crowd-pleasing fluff it might have been. Throughout the piece, the dancers hold their arms and hands in gestures reminiscent of ballet's ancestor, court dance: the arms held away from the body, as if to make room for the voluminous garments of the period, the line broken at the wrists; the hands exceedingly soft, fingers separated and curved, as if displaying the weight of heavy metals. (The garments the dancers actually wear, however, look cheap in the intimate setting.) In court dance, the legs and feet stay near the ground and make only slight movements, but in "Luminaria," the baroque style of the gestures seem to be enlarged into whole-body shapes. This style requires an entirely unhurried manner and regal grace, and not all the dancers are able to maintain it, especially in quicker, heated sections. Of the women, Oren Porterfield and Aara Krumpe pull it off the best, and among the men, I saw the most glimpses of well-channeled energy in James Fuller.

I can't begin a sentence with the title of the second work by Mills, the lowercase "silence within silence," revived from 2007. Inspired by sexy E.E. Cummings poems and set to piano music by Brahms, "silence" shows Mills' talent for intricate, physical partnering. For example, Ashley Lynn Gilfix bends into a grand plié, and when Frank Shott jerks her up him, she spins in the air, horizontally, ending up in his arms in a kind of fish dive. Overall, the tone of the ballet is full of angst, and the costuming – stretchy gaucho pants, really? – is bland. The structure, a series of duets followed by an ensemble finale, is one that Mills employs often. But the ballet does elicit a truth in the way that one member of a couple manipulates the other to a certain position, only to discover that position to be awkward or wrong. And near the end, I saw Gilfix stand en pointe on Shott's stomach, and despite that indignity he rose to catch her just before she fell into a hopeless back bend. The embrace that followed was more than forgiving; it was erasing.

For the last ballet, the company welcomed into its repertory a second work by internationally known choreographer Nicolo Fonte. "Lasting Imprint," a 2006 work that uses dream worlds and the conceit of a figure in white as stepping-off points, is a futuristic-looking work. Cut out leotards for the women and cozy-looking unisex ribbed leggings by Marija Djordjevic seem space age and organic at the same time, and a white floor eliminates the need for bright lighting and gives the space a cool, moonlike glow. For the first several minutes of the piece, the dancers move and balance in silence, with a modulated, punctuated energy that seems to expand to fill the small venue. Then, the pace makes a sharp change when red lighting switches on, along with the driving rhythms of music by Steve Reich. The way dancers are grouped in the work is refreshing: Often a single woman and several men dance the same steps, and pairings are fluid, not monogamous. Paul Michael Bloodgood as the figure in white looks as if he never exhales, even though a frantic tone seems intentional in a solo section. In white greasepaint, Bloodgood's character appears to encounter an omen and duty; bewildered and obsessed, he smears it until his top half is covered. Kirby Wallis runs to him, and she is tagged, too – tainted with white.

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Studio Theater Project, Ballet Austin, Stephen Mills, Nicolo Fonte, Oren Porterfield, Aara Krumpe, Ashley Lynn Gilfix, Frank Shott, Paul Michael Bloodgood, Kirby Wallis

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