Ballet Austin's Masters of Dance

This triple bill of abstract works was a tribute to the piano and its range, excellently performed

In Creases in Ballet Austin's Masters of Dance (Photo by Anne Marie Bloodgood)

Piano moves the body. It's a rule that ballet dancers live by – in the daily class, the pianist coaxes out their first gentle exercises and buoys their jumps in bounding grand allegros. (Before the modern piano came into wide use, dancers eked out their tendus to the violin.) Ballet Austin's triple bill of piano-centric abstract works was an ode to the instrument and its range, performed excellently by the company and guest musicians.

The program opener, Justin Peck's In Creases (2012), was danced to the first and third movements of Philip Glass' Four Movements for Two Pianos, which make you feel you're ready to stand up and do something. It was the first work that Peck made for New York City Ballet, where he is now a soloist and resident choreographer. Eight dancers in light gray leotards began in a circle, facing one another, as did pianists Michelle Schumann and Faith DeBow, at two grand pianos behind them. Snowflake designs, precise, quiet, and brightly lit (by lighting designer Mark Stanley), were the first forms to emerge. Arms and legs pointed like arrows, and one dancer's leg became the hand of a clock when her partner turned her (the surrounding dancers ducked out of her way). In single-file lines, the dancers tick-tocked their heads and posed their arms in precise, complex riffs on the old Krishna trick. Clock-time was refracted. Dancers were propelled by time, as in a bounding yet spritely solo performed by Kevin Murdock-Waters, but also made their own time to savor, as in the languid moments of a duet danced by Brittany Strickland and Christopher Swaim.

After intermission, members of the Austin Symphony Orchestra and conductor Peter Bay appeared in the pit to play a David Lang score for Shade, a premiere by acclaimed choreographer Pam Tanowitz. In unisex white swing tunics splashed with jewel tones (designed by Reid Bartelme and Harriet Jung), small groups of dancers appeared in front of a center-stage column of light. At the top of the column, a red guillotine-like jagged-edged blade hovered, rising and falling throughout the work. The dancers' lexicon of straight-armed, wide-legged shapes evoked modern and old-world allusions all at once – friezes and robots, mazurkas and neoclassics, Nijinsky and Balanchine. Perhaps the dancers were members of a society, somewhere muddy and bright (the earthy, organic lighting was designed by Clifton Taylor), and perhaps they faced extinction; they sometimes placed one hand on the opposite torso, as though shielding an injury. The music built to an almost Sisyphean question-and-answer motif, with the pianos repeatedly being interrupted mid-sentence by the strings. Pairs of dancers had parallel "conversations," stomping the balls of their feet into the floor to make their points.

Ballet Austin Artistic Director Stephen Mills' Kai (2007) displayed another ecosystem, slipperier, lively, and just as complex. Between striped panels angled to evoke the hull of a ship, eight dancers in teal and orange leotards (by Monica Guerra) flitted and undulated to the exotic clanging of John Cage's music for prepared pianos (a recording). They moved as though propelled by currents, with changes in the lighting, designed by Tony Tucci, eliciting the sun's filtering at various depths. The women wore pointe shoes, but they were just as likely to be carried and dipped, their legs swooping up like mermaids' tails, as they were to rise on the tips of their toes. Relationships were cool but symbiotic, matter of fact, purposeful. An extended duet between Jaime Lynn Witts and Oliver Greene-Cramer showcased exquisite partnering: sure, smooth, and generous, entirely free of grappling. Against the staccato sounds of the amended pianos, their fluidity (ironically, the product of daily practice with plain old – not amended – pianos) was mesmerizing.

Masters of Dance

Dell Hall at the Long Center, 701 Riverside
Feb. 16

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Ballet Austin, Stephen Mills, Justin Peck, Pam Tanowitz, Kevin Murdock-Waters, Brittany Strickland, Christopher Swaim, Jaime Lynn Witts, Oliver Greene-Cramer, Michelle Scuhmann, Faith DeBow, Peter Bay, Mark Stanley, Harriet Jung, Reid Bartelme, Clifton Taylor, Monica Guerra, Tony Tucci

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