Performa / Dance's Artist and Muse

This program of four pensive and sensitive works explored physical and emotional distress and pain in great depth

Mark your calendars for next June: Performa/Dance, led by choreographer Jennifer Hart, presents just one concert per year, after the Ballet Austin season ends but before the company dancers and Hart, who holds a position at the Ballet Austin Academy, make their pilgrimages to summer appointments elsewhere. This year, the troupe performed four pensive and sensitive works days before Hart won an Austin Critics Table award for her choreography of "Fellow Travelers," a work presented on last June's program, as well as "Murmuration," a piece created for Ballet Austin II and reprised in this year's June concert, titled Artist and Muse.

I was glad to be able to see the avian-inspired "Murmuration" again. In unisex black tunics, designed by Emily Cawood, with grackle-esque iridescence slashed across the bodices, a flock of 10 dancers ebbed, drove, and changed directions, to driving string compositions by Zoë Keating and Ben Frost. I wished I could have seen this dance on a larger stage, from a higher row, to better observe Hart's patterns and formations. Nevertheless, the work had plenty to offer at close range: the instinctual drive of the group, their real-bird broken wrists and angular postures, Kevin Murdock-Waters' smooth and mysterious solo, and the allusions to birds of ballets past – swans, alive and dying, and others – peppered throughout the piece like Easter eggs.

In a program note, Hart described her experience performing, years ago, in Minneapolis choreographer Wynn Fricke's "Two Fridas" as "pivotal." The work, based on Frida Kahlo's painting The Two Fridas and performed by guest dancers Anais Di Filippo and Francesca Dugarte, both originally from Venezuela, was second on the program, continuing the Performa/Dance ethos of presenting work from Hart's contemporaries alongside her own work. In Fricke's riffs on the painting, in which two versions of Kahlo sit side by side on a bench, the dancers morphed between mirroring each other and becoming conjoined, exploring the dualities and inescapable tethers – among them, physical distress and pain – that are the subjects of the Kahlo painting.

The third work, Hart's "The Beast," also centered on the experience of pain. In the program, Hart noted that conversations about the ethics of using torture in interrogation inspired her to explore pain – the thing itself. To screaming and whining strings (music by Krzysztof Penderecki and John Tavener), dancer Oliver Greene-Cramer writhed, flexed, evaded, and faced the beast, its purveyor unseen. Steven Myers' lighting made him appear all but faceless but exposed with each tensing sinew and twisted tendon.

After intermission came Hart's epitomic one-act ballet Camille: A Story of Art and Love. Based on the life of Camille Claudel – the underappreciated sculptor, mistress of Auguste Rodin, and woman torturously misunderstood, feared, and therefore locked away in an asylum by her family – the ballet is a distillation of everything you love about ballet, untainted by anything that gets in the way. There is a love triangle, a jilted lover, and a mad scene, all evoked through plaintive and wrenching movement, and glossed by a chorus of "sculptures," to a dramatic score (Schubert's "Death and the Maiden" string quartet). The cast of nine was superb, with Elise Pekarek as Rose Beuret (Rodin's wife), Edward Carr (associate director of Performa/Dance) as the suave Rodin, and Oren Porterfield as Claudel.

Hart created the role for Porterfield two years ago, and this reprise marked Porterfield's final performances before her retirement from ballet (she'd just ended her ninth and final season with Ballet Austin). With an unrestrainable intensity just this side of classical and a sensuality that always threatened to thaw out cool neoclassicism, Porterfield was an exciting presence on the Ballet Austin stage because she didn't – perhaps couldn't – chameleon herself into a corps of swans, snowflakes, or hypermanipulated bodies. Claudel is a role that gave Porterfield back as much as she gave to it. Neither Porterfield nor Claudel being satisfied with facades, this thrilling exchange, between the 21st century dancer at the precipice of a new chapter in her life and the sculptor at the turn of the 20th century losing her grip on the artist's life she had clawed her way into, continued to great depths.

Artist and Muse

AustinVentures StudioTheater
June 2

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Performa / Dance, Jennifer Hart, Oren Porterfield, Edward Carr, Oliver Greene-Cramer, Elise Pekarek, Kevin Murdock-Waters, Wynn Fricke, Anais Di Filippo, Francesca Dugarte, Emily Cawood, Steven Myers, Frida Kahlo, Camille Claudel, Auguste Rodin

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