Tulsa Ballet
The Joyce Theater
New York, New York

March 9, 2018
Shibuya Blues, Meong, Glass Figures

— Jerry Hochman

Oklahoma is famous for many people and things, including Will Rogers, corn as high as an elephant’s eye, Kristin Chenoweth, wind that comes sweeping down the plain, Hopalong Cassidy (William Boyd), Belle Starr, football, basketball, Mickey Mantle, Johnny Bench, surreys with a fringe on top, Reba McIntyre, Garth Brooks, Maria Tallchief, and tornadoes.

To that list you can now add Tulsa Ballet, which stormed into the Joyce Theater this past week. I saw the company at Friday evening’s performance, and was thoroughly impressed with its crop of energetic and engaging young dancers. While I have some concerns, and didn’t find each of the three contemporary ballets on the program equally successful, at this point – getting to know the company for the first time – these are relatively minor quibbles.

Artistic Director Marcello Angelini apparently brought his entire 27-member company on this visit, the company’s first in nine years, as well as an enthusiastic young cheering section that may have included dancers in its second company and/or from its school. But the dances he selected for this engagement limited the breadth of the program to relatively brief examples of contemporary ballet that, although sufficiently distinctive, all shared a similar energy level and structure. Regardless, after the first piece on the program I found myself so swept away by the caliber of the company’s dancers that they could have presented anything and I probably would have found reason to enjoy it.

I haven’t seen very many dances choreographed by Columbian/Belgian choreographer Annabelle Lopez Ochoa, but of those I’ve seen, Shibuya Blues, which opened the program, is by far the best. It’s interesting, intelligent, accessible, and ultimately, for its novel way of presenting a relatively tired subject, thoroughly entertaining.

Although not a narrative ballet – in many ways it looks purely abstract – Shibuya Blues is decidedly about something: an outsider trying to find her way, and a connection, in a bustling metropolis. The metropolis isn’t identified, and the subject and general locale appeal on a universal level, but between the title, some of the music selected, and the piece’s “feel,” the metropolis is certainly Tokyo. I’ve never been there, but after seeing Shibuya Blues, I feel as if I have.

For those as uninformed as I was, Shibuya is a “Ward” (city) of approximately six square miles within the metropolis of Tokyo that’s home to two of the world’s busiest railway stations and is Tokyo’s major shopping, entertainment, and nightlife center. Think Times Square on steroids. And reportedly – and not surprisingly – it’s a major destination for the area’s millennials.

I didn’t know any of this before I saw Shibuya Blues – and didn’t need to know it. Shibuya Blues showed it to me. But I anticipated something similar based on the piece’s musical credits, the initial piece being Intro/Tokyo by Richard Beggs, from the film Lost in Translation, an insightful, lonely film about lonely strangers in a strange land (Tokyo – in what I now understand to have been the Shibuya Ward).

Structurally, following a brief “prologue,” the piece begins with a crowd scene (which I immediately translated in my mind into a New York City subway or transit hub area – except it looks squeaky clean and everyone is outfitted in virtually identical “upscale,” so it had to be somewhere else). But I thought also that it might be a bustling street location within which commuters and visitors purposefully swarm 24/7 on their way from one place to the next. I learned, again after the dance, that Shibuya has an area in front of the main transportation hub, a “pedestrian scramble crossing” (“Shibuya Crossing”) in which streetlights repeatedly bar traffic to permit pedestrians to fill the area. Within this area (or coextensive with it) is a popular meeting area called Hachiko Square – named after a dog that waited for its owner to return to the station from which he’d departed … for some 12 years. This must have been the dances specific, but unstated, location.

There was no statue of a dog on the stage in Shibuya Blues as there now is on Hachiko Square, but everything else about it looked thoroughly authentic. Between the costume design by Danielle Truss and the lighting by Les Dickert, there’s an intentional uniformity to it (the basic costume color is blue), and an air of a confined space. And, like the tempo of a metropolis, the pounding pace of much of the curated score is relentless.

The story is simple: Outsider (we know she’s at outsider because the ballet begins – the “prologue” of sorts – with her looking into the distance, as if to the place from where she came) attempts to fit into a strange new world of masses of anonymous people who seem to belong and are preoccupied with getting to wherever they’re going, tries to adapt to their mannerisms and idiosyncrasies, repeatedly fails, but then, eventually, hooks up with another outsider. Simple. But as presented and executed, I found it fascinating.

Lopez Ochoa has managed to create individuals within the mass, to isolate them and give them character even amid the uniformity. The movement quality, generally, is agitated/purposeful (staccato, jerky, angular movement), and the crowd’s members are oblivious to the outsider, who gets pushed and bumped and ignored much like pedestrians on a New York street, where walking is a contact sport. Lopez Ochoa isolates the featured dancers within the whole while not in any way changing the dance’s character or its flow. But Shibuya Blues is also remarkably lyrical, and the fact that it’s a ballet, with dancers confined to the street/stage but always seeming to aim to be somewhere or to do something that’s on a “higher” level, provides a multi-textured experience appropriate for an environment that is more multi-textured than it appears to be. I particularly loved where the way Lopez Ochoa has crafted scenes in which the Outsider observes, and briefly interacts with, two isolated couples, creating an imaginary and fleeting – and somewhat heart-wrenching – pas de trois in the process.

The entire cast was exemplary, and the featured pairs of couples, Jaimi Cullen and Joshua Stayton, and Jennifer Grace and Jonnathan Ramirez, danced exquisitely, expansively, and sensually, albeit also somewhat (intentionally) distractedly. But the dance belonged to tiny Maine Kawashima, a waif possessed of steely but gentle determination, and not a little talent. Dressed differently from the others (in white), Kawashima is a marvel of frustration and persistence (she just has to find a way to fit in), vulnerability, intelligence (she’s learning not just new behavior, but a new “language” of interaction), finesse and fluidity, and ultimately, relief. She consistently steals your heart from the moment she walks onto the stage until she’s securely found her connection (with another outsider, as in the fim) and the piece, its story concluded, abruptly ends. She can command the stage on her own (as in a lonely opening solo), and stand out in a crowd. And she’s only a member of the corps.

Helen Pickett’s Meoal (Among) is also well-crafted and the movement quality is unusual and complex-looking, but to me the piece has limited choreographic and emotional significance.

Meoal is choreographed to six songs (instrumental) by Icelandic composer Johann Johannson. Like Shibuya Blues, a key to the piece’s intent may be gleaned from the source of the instrumental songs: four of them are from the 2016 film, Arrival. But if Pickett was in some way attempting to replicate what I understand to be Arrival’s plot (a linguist’s attempt to communicate with aliens in order to avoid a war based on mutual ignorance), Meoal doesn’t succeed. I did see the development of some sort of language, but that, and a considerable amount of weird-looking movement, are the only possible connections to the film that I sensed.

Much more significant to me is the dance’s relationship to the music’s sound. Based on the songs used here, Johannson’s music consists of layer upon layer of muted, echo-y, relatively high-pitched expressions, a chorus of frozen angels. Taking my cue from the composer’s nationality, what I heard was sound that might have emanated from within, or around, a glacier.

Pickett’s choreography, to an extent, reflects this. But it also reduces it to something unforgiving rather than icily celestial. One man (Daniel van de Laar) initially emerges from the wings with a long “kneeling” stretch/lunge utilizing only his legs; his torso remaining vertical and rigid. Eventually, the other dancers in the cast repeat the movement and join him. I suppose that this could have been a visualization of aliens exiting from a spaceship, but to me, and with the “cold” ambiance of the music, the icy costumes by Emma Kingsbury (although some of the women wear distinguishing gauzy partly-colored skirts, for reasons I couldn’t discern), and Deckert’s lighting as if illuminating a clouded, frozen sky, it looked as if the dancers’ rigid torsos had been suddenly freed from a block of ice and their legs were the first parts of their bodies to unfreeze.

The difficulty I have with Meoal is that it doesn’t go anywhere. Eventually the “lunge” motif disappears (but, inexplicably, reappears later), replaced by twitching angularity (those bones had been frozen for too long) and a sense that the dancers were using their arms (after they warmed enough to move) to slice through air that was only a few degrees less frozen than the ice. There’s also a sense of personal exploration: the dancers discover their bodies’ extremities as if they’d never seen or felt them before (they repeatedly examine their hands, for example). And although I also sensed an effort to learn to communicate, it was with each other, and subsumed within the larger context of self-discovery.

The dance isn’t monolithic – there are formed patterns that come and go for no particular reason, and there were occasional pairs of dancers isolated from the larger group who formed romantic connections. And the piece isn’t lacking in some interesting moments, albeit moments that look somewhat frozen in time.

The cast of ten (Tomoka Kawazoe, Regina Montgomery, Madalina Stoica, Grace, Kawashima, Cavan Conley, Rodrigo Hermesmeyer, Chandler Proctor, Jonnathan Ramirez, and Shuhei Yoshido), plus van de Laar, carried off the choreographic intricacies well.

Glass Figures, which had its world premiere on Tuesday, is yet another dance based on a Philip Glass composition (Concerto for Violin and Orchestra No. 1) – but it’s the first (aside from Jerome Robbins’s Glass Pieces) that doesn’t look like it was created by Twyla Tharp. Resident Choreographer Ma Cong’s ballet is purely abstract, with repeated image sequences that reflect the repeated melodies in Glass’s score.

The dance begins with a male dancer under a dome of light, and ends with a pair under the same dome. In between is a movement kaleidoscope involving various permutations of the sixteen dancer cast. Somehow, Cong avoids making everything look the same (as Glass avoids making every melody sound exactly the same), and the dancers, two lead pairs (Stoica – the only principal dancer in the program – and Conley, and Grace and Stayton), two featured pairs (Minori Sakita and Hermesmeyer, and Kawashima and Yoshido), plus a 4/4 corps, carried it off beautifully. The women were particularly outstanding, but I must also recognize the men. Where regional companies tend to have a plethora of highly competent female dancers but a dearth of equally competent males, Tulsa’s male dancers handled the partnering intricacies and athleticism with commendable skill.

Based this program, Tulsa Ballet demonstrates what I’ve been observing for several years – the caliber of dancers, reflecting the training received from an increasing number of dancers who themselves are graduates of major schools and companies, has advanced to the point that high quality dance performances can be seen in any nook and cranny of the country.

However, as noted at the outset, the program doesn’t show everything that needs to be shown to demonstrate what a ballet company and its dancers can do. Even though each of these dances was a ballet, there was no classical ballet with which to gauge the dancers’ abilities.

Based on their company biographies, the dancers all have extensive classical ballet training and performing experience, and I note that the company begins a full-length production of Ben Stevenson’s Cinderella beginning next week, will present Angelini’s The Sleeping Beauty next year, and in recent prior seasons has presented Swan Lake (by Angelini), Don Quixote (by Anna-Marie Holmes after Petipa), John Cranko’s Onegin and The Taming of The Shrew, and of course The Nutcracker. I can’t speak to the quality of these productions, but an excerpt from them might have provided some indication of the company’s depth.

But at the very least this program has whetted my appetite to see Tulsa Ballet and its young dancers again.