Nancy Henderek, Dance Salad Festival’s Artistic Director, made an astute choice in bringing Queensland Ballet to the US. This vibrant company of thirty-six dancers is flexing its cultural muscles and six of the company debuted with two American premieres.
Artistic Director, Li Cunxin, is no stranger to Houston as he spent thirteen years as a principal dancer with Houston Ballet. Now in his third season with Queensland Ballet he is using his wealth of dance experience, business acumen and world fame as Mao’s Last Dancer to effective use. Nils Christe’s Short Dialogues is an atmospheric work to Philip Glass’ restless, insistent Concerto for Violin and Orchestra. Christe’s skilfully structured choreography flows relentlessly as couples appear briefly from the smoky background before melting back into the mist.
Each duet has its own language. Ethereal Lina Kim partnered by Shane Wuerthner had the most evocative entrance in a series of jetés that launched skywards like a bird in flight, before dramatically sweeping to the stage. The duet for Clare Morehan and Emilio Pavan was more earthed featuring some of Christe’s most beautifully shaped lifts. Together with Mia Thompson and Hao Bin, these six dancers provided evidence of a company of high professional standard. They all show strong technical training in addition to finely honed performance skills and a welcome sensitivity to the emotion and music.
The second work, Andrew Simmons’ Through to You, although given equally strong performances by Morehan and Bin, was less successful. The highly imaginative lighting design became the dominant feature and almost overwhelmed the choreography. The bulky banks of onstage lights threatened to devour the dancers and the flux of light and shadows obscured rather than accentuated the movement. The fussiness of the lighting design was also at odds with the pure crystalline structure of Arvo Pärt’s Spiegel in Spiegel and I longed for a clear uncluttered stage.
Simmons is a choreographer who is gaining favourable notices and world attention but in this duet he seemed to be struggling to find a definitive voice and, notably in the ports de bras, the movements seemed to fluctuate between the derivative and the indistinct. There were moments of beauty but unfortunately they were not seen to best effect. However, in August London audiences will be able to see the company for themselves as they
make their London debut in Bournonville’s La Sylphide at the Coliseum.
There were four other, very diverse, pas de deux at this year’s Festival. Karole Armitage, no stranger to the Festival, made a welcome return with a curation of Ligeti’s Essays which found balance in contrast. Megumi Eda in her twelfth season with the Armitage Gone! Dance Company is the perfect exponent of Armitage’s terse and very distinctive voice. She was paired with one of the newer dancers, Ahmaud Culver a young man with an already formidable presence who was well able to hold his own and to complement Eda’s style. The work written in 2005 has the pristine quality of Piet Mondrian’s stark black lines on a white canvas and was constantly engaging.
It was a great pleasure to see the home company, Houston Ballet performing at the Festival and I hope they continue to participate in the future. Sadly Annabelle Lopez Ochoa, who has presented such exciting work in past Festivals, did not deliver this time. Shadow Lovers, a lightweight fantasy in blue was written in more classical style than is usual for Ochoa and lacked inspiration. It followed a well-trodden balletic path interspersed with flashes of gymnastic virtuosity: a strange mix when set to the lyric beauty of Henry Purcell’s Lament from Dido and Aeneas. Melody Mennite and Connor Walsh, two of Houston’s finest did their best in a lost cause.
Dresden also sent top principals, Courtney Richardson and Fabien Voranger. They offered the briefest of extracts from William Forsythe’s Workwithinwork. However, despite the quality of both the choreography and the performers it was too short to make its presence felt: slick and sophisticated but just getting going when it finished.
Thankfully Richardson and Voranger also performed David Dawson’s Opus 11 to Greg Haines’ commissioned score. Written as a tribute to Dawson’s lifetime colleagues, Yumiko Takeshima (who was also responsible for the costumes) and Raphaël Coumes-Marquet, it finds a different expression in the hands of two newer exponents of his style. There are still tender moments of quiet togetherness amidst the waves of movement but it shifts from the casual intimacy of experienced partners to a relationship with more edge and a style with more weight. The skating on the edge of a pointe shoe and the upswept inverted passé that draws to a classic fifth position are in evidence and are given the speed and detail the
American born, Richardson is one of Dawson’s favourite interpreters and it is easy to see why. Her movements are powered by impressive physical strength which she combines with acute sensitivity to the quality of each move. It is often in the nature of duets with a classical base that the females get better opportunities than the men and with many of these duets this was the case. A male solo would have been a welcome addition.
This year marks the 20th Dance Salad Festival in Houston. The international mix provides a great meeting place for dancers and directors and of course, enormous pleasure to the audiences. The intrepid Nancy Henderek will soon be off on her travels in search for new treasures and I wait, with eager anticipation, to see what this unique Festival offers in 2016.