Buckle Up for Cincinnati Ballet’s ‘Kaplan New Works Series’

This year's installment delivers contemporary dance performances infused with high-energy choreography.

click to enlarge "Plays Well Together" opened the evening of performances. - Peter Muller
Peter Muller
"Plays Well Together" opened the evening of performances.

The latest installment of The Kaplan New Works Series, Cincinnati Ballet’s annual production of new contemporary works, kicked the company’s 2018-2019 season off with an energetic jolt on Sept. 13 at the Aronoff Center for the Arts.

“I kind of wish your seats had seatbelts,” said artistic director Victoria Morgan in her pre-show speech. “If they did, I’d say, ‘Buckle up. You’re in for a hell of a ride.’ ”

“Plays Well Together” opened the evening. It is a playful choreographic confection from Cincinnati Ballet corps de ballet dancer Taylor Carrasco, who participated in the company’s choreographer’s workshop. Now, his work is being given the big-stage treatment.

The performance begins with eight dancers dressed in athleisure streetwear as they step into a circle of light with party hats in the middle. They put on the hats and the party really gets started, with frenetic jumping and a contagious energy. When I spoke with Carrasco earlier this summer about his foray into choreography, he said he was inspired by a serendipitous moment at a grocery store, where he and a handful of strangers all started dancing to a song playing overhead. 

There are three distinct movements in “Plays Well”; the second is moody with contemplative violins, and feels a bit disjointed. The third is a return to the exuberance of the first, if more frenzied. As my notes read: “Demented conga line!” Overall, it has much for Carrasco to be proud of.

The regional premiere of So You Think You Can Dance choreographer Mia Michaels’ “calling you” was next, set to a song of the same title by Celine Dion. It features a park bench, a sunflower and senior soloist Maizyalet Velázquez and soloist James Cunningham as a tortured couple. The requisite, back-arched leap from the bench into one another’s arms, overused flower symbolism and a full-bodied slide from under the bench has been seen countless times before; while So You Think You Can Dance fans probably won’t be disappointed, it is a slight piece with nothing fresh to offer, although the dancers do their best with the well-worn territory.  

The last work of the first half is the refreshing “Quem Viver, Verá (He Who Lives Shall See),” by resident choreographer Jennifer Archibald. When we spoke earlier this summer, she promised a challenging work — not only for herself, but for audiences, too. 

It’s a moving meditation on masculinity in the contemporary world: contemplative, self-aware and well-timed. Clad in one-sleeved jackets, “Quem” begins with five men under their own dim spotlights before they join together in moments of unison.  The excellent lighting design features vertical lines that resemble the slats of a window blind, which heighten the sense of voyeurism that pervades the piece. Principal dancer Cervilio Miguel Amador and corps de ballet dancer Michael Mengden were particularly moving in this work. In fact, all five dancers were extremely well-cast, showcasing their athleticism and emotional virtuosity.

click to enlarge "Quen Viver, Verá," as translated to "He Who Lives Shall See." - Peter Muller
Peter Muller
"Quen Viver, Verá," as translated to "He Who Lives Shall See."

Cincinnati Ballet dancer David Morse’s world premiere of “Gathering” was my favorite of the night.  The curtain opened to reveal a stage set with no backdrop; the stage lights were drawn down, and pairs of dancers interspersed around them as the lights lifted back up. The music featured rhythmic electronic minimalism, fuzzed-out dissonance and a constant flurry of hand motions and twitches; the choreography feels like watching bits of Balanchine and other classical ballet through a fun-house mirror.

At times, “Gathering” is purposefully disorienting before slipping into coherence, like something blurry coming into focus. Apprentice Samantha Riester was captivating, a real standout in a great cast. The work ends with a brilliant flash of light and I couldn’t dream up something more appropriate. 

Myles Thatcher of San Francisco Ballet closed the evening with “Anomaly.” Musically, this work is similar to “Gathering,” albeit featuring women en pointe. It opens on dancers walking over principal dancer Chisako Oga, who is rolling on the ground. Engaging moments include reverse-gendered partnering between Velázquez and principal dancer Melissa Gelfin, Amador and Mengden, and a crackling pas between Oga and senior soloist Edward Gonzalez Kay. It took a few minutes for me to settle into “Anomaly” but I grew to enjoy the angularity and ostracization the choreography underscored.

The Kaplan New Works Series has to live up to its own knockout reputation each year. Rest assured, this season does. 

The Kaplan New Works Series runs through Sept. 23 at the Aronoff Center. More info/tickets: cballet.org

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