The Kaplan New Works Series, Cincinnati Ballet’s annual season opener, kicked off on Sept. 12 at the Aronoff Center for the Arts. The program is stacked with six world premieres from a variety of artists, including three of the Cincinnati Ballet’s own dancers.
Corps de ballet dancer Taylor Carrasco’s Neat opened the evening. His music is a medley of plaintive and folksy odes to alcohol, specifically whiskey, hence the title of his piece (a reference to a serving of the spirit sans ice). It could also reference his even-paced, fluid choreography. Every gesture, twist and bend felt as carefree, confident and sensual as you might after, say, a few shots.
Carrasco’s cast of four includes ray-of-sunshine Samantha Riester, who dances with exuberance and precision. Michael Mengden makes masterful emotional and physical work as someone with an addiction who just can’t quit its seductive routine. Kudos to Carrasco for the 1930s-esque costuming, too, and the moments of silence that connect each segment.
Skylight came next, from choreographer Sarah Van Patten, a principal dancer with San Francisco Ballet. The tightly executed work opens on corps de ballet dancer Christina LaForgia Morse, who looks forlorn. Soloist David Morse joins her for a lovely pas de deux full of beautiful lifts and fraught gestures. Two more pairs of dancers eventually join; principal dancer Sirui Liu was particularly emotive and graceful. By the third sequence, I felt that each pair was a shadow of the original, reflecting past iterations of themselves and their relationships.
Closing the first half of New Works was Swivet, a frenetic, exciting work from choreographer Andrea Schermoly, who has danced for the Boston Ballet Company and the Netherlands Dance Theater. The music begins with an alien-like drone as principal dancers Melissa Gelfin and Cervilio Miguel Amador take the stage for an angular, complex pas de deux, showcasing their individual talents and paired chemistry. Senior soloist Maizyalet Velázquez and soloist Joshua Stayton were strong, and new soloist Minori Sakita was particularly controlled and expressive. The work ends with a coda-like pas that slightly lessened the impact of the rest of the turbulent piece. But overall, Swivet sticks with you long after the curtains close.
Following intermission can be intimidating, but Clockwise, Gelfin’s debut choreographic work, lived up to the challenge. A response to the loss of her father and grandmother, Clockwise is a brief but powerful meditation on the passage of time. Clad in black, Amador feels like the physical embodiment of death. Though it’s a fairly literal representation, Gelfin’s fleet-footed, nuanced choreography fleshes it out. Apprentice Amanda Valentino and Liu are wonderful, as are soloists Marcus Romeo and Mengden.
Morse’s As I Stare at Dust comes next, a ruminative piece with a backstory about spiritual grieving. It opens on an older woman in a chair, sipping tea, putting on an album and being taken away in a visual reverie. Riester and LaForgia Morse are paired with Carrasco and new dancer Daniel Baldwin. Morse is a fan of hand gestures, which can be slightly redundant, but his meta message about the many ways death silences rings true. The choreography feels like a compelling, urgent conversation between the living and the dead.
Closing out the production is beloved choreographer Heather Britt’s incredible When I Still Needed You. This is Britt’s 10th New Works contribution, and they just keep getting better. This year’s ensemble work focuses on the concept of loss, opening with a genuinely gorgeous pas between Amador and Gelfin. Britt is particularly adept at maneuvering large groups of dancers without anyone feeling superfluous, whether in a pile of writhing bodies on the floor or executing turns in tandem.
Propulsive and primal, the music’s urgency radiates through the choreography. Sakita is fantastic here, as is corps dancer Matthew Griffin; new corps dancer Arcadian Broad steals several moments of the show with incredible leaps and turns. When I Still Needed You is the kind of inquisitive, smart and deftly rendered work that defines the ethos of New Works. Britt etches the outline of a story before allowing the dancers to infuse it with their own emotions and the audience to add theirs, too, leaving us with a multi-layered piece of pure magic.
Kaplan New Works Series runs through Sept. 22. Tickets/more info: cballet.org.