Dance of the Living Dead

Service for the dead becomes dance for the living in Cincinnati Ballet's 'Requiem'

A bathtub, a bed, lots of heavy leather suitcases — not necessarily props you expect to see onstage for a ballet, let alone for a ballet set to the high funereal seriousness of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s Requiem. But that’s just some of what audiences will experience at Adam Hougland’s world premiere ballet, Mozart’s Requiem, Friday and Saturday at the Aronoff Center.

Hougland, recently appointed Cincinnati Ballet Resident Choreographer, has become a young rising star in the dance world. Trained in the world of modern dance at Julliard, he immersed himself in a diverse range of styles, has created works for such celebrated companies as Christopher Wheeldon’s Morphoses, The Limón Dance Company and Cedar Lake Ensemble and currently serves as Principal Choreographer for Louisville Ballet. He holds the Princess Grace Award for Choreography, and his work has been broadcast on PBS’s Live from Lincoln Center.

Recently, between rehearsals at the Cincinnati Ballet studios, Hougland talked about Mozart’s Requiem, his first full-length and fourth creation for Cincinnati Ballet. At this point in his career, Hougland says he’s most interested in doing things that have a strong sense of theatricality about them.

“It feels like a nice step forward,” he says. “We’re doing a nice big ballet, using the whole company and having a big set and great costumes. It’s a major event. I’m loving it.”

His name might seem familiar. Hougland previously created three edgy, ultra-contemporary pieces for small casts for the Ballet’s close-up New Works performance studio series.

“Dance for just the sake of dancing is beautiful," he says, "but after you make a bunch of those abstract ballets, you’re really longing for something to be about something."

For Mozart’s Requiem, Hougland continues his tradition of boundary-pushing, highly kinetic modern choreography, but he admits his approach needed to shift.

“With New Works, you’re very aware of the fact the audience is so close,” he says. “So what becomes interesting are the details and the intimate moments. The dancers are so vulnerable and stripped of that wall that you basically get in a bigger space.”

The larger scale of the Aronoff Center demands a different lens.

“When you have 18 people in a piece and you’ve got the big stage you have to step a bit further back and behave more like the director of a film or a painter," Hougland says. "You have to do a lot more, sort of, ‘What’s the whole picture? What’s the whole image?’ ”

Mozart’s Requiem promises to bring cinematic qualities to the stage.

“I would listen to sections of music and I’d almost do like a storyboard,” he says. “So it’s very cinematic in that sense — kind of cross-fading from the kitchen to the bedroom or whatever.”

And like theater or film, the elaborate production requires a collaboration of many talents. For props and set and costume designs, Hougland has engaged his esteemed longtime collaborator Marion Williams to create an imaginative environment.

“She turns (the stage) into a magical little world,” Hougland says. “The curtain comes up, and you’re taken somewhere.”

Requiem also features the Cincinnati Ballet Orchestra, the Xavier University Concert Choir and vocal soloists.

“Music is usually the starting point for me in my choreography,” Hougland says. “I will literally sit at home and listen to the music, trying to experience it mentally as if I have never heard it before. I shove preconceptions out the door.

“The Requiem score is very well known, but I think new choreography suits it. What is exciting for me as a choreographer is to approach the music in a way that is unexpected. I want to inspire people who watch my work to say, ‘Oh, I never expected that!’ ”

A requiem is traditionally a funeral mass that’s ultimately about death. But Hougland makes his ballet about living.

“When you create little stories, even just for yourself, it just really pushes you to try new things and keeps it from getting boring, basically,” he says.

Hougland says the piece is about life and cycles, letting go and moving on: “It’s all about shedding all the earthly possessions and baggage and moving forward into who knows what.”

MOZART’S REQUIEM will be staged by Cincinnati Ballet in three performances Friday and Saturday at the Aronoff Center for the Arts . Buy tickets, check out performance times and get venue details here.

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