Critics Picks: Leaving Impressions

Welch's Finger Prints highlights Cincinnati Ballet's season opener

Nov 16, 2000 at 2:06 pm
Woodrow J. Hinton

Stanton Welch

We might see some amazing dancing when Finger Prints, choreographed by Australian Stanton Welch, opens Cincinnati Ballet's season at the Aronoff Center, with three additional works: Aquilarco, L'Esprit de Sept and Act 2 of Swan Lake. In an innovative deal with Fort Worth/Dallas Ballet, Tulsa Ballet and Washington Ballet, Welch's world premiere debuts in Cincinnati. Music is from the Kronos Quartet's recording Pieces of Africa.

A dance detective hot on the trail of Finger Prints, I rounded up Welch and the usual suspects, London set and costume designer Kandis Cook and lighting designer Lisa Pinkham from San Francisco. Last Friday I grilled Artistic Director Victoria Morgan at the Ballet Center. During a tornado warning, I had an extramural glimpse of principal dancer Meridith Benson rehearsing in a basement studio. Though she's not dancing in Finger Prints, it's no mystery that her remarkable technique is sure to be a highlight this weekend.

I discovered a web of connections to confirm my original suspicion: Attention-grabbing collaborations like Finger Prints are anything but haphazard events in the world of dance.

Morgan says it's the first time in her tenure that Cincinnati Ballet has brought in an internationally recognized choreographer. But Welch's work was not new to her.

She was first attracted to it in a 1995 festival in San Francisco, where she saw Corroboree danced by The Australian Ballet. "And I think Helgi [Thomasson] was pretty impressed too, because he commissioned [Welch] to do Maninyas for the San Francisco Ballet. It was beautiful," she remembers.

Welch needed no prodding to add choreography to his skills list 14 years ago. A scholarship student at the San Francisco School of Ballet, where he was a student of Daniel Simmons (currently ballet master at Cincinnati Ballet), he went on to perform many roles with The Australian Ballet. "I was acting before I started ballet," he says of a childhood spent performing. "I was a reporter for a kids' show, and then I became the anchor! Already hawking it at 14," he chuckles.

"But I knew the second I started ballet that I had to control the product. I couldn't just 'do.' It made no sense to me to just never think." Hearing himself quoted as a younger man, Welch confirmed that he'd always valued hands-on experience above study in universities.

"A lot of people can choreograph without physically feeling the movement," he says of his work. "I'm not like that. [The movement] comes from me. I have to feel his partner, her partner, you know?"

Watching him in rehearsal, I can see what he says is true. In costume with the rest, he's all over, talking, demonstrating, asking questions, humming and counting out, exploring and trying on each role.

Sometimes he'll even step onto pointe in his Bloch-heeled shoes. Not only dancing steps, he inhabits the movement, breathing into it, blending it seamlessly into the flow, summoning perfect pirouettes seemingly out of nowhere. He'll watch, poised on one hip, scratching his chin, then jump right back in, soliciting dancers' advice and giving his own suggestions on how to execute some of his devilishly difficult moves. It's apparent he's easy to work with. Although he keeps things moving briskly, he gives the dancers room to work out the steps and the logic to assimilate them.

"Roll the toes out," he suggests, as the dancers shift into a deep plié à la seconde with their torsos pitched forward and arms extended sidewards, palms facing backward.

Designer Kandice Cook ended up in London in 1974 after getting her fine arts degree in Nova Scotia, where she studied under Margaret Harris (a member of a famous trio of women designers who worked with Orson Welles, Laurence Olivier and John Gielgud, calling themselves "The Motleys"). She was already a busy theater designer with a little experience in dance design when she met Stanton at the Royal Birmingham Ballet where she designed Powder, she says. "Then he asked me if I would design Taiko in 1999 for San Francisco Ballet."

For Cook, Finger Prints is "very tactile, very much about male and female kinds of energy that kind of come together and separate. My work in theater is very text-based. Ballet, though, is pure movement in space and light," she says, describing what she calls her responsibility to the work.

"I come from a background where my real love was figurative drawing. It's sort of come around full circle, working in ballet. It ties into the work I do as a painter. It's a natural thing, but has to do with movement and color and feel, allowing the line and the choreography to breath without being overwhelmed visually.

Finger Prints has moved from being about the threat to nature and the environment toward what [Welch] calls "just touching on the individual presence of life and being ... a more delicate, less literal image." She adds, "It's about the idea that we leave our impressions [fingerprints] on everything we touch, be it each other or the environment."

Yet if the environmental aspect ("Are we going to curb extinction? End pollution?") of man's impact is now only implied, the relationship of the dancers is explicit. "We affect one another, we can't help it — you can break someone's heart or make them happy ... effects that are animal-like, so I've tried to make the dancers be exotic species, creatures that aren't with us any more."

Lighting designer Lisa Pinkham has also worked previously with Welch on Maninyas and Taiko in San Francisco, as her skills have enhanced productions with ballet companies, including Boston, Joffrey, Charleston, Pittsburgh and Pacific Northwest. Although "Stanton gives me the concept, and I try to follow along with it," her major attraction to dance "is that it is emotionally very available for design. It often has opportunities for painterly qualities in light that you usually get in straight theater."

Pinkham's favorite painters include Modigliani and some of the Russian constructionists. She's not inspired so much by modern work as by "the old masters like Rembrandt ... sometimes Vermeer and, in this century, Hopper."

About getting into the theater next week, she says, "by Tuesday afternoon, I should get to sit down at the table — just start turning things on ... you can use light much like paint, on the floor, on a background, on the dancers ... so you are using color."

Morgan is sanguine about Welch's input to the repertory. It fits her overall strategy. "In terms of defining our company," she says, "I think Welch's work is awesome.

Morgan says, "We have to be certain things — we do the classics, but we'll never be American Ballet Theater. We do Balanchine, yet we'll never be the New York City Ballet. We do contemporary work ... to keep our young audience excited. Personally, I love some contemporary work, yet we'll never be Martha Graham or David Parsons.

"But where we can really shine — both by contributing to dance and by creating our own identity — is through the development and promotion of young choreographers. We're helping them get their work out there. And maybe there's a place out there for us to tour works like Finger Prints and last year's SYNC."

FALL FESTIVAL opens The Cincinnati Ballet's 2000-2001 this weekend at the Aronoff Center's Procter & Gamble Hall.