Stanton Welch was back in the studios in late March 2004 setting his new ballet Evolution for BalletMet's performance at the end of April. It was a tall order since the piece occupies a full evening with three distinct movements each depicting a different time in movement evolution. It covers the primal, the classical and the contemporary in movement style, costume and musical accompaniment.
The layout of the evening is a actually a "devolution" of sorts, starting with dancers moving to the music of contemporary music artist Moby, who's Grammy award winning Play made a mark on the popular music charts a few years ago. It is followed by a stately, although whimsical, ballet to the music of Mozart. The postures are more upright, bodies are more overtly decorative and characters are more socially aware. The finale offers the audience a taste of the primitive with dancers crouching low to the ground accompanied by the percussive sounds of composer John Antill.
According to Welch, each section presented its own challenge for him and the dancers. Mostly Mozart is definitely the most intricate with its complex rhythms and quick gestures, while Wildlife is the most physically demanding for the dancers. Play, on the other hand, has been a challenge for Welch because of its use of pedestrian movement. Creating movement that looks instinctual on every body is difficult because what might feel natural to one dancer might feel awkward to another.
Play, Mostly Mozart, and Wildlife rely heavily on costumes that accentuate the dancers' movements and mold their bodies into the characters they play. The clothing, although of different styles and reflecting different points in human history, serves to tie the entire ballet together--this is how we move in our skins.
The three sections also have the common thread that they all build on classical and contemporary ballet dancing. The women are in pointe shoes through out the evening and audiences will recognize the extended legs, fast turns and spectacular leaps from ballet's movement vocabulary. What Welch does in each section is turn ballet on its head by embellishing ballet's vertical carriage and precise placement with shrugging, tossing, melting, twisting and swinging.
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Welch pulls music for his look at contemporary movement Moby's 1999 Grammy nominated album Play. For its content, the artist used blues and hip-hop as inspiration making it "much more down tempo" than his previous work (Moby). What the music lends to Welch's choreography is the backdrop of busy streets and complicated relationships. Its addictive pulse will have audience members tapping their feet with the dancers on the stage.
The choreography is a blend of jazz, modern dance, classical ballet and pedestrian movements. Dancers swing their hips, shrug their shoulders and flex their feet to Moby's driving rhythms. The choreography also requires them to segment their bodies to achieve a specific aesthetic. Their hips might jut out one way while the arms reach another out of shoulders that are falling somewhere else. They also sink to the floor and recover from it in pieces, crumbling and rising in fits and starts instead of one flowing mass.
The costumes were a gift from Express, placing the ballet immediately in the here and now. Dancers wear current styles making them seem even closer to the audience that watches them. For a moment it is easy to think of them as people on the street instead of people on the stage.
The costumes also play an integral part in building the movement. Aside from their footwear, which directly impacts their movement, the dancers learn how to cope with moving fabric and loose hair. The men practice manipulating neckties, pulling them with their hands and letting them hit the floor as they bend low to the ground. In rehearsal, Welch suggests having the ties hang just below the navel to achieve the desired affect. The women dance with their hair unbound so that it swishes around their necks and shoulders every time their heads move, They practice flipping it out of the way so that it falls away from their eyes.
The evening opens with dancers sitting on the floor, backs to the audience playing video games with invisible controls. They flick their thumbs and occasionally shrug in disgust as if they have just killed their last man. One by one, they pop to their feet and don a jacket that is on the floor in front of them. Their movements are jerky but calm as they blankly stare at (or through) the audience. As the first piece of music ends, they exit like mannequins that are half-asleep, their jackets flapping with each jolting step.
The piece continues with the dancers simply walking deliberately across the stage. They make a strange street scene, stepping in time in ones, twos and threes each intent on following his or her path. Only occasionally does a dancer break his or her straight-ahead stare by glancing at another passing by. By the next section, the characters start to come together in slow motion fighting and long embraces. The community of individuals has come together in a series of uneasy relationships.
The men, clothed in suits and ties, stare blankly at the audience while they bounce to the music like businessmen going steadily down the street to their next meeting. Throwing their legs high and grasping their ties, they move in perfect unison to the music that drives them from moments of control to ones of near frenzy and back again. The women, in contrast, enter the stage tipped forward from the hips. Wrists flick. Arms are thrown. They alternate between smooth, swinging arms and stilted robotic gestures that call to mind women getting ready to walk out the door in the morning. They adjust their clothing and their make-up, pick their teeth and end staring with one hand poised at their mouths, as if they are putting on a last touch of lipstick.
The small ballet within the larger ballet ends with the entire group moving across the floor with robotic movements as couples emerge to be lifted and spun separate from the larger community. In the end, all the dancers walk off the stage as if nothing has been resolved, but greater challenges have arisen as a result of their gathering together.
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The next section of Welch's ballet is set to Mozart's popular Serenade #13, Eine Kleine Nachtmusik, or A Little Night Music. He would never hear this 16-minute piece performed in his lifetime, but it has since become one of his most recognizable works. It is the second time Welch has used Mozart's music and both times he has chosen to highlight the humor in the music rather than the drama. The music lifts the mood of the evening as the audience leaves Moby behind for the whimsy of Mozart.
The overall look of Evolution has changed. The dancers have traded in their contemporary outfits for 18th century finery-corsets, codpieces, skirts and knee britches. The dancing has also changed. Instead of the weighted movement of the previous section, the dancers bodies seem lighter, utilizing more of the classical ballet vocabulary. They still wiggle their hips and shrug their shoulders, but it is with a casual ease not present in the first section.
The opening pas de deux was originally choreographed for dancers participating in a ballet competition honoring dancer Erik Bruhn. It has the characteristic quick small jumps of the Royal Danish Ballet, where Bruhn received his training and gained the reputation as one of the world's greatest dancers. A couple opens the ballet, greeting each other as they begin their dance in silence. The music comes in as they really begin to take off, bowing and spinning around each other center stage. There are stretched feet, extended legs and arms and the man supports his female partner in a series of turns. This more traditional vocabulary is accompanied by wiggling heads and spiraling hands as they bow to each other with the attempted grace of European nobility. At the end of their dance together, the two fall exhausted to the floor, as the other dancers peer at them from the sides of the stage. The onlookers ultimately drag them off the stage by their wrists.
The women often move across the stage holding their skirts in front of them, but they also take turns wearing the huge freestanding skirt that stands upstage. Several men lift a woman though the hole in the middle of the skirt allowing her to view the rest of the dancing from atop her six-foot-tall costume. What is even more comical than the sight of the ballerina's tiny body poking through her absurdly large skirt is watching her disappear inside of it while the men who hoisted her up exit through its parted fabric.
The rest of the women's costumes presented a challenge for the costumers, since replicating a genuine corset from the 18th century would not allow the dancers' bodies to move in the way the choreography dictated. Instead, corsets were fashioned that would have quite a bit of give in them while maintaining the look of the original.
The men dance stomping their feet and women walk high on the tips of their toes. They meet and the men kiss the women's hands with excessive politeness. It is light and fun to watch, but not overtly silly. In fact, Welch coaches the dancers that the humor lies in their seriousness. He talks to the men about being "animated" in their encounters with their partners, but not "comical." As a result, the humor Welch built into the choreography is not upstaged by the dancers' delivery.
In one section both male and female dancers execute a series of quick gestures in perfect time to the music. Shoulders shrug, wrists flick and hands slide up and down their torsos with each accent in Mozart's music. Welch makes sure that each position is performed precisely in shape and tempo. The unison must be perfect. The combination of the simple gestures with the quickness of Mozart's music results in a charming sequence that will surely make the audience smile.
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Evolution's third movement is set to Australian composer John Antill's Corroboree. His most famous work, Corroboree was the result of Antill's extensive research into Aboriginal music. The piece, which was originally conceived as a ballet, takes its title from a ritual Aboriginal dance that first inspired Antill in 1913. Rex Reid choreographed the first production in 1950 for the National Theatre Ballet and Beth Dean choreographed it again in 1954 for the Arts Council Ballet in Sidney.
In 1995 Welch used a suite from Corroboree to set a ballet for dancers of the Australian Ballet. What makes Welch's ballet different from the two that came before was that his celebrates dance that is not culturally specific to the people Antill researched. Instead, it explores themes that are relevant to all people. Welch's program notes for the performance read: "With the blazing Australian sun and a pride of ten painted dancers, a series of movements becomes a dance of life, of energy for all mankind."
The men wear black briefs and the women are in black skirts and bras. Their bare skin is painted. There is an energy in the way the dancers move that suggests a totally different atmosphere than the ones we have already seen in the first two movements of the ballet. As they dance, the women throw their skirts between their legs or allow it to billow around their bodies. The men enter the stage crouching low to the floor and arching their backs in a kind of prowl across the stage. Antill's music clicks and screeches in accompaniment. While rehearsing the third section of Evolution, Welch uses animal imagery to illustrate ideas to his dancers. Coaching the men in a movement in which they throw their arms wide, he uses the image of apes beating their chests. As they approach a female dancer, Welch suggests to them that she is a spider. She might bite, she might not. They are on their guard.
Welch continuously brings up animal comparisons during rehearsals. The dancers look around the stage as if they are on the hunt, twisting and turning their heads to smell their prey on the air. At another point he asks them to be more like crustaceans as they crawl across the floor gingerly stepping high on stretched feet and fingers. The dancers bend low to the ground, slide and chase, stalking and catching each other at different points in the dance. He talks about the aggression in their movements, but also builds in moments of hiding and being cautious in the midst of other creatures.
The piece comes to an end with the dancers entering the stage during a pas de deux. It is a sensuous dance with the dancers reaching and twining arms around each other's bodies. She leaves him, backing up through the group of advancing dancers swaying her hips back and forth. They all join in a frenzied circle dance, jumping and running around each other. One woman emerges from the group and throws her body into the middle of the circle. She flails her arms and tosses body to the percussive sounds of Antill's work coming to a close. In one final moment, the other dancers come crawling towards her. They cover her with their hands and toss her into the air.