If your exposure to the world of ballet has been limited to The Nutcracker, do yourself a favor and get to the current incarnation of Festival Ballet Providence’s Up CLOSE, on HOPE series, running November 18 and 19 in the Leach Grand Studio Theater (825 Hope Street, Providence). Not only will it blow away any long-held stereotypes of men in tights and women in tutus, but you’ll see poses and partnering that might shock the Sugar Plum Fairy.
During the eight-year reign of artistic director Mihailo Djuric, the programs have always been a mix of classical and contemporary. But Djuric’s choreography and that of frequent collaborators Gianni Di Marco and Viktor Plotnikov, both Boston-based, lean most frequently toward the contemporary idiom. This doesn’t mean no toe shoes — five of the seven pieces have dancers on toe. But it does mean that unusual angles of feet and hands, unique lifts and descents, and quotes from other kinds of dance — pop to folk — might be incorporated.
What remains as “classical” is this program is the use of a Bach cello suite in one of Djuric’s pieces, a section of Mozart’s Symphony No. 40 in Plotnikov’s and a 90-second solo titled “Gopak” from Rotislav Zakharov’s Taras Bulba, which premiered at the Bolshoi in 1941. A new dancer to Festival, Henry Montilla, stepped into the role just that afternoon when the scheduled dancer became ill, and he acquitted himself admirably on the high-flying leaps.
Djuric’s Playing by Ear premiered with Jennifer Ricci and Gleb Lyamenkoff. Initially startling was the fact that he wore a black band across his eyes (presumably see-through). The movement was often pendulum-like, arms swinging loosely or Lyamenkoff swinging an unmoving Ricci back and forth, creating visual images that matched the repeated phrases in Bach’s cello music. Mesmerizing.
Plotnikov’s untitled piece, set to Mozart, paid similar homage to the music, with six dancers flitting through the rapid tempo from one speedy lift, jump, or turn to the next. Plotnikov’s signature gestures are anything but classical, from splayed feet in a lifted dancer to bodies that form squared-off lines instead of curved ones. But the effect is always, as here, stunning.
One piece reprised from the November 2005 Up CLOSE program is company dancer Mark Harootian’s Let it Go for a While, in which he teams with Erica Chipp for a poignant portrayal of the push-pull in a relationship. There’s a breath-catching moment when he holds her shoulders just off the floor and tenderly rotates her body three times, akin to a desperately repeated question.
The other three pieces relate to Festival Ballet’s forthcoming 10-day tour of Venezuela: Djuric’s Soledad (1996), Di Marco’s Gracias a la Vida (a Rhode Island premiere), and Luis Fuente’s Mujeres (also a Rhode Island premiere). Djuric’s is set to the expressive tango music of Astor Piazzola, and it tells the story of a widow (Leticia Guerrero) trying to come to terms with her grief as the world goes on around her (four other couples). Guerrero partners admirably with a straight-backed chair (the couples also utilize chairs) until a mysterious man in black (the memory of her dead partner), danced by Alexander Akulov, appears. Their pas de deux is brilliant, as she swerves to the ground in a half-dozen variations and each time is drawn back up by him. Guerrero’s dancing has always been packed with emotional fervor but never more so than in this piece.