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It’s coming up on 20 years since Marcello Angelini took the helm at Tulsa Ballet, and in that time perhaps his most remarkable skill as Artistic Director has been his ability to keep his finger on the pulse both of the world of dance at large and of his own community here in Tulsa, a community which combines sophistication and a genuine enthusiasm for the arts with a certain innocence that comes from living in a part of the country that typically doesn’t experience groundbreaking creative movements until years after they hit the coasts. For the past two decades Tulsa Ballet has successfully navigated this push and pull between staying relevant and staying enjoyable, and its most recent triple bill, “Paint It Black,” is a tidy example of how they’ve done it.

I’m still hearing murmurs of “weird…” from viewers around me at the close of ballets like Alejandro Cerrudo’s “Extremely Close,” but then I visit the TB Facebook page and see that the majority of responders to its “which ballet on the program did you like the best?” query chose that very piece. The ones who whispered “weird” will have loved Christopher Bruce’s “Rooster,” all strutting swaggering fun set to Rolling Stones music. The ones who liked the emotionally juicy Cerrudo might have been a little bored by “In the middle, somewhat elevated,” which opened the program — but they’ll have gotten some rock-solid contemporary dance education in the form of William Forsythe’s fierce classicism.

Hyonjun Rhee and Youhee Son in "In the Middle," photo by Julie Shelton

Hyonjun Rhee and Youhee Son in “In the Middle,” photo by Julie Shelton

There was plenty of value to be found in all three pieces, presented at the Lorton Performance Center on the University of Tulsa campus. The dancers performed the Forsythe with an eager, almost titillated edge of joy just beneath their sharp, flat, urgent planes and angles. TB first encountered “In the middle” in 2011, when former Forsythe dancer Jodie Gates came to stage it. What I saw was that the ballet had an immediate, strong effect on these dancers, turning up the heat on their own investment in their movement. The thing about this piece is that it’s just building blocks — many many building blocks — inside of which pumps a tornadic whorl of advanced physics. So in a way the dancers already know what to do, hence the delightfully “no big deal” demeanor they bring to Forsythe’s technically exhausting stacking and re-stacking. But in another way (in a point Gates emphasized in my interview with her) they are in a zone of extreme unknowns: what will happen this time when that huge pirouette a la second starts with maybe a little more power? What will the ripple look like in time, in space, in adrenaline? Because the ballet’s structure is so classical, so simple in its complexity (canons, fugues, themes and variations), the life inside each movement is shockingly visible. The cast I saw got it completely, corps member Carla Lopez and principal Hyonjun Rhee standing out for their technical and personal boldness.

Cerrudo is a choreographer one wouldn’t necessarily know about around here unless one had been keeping tabs on the trends, as Angelini does. Cerrudo is Resident Choreographer at Hubbard Street Dance Chicago, one of the nation’s top contemporary dance companies (he got his start choreographing through HSDC’s “Inside/Out” program, which encourages dancers to make their own work), and has done the rounds at Nederlands Dans Theatre (a prerequisite for cool these days, or so it seems). Last year he worked with New York City Ballet’s Wendy Whelan on a duet for her “Restless Creature” project, and he’s created works for Ballet Arizona and Pacific Northwest Ballet. He’s young, hot, and Spanish, and he makes dances that nibble at intimacy, edgy but gentle around those edges.

“Extremely Close” is a little drop of wildflower honey in two parts: the first hit is sweet with lots of darker notes, the last a full-on rush. There’s something deeply satisfying about a dance with well-used props. White feathers, dropped from above during the intermission, cover the stage floor. When the dancers enter, they do so behind square white walls that move on casters. Walls and feathers. And so my mind does this …

block you out / cuddle you up

float across / float down

heavy / light

peek through / pillow fight

invisible mover

solid / air

dependable / changeable

hide behind / flyaway

… and so on. When I say there was more poetry in the set than in the choreography, it’s just to say the landscape was truly unusually delectable. Cerrudo’s choreography has that quality of sponginess charmingly common in young dancemakers — that is, what you can see most is what it’s absorbed from its surroundings. I look forward to watching his work distill in the years to come, his own voice strengthen and develop. For now I see Duato, and Kylian, and McGregor, and Lightfoot/Leon, and Crystal Pite, lots of emotional sliding on cotton socks, heads and arms disjointedly offset from the torso, an eerie movement quality that shifts in little jerks between passivity and decision, dynamics that teeter at the edge of “anxiety disorder” and “ennui.” A notable condition of our times, I’d say; Cerrudo’s on the mark. An accurate voice, if not yet a bold one.

Hubbard600

Hubbard Street Dance in “Extremely Close”

I wanted more development in the ballet’s first half, a barely-stopping flurry for eight dancers (as the feathers shuffle around the dancers’ feet and the walls shift swiftly carrying dancers behind and before). One moment tilted instantly into another (a single man in black trousers and jacket, facing away from us; a rapid-fire duet; a trio of leggy women), lighting up in small spaces in front of and around the walls like pegs on a Lite Brite screen, setting us up (I assumed) for the big reveal in the second half, the pas de deux, the passage that would make the picture whole. When the scene did shift to Dallas Blagg and Beatrice Sebelin, alone together, no walls anywhere to be seen (they’ve been pushed back together, slowly, light glowing between the cracks), I kept batting at the just-past movement in my mind, catching scraps of what might have been a connection with something seen earlier, blowing at ticklish feathers of half-memories. The ballet is like a party with two dozen conversations happening at once on the same subject; then the room clears and the conversation that remains is amplified by default, whether or not it actually is the most important talk out of the 24, whether it draws any conclusions, whether it sums it all up, whether there’s anything to sum up at all or whether it’s just one more conversation that slowly fades away.

Dallas Blagg and Beatrice Sebelin in "Extremely Close," photo by Julie Shelton

Dallas Blagg and Beatrice Sebelin in “Extremely Close,” photo by Julie Shelton

The duet is quite delicious, though, and not just when Sebelin clamps on to Blagg’s jawline with her mouth and they’re falling together in slow-motion. There’s an undercurrent of vulnerability and blind hurt that made me think of how we act when we don’t know the other’s weak places, how we dodge and nip in the hope that the other can be gentle with our own. The two go through a pattern together, then do it again with one more movement that bittersweetly completes the thought. They block each other; they open up like gates. Again, it’s true to life, and this duet is smart and compact and emotionally textured in ways that were barely hinted at in the ballet’s first half. I’d rather do without the ending (Blagg puts his hand on Sebelin’s face and she sinks to her back, then he reaches down to grab a black edge of fabric that turns out to have been underneath everything, and pulls it upstage collecting her, him, feathers, memories) which feels awfully angsty following that breath of intelligence. Cerrudo’s going to be interesting to watch, with his fine intuition for what pieces it might take to make a poem. The ballet doesn’t quite fully deliver on its potential, but it comes … extremely close.

(A little note on style. TB’s dancers this season are hard-working and focused, not a centimeter anywhere of wasted effort. I’d like to see a little more looseness in their dancing, especially in their throats in these contemporary pieces. Ballet training specifies keeping the head balanced firmly on the top of the spine, the chin perhaps ever so slightly tucked, and these dancers do a good job of letting their heads follow their spines in this choreography, but I feel a resistance from clavicle to chin, one more place of freedom for them to investigate as they continue to explore these hybrid ballet/modern works.)

Christopher Bruce's "Rooster," photo by Julie Shelton

Christopher Bruce’s “Rooster,” photo by Julie Shelton

Christopher Bruce’s “Rooster” is comfortable terrain for TB theatrically, though the movement is occasionally demanding in its extreme shifts from air to ground. It’s made to be a crowd-pleaser, and it was, particularly Jose Antonio Checa Romero’s almost cartoonishly bravura solo (the technique on this boy … Vaganova, baby). The men wear ruffled-front shirts and ties (an odd line, there) and the women short black dresses with red accents. I didn’t think it was possible for anyone to be hotter than Chelsea Keefer, but lean and scruffy Andrew Silks managed it in his “outsiders” duet with her, his taut reflexes trained right on her bubble of personal space. Each section had one or two really juicy moments, which were typically repeated at least once, and though the rest of the choreography felt like mostly filler the dancers pushed into each moment with determined energy. A palate cleanser after two very differently complex flavors: leave ’em happy, but leave ’em challenged, too.

Tulsa Ballet ends this season with “Off the Floor: Creations in Studio K,” its series of new contemporary ballets created especially for the company and its intimate house. Since 2008, when the series began, “Creations” has premiered work by Ma Cong, Nicolo Fonte, Douglas Lee, and many other up-and-coming choreographers (including the late Tony Fabre, beloved here for his stagings of Nacho Duato’s work). This year’s edition features new pieces by Cong, Young Soo Hue Simon, and Jodie Gates (with whom I got to speak about her choreographic process and product here). For the third year in a row, local companies will perform as opening acts for TB during the second week of performances. Just another example of how contemporary dance in Tulsa would be far poorer without the perseverance and creative thinking of Angelini and his team. Cheers, thanks, and keep it coming….

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