Art is never a passive experience.
When you start a non-profit arts organization, you want something that will not only be fulfilling to all the people involved (dancers, artists, musicians) but an organization which can give something beautiful and meaningful to the surrounding community. It’s not just about giving kids something to do on the weekends or after school, it’s in part about teaching them the value that art can have in the life of those around them — the “perceivers” of the art as well as those making it.
Ultimately, you want it to be an active participation or a dialogue between concertgoer and musician, audience and dancer, gallery visitor and painter.
The State Ballet of Rhode Island, resident non-profit dance company of my home state, is such an organization. Ever since its inception by artistic director Herci Marsden 51 years ago, it has provided a nurturing environment for young dancers to gather and polish their art in the form of choreography as well as motion, and then present the results to the surrounding community. When I was younger, around 10-12, I’d actually been a member, participating in probably three or four of the shows before deciding to do something else.
I was really cute, even though I must have been pretty awful. Even so many years later, I do remember the effort they took to make it a legit ballet performance, rather than a glorified dance recital. My siblings are still active participants, and twice a year, I’ve gone to shows. In the past few years, I’ve noticed that they’ve been making changes, taking steps to “keep up with the times,” so to speak. Some changes were the addition of a Facebook page, another an overhaul of the website, Cultural Enrichment programs at local schools around the state, and still others the addition of several more smaller, more select performances and collaborations placing them in the public eye (such as with the Gloria Gemma Foundation, to mention a recent one).
The most obvious is the changes that they have been making with the performance experience itself. What about the integration of other forms of art, or taking elements from the past or traditional dance styles, and mixing them with new ones?
With this excitement, I attended the State Ballet of Rhode Island’s spring show, Artists in Motion, on April 30, at Rhode Island College.
I was not disappointed.
The program featured three different one act ballets. Tying them together was the fact that each ballet was choreographed by three different generations of dancers, from Shana Fox Marceau to her mother Ana Marsden Fox to the artistic director, Herci Marsden herself. These three different ballets were unique to each choreographer in terms of styling. Fox, as a person who loves making people laugh, favors simple storylines filled with humor, while Shana tends to go for precise, synchronous movements and beautiful symmetry. Marsden’s ballets are always elegant and deeply passionate. In terms of programming, none of the ballets felt jarring or out of place, and each choreographer used her stylistic strengths to her best advantage.
The first ballet was Ana Marsden Fox’s premiere of Petra and the Vuk, or an adaption of Peter and the Wolf. I always like adaptations when done well. Tradition is good, but adding a new angle to an old ballet is always refreshing. Obviously, Peter was replaced by Petra, played by the talented Holly Fusco. As demonstrated through the title of the play, Fox drew on her Slavic heritage for inspiration, incorporating Slavic traditional dance here and there through the piece. The names of the characters were in Slavic. Even the theme, composed by Prokofiev, was played on traditional Slavic instruments at the outset and near the close. The audience was encouraged to laugh at the duck (charmingly portrayed by Peg Chobanian), cheer when the wolf (Mark Marsden) was captured, and clap in time to the music. I liked it.
Impressions of the Sky, by Shana Fox Marceau, followed. This ballet was a distinctly different style, largely impressionistic rather than having any sort of story line. According to my sisters, the ballet was originally choreographed by Marsden, but in the present, they only had a fuzzy video recording that did little to preserve the original. Marceau decided to do a fresh choreograph around what they could pick out from the old version. Similar to Fox’s incorporation of Slavic elements, Marceau used contemporary dance elements to evoke impressions of the sky, from the rising sun, showers ahead, dusk, storm clouds, the calm before, and lightning (the truly exhilarating Zapped).
I’ve watched a couple of Marceau’s dances before, and was hugely impressed by the sheer energy and coordination. This ballet did not fail to disappoint. Marceau’s dancers are always perfectly synchronized. Every step was exactly in place. Whenever one group left the stage, another group would soon follow. Marceau’s insertion of modern dance elements into classical ballet is successful. Each movement belongs. It brings to mind a tapestry with many threads interlocked. One thread breaks, the whole thing might fall apart. I couldn’t help but feel new appreciation for the work of the dancers in synchronizing the movements, as well as for the choreographer for making such an energetic and precisely woven work. Marceau also showed her versatility as well as her creativity through the haunting and enigmatic section “The Cloud,” where dancer Elizabeth Cyganoski as a solo female dancer danced, yet never touched the ground. At the end, I felt exhilaration, and I think many of my follow audience members did, as evidenced by the cheers that erupted.
Concluding the set was Marsden’s Pictures at an Exhibition, music by Mussorgsky. The piano music was composed after the sudden death of his dear friend and artist Viktor Hartmann. Viewing the paintings of Viktor Hartmann, Mussorgsky was inspired to write his suite, with each piece based on a particular painting by the artist: paintings of sound. This collection became his most famous suite of piano pieces, and is often performed today. I have never played them. The version used for this ballet was probably Ravel’s orchestration.
I tried to go online to find examples of Hartmann’s work, and unfortunately, few survived. However, in other bit of ingenuity, Marsden and several of the company members arranged to have artists in different media (paint, photography, digital imaging, charcoal) from the surrounding community and within the dance program bring in artworks that they had made based on impressions they had gotten from listening to the music. Managed by Peg Chobanian, graduate of Rhode Island College with a studio art degree, these pieces of art were set up in a gallery next to the auditorium for the audience members’ viewing pleasure. Entitled “The Artist Exchange,” this was a successful example of how music, dance, and even visual art can be used in harmony to enhance the experience and expand the dialogue amongst different kinds of artists and audiences members.
Throughout the ballet itself, these pieces of art would be projected on the wall whenever the “Promenade” (impression of the composer himself walking around viewing the artwork) was played. There was quite a variety of art involved, and I was amazed at the sheer talent of the artists. This, together with Marsden’s skillful choreography, formed an experience that probably affected me a lot more than I expected. It all started with the paintings by Hartmann. The composer may have painted the characters and scenes of his friend’s paintings into sound, but Marsden brought the characters into life and set them into motion.
Also, never have I seen such emphasis placed on the music and the genius of the composer than in this ballet. Even several weeks later, I feel emotional just thinking about that final closing scene where the dancers, still in character, come on stage with this long sheet of cloth with the actual notes of the composition (I didn’t bother to check, but I’m taking their word for it) painted on it and dramatically paying homage to the composer by placing the cloth in front of him and kneeling before him in a wonderful act of reverence. You have to see it to believe it. It was a fitting conclusion not only to the piece itself, but the entire program.
So in conclusion, this show was one of the most enjoyable I have been to in a while, and perhaps one of their best in recent years. I would also be amiss if I did not mention the talent of some of the young dancers in the company. They not only have great technical ability and power of expression, but if what I heard is true, they have discipline to get where they need to be, as well as a strong commitment to their art. It is clear to me that SBRI is developing artists who, even if they stop dancing, will always remember this exchange of which they are a part. SBRI is going in a good direction with their thinking, and I am certain that the exchange they have fostered will continue.
Here’s to an exchange…
*Pictures taken by me. Not to be used without my permission, unless you are from the State Ballet of RI.
For more pictures of the show, check out my public album on Facebook.