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SKIRTING DANGER: Choreographer uses odd sartorial prop for striking duet

In the center of a giant disc of white lycra covering half the dance studio stands a lone ballerina, Stayce Camparo, wearing the heavy, textured fabric around as a burdensome skirt. As she twists slowly counterclockwise, the skirt pleats together liked twisted rope and gently binds her. Meanwhile at the edge of the shrinking circle of fabric, Marcus Oatis writhes on the floor, at first blanketing himself with the skirt then emerging to dance at its circumference. Such was the scene recently at the Kansas City Ballet’s studios, where dancers were rehearsing Jessica Lang’s Splendid Isolation III. The 2007 pas de deux is part of the Ballet’s season-opening production that begins October 15 and includes a reprise of the 2007 Carmen by company Artistic Director William Whitener. Splendid Isolation III is one of the more eye-catching works by this adventurous artist, and reflects the Ballet’s commitment to presenting choreography by important living Americans. Jessica’s piece caused a stir at its United States premiere in May 2008 at the American Ballet Theatre’s glittery gala, held at the Metropolitan Opera.

“The gasp was audible,” she said during a rehearsal break last week, of the moment when the Met curtain rose to reveal dramatically-lit ABT principal Irina Dvorovenko wearing the 20-foot-wide skirt, designed by Elena Comendador and built of 16 pizza-slice-shaped wedges sewn together. “That was a really huge moment for me.” Since then, the piece has been performed all over the world, often by Irina and her partner, ABT’s Maxim Beloserkovsky, and when the Kansas City Ballet’s William Whitener saw it, he not only wanted his company to perform it but also asked Jessica to create a new piece here. So in addition to this month’s performance, in spring 2010 Kansas Citians will see the world premiere of a new work set to music of Vivaldi.

Props can be risky in dance, but few choreographers have used them as deftly as Jessica, who readily admits to loving the challenge. “I am a huge fan of transforming the space using objects,” she says. “They always have a purpose, and they always add meaning.” Still, she says that “it takes a brave dancer” to deal with a prop as unruly as a giant skirt, which can add an element of the unpredictable. At one point during Stayce’s rehearsal, in fact, the skirt responds to a hefty toss by landing awkwardly, leaving the dancers to alter their movements accordingly. “She doesn’t want to dance today, we need to wash her,” Jessica jokes — speaking not of Stayce but of the skirt. Perhaps, the choreographer suggests, “she” was protesting the fact that “we’re cleaning the studio floor with her.” Weighing in at 70 pounds, the skirt is “a real bear,” Jessica says.  

Splendid Isolation III is the result of several versions of different pieces that have unfolded over several years. Jessica initially conceived it as a solo, then as an ensemble piece for Ailey II in which six men wear the skirts (Splendid Isolation II). It originated as a piece about Alma Mahler and her husband, composer Gustav, who consented to marry her only on the condition that she give up her ambitions to become a composer. (“It’s difficult to fathom,” said Jessica of Mahler’s harsh nuptial requirements, adding that she recently married dancer Kanji Segawa but didn’t have to give up her career for it.) But Splendid Isolation III, which is set to the Adagietto of the Mahler Fifth Symphony, has moved away from the Mahlers to become a more abstract piece.

Jessica is one of the more intriguing and promising young choreographic voices today, and has brought her works not only to ABT but also to Colorado Ballet, Richmond Ballet, Pennsylvania Ballet, Washington Ballet, Cincinnati Ballet, Milwaukee Ballet, Saint Louis Ballet, Ailey II, and many others. The repertoire list on her website jesslang.com includes 32 titles, plus dozens of other works created for workshops and other less formal contexts. A Juilliard School graduate who danced with Twyla Tharp’sTHARP! and now teaches at the ABT School, Jessica has also had commissions from unexpected institutions like the Dallas Museum of Art, where in 2007 she created dance that emulated paintings of Henri Matisse for the museum’s Matisse Exhibition.

Also on the Ballet’s program is Carmen, which at its premiere I described as “a dense stew of flamenco, ballet, abstract, and representative visual art, theater dance and Spanish folk steps.” William has made a few tweaks in the piece, toning down busy action in crowd scenes so as to focus the eye more on the main characters. “But most people won’t notice the difference,” he says. Rounding out the show is the pas de deux from the classic Le Corsaire of Lev Ivanov and Marius Petipa and Frescoes from the The Little Humpbacked Horse of Arthur Saint-Léon.

The series runs October 15th through the 18th at the Lyric Theatre. Call 816-931-2232 or go to kcballet.org.


In brief

* One of the masterpieces of 17th-century stage music is Henry Purcell’s The Fairy Queen, a masque or semi-opera drawn from Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. This week Kansas Citians will have a rare chance to see it performed, a collaboration of Bruce Sorrell’s Kansas City Chamber Orchestra, the Civic Opera Theater of Kansas City and the Owen/Cox Dance Group. It’s part of the worldwide celebration of the 350th anniversary of the birth of Purcell (PER-suhl), the first master of English opera. The performances are October 16th and 18th at Goppert Theater, Avila University. Call 816-235-6222 or go tokcchamberorchestra.org.

* The Grammy-winning Kansas City Chorale and conductor Charles Bruffy presents Amazing Grace, a program of spirituals, gospel, country, and bluegrass, October 18th at Visitation Church and October 20th at Asbury United Methodist Church. Call 816-235-6222 or go to kcchorale.org.

To reach Paul Horsley, performing arts editor, send email to phorsley@sbcglobal.net.


Paul Horsley, Performing Arts Editor 

Paul studied piano and musicology at WSU and Cornell University. He also earned a degree in journalism, because writing about the arts in order to inspire others to partake in them was always his first love. After earning a PhD from Cornell, he became Program Annotator for the Philadelphia Orchestra, where he learned firsthand the challenges that non profits face. He moved to KC to join the then-thriving Arts Desk at The Kansas City Star, but in 2008 he happily accepted a post at The Independent. Paul contributes to national publications, including Dance Magazine, Symphony, Musical America, and The New York Times, and has conducted scholarly research in Germany, Austria and the Czech Republic (the latter on a Fulbright Fellowship). He also taught musicology at Cornell, LSU and Park University.



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