Review: Curran blows minds and Ragland flirts with Balanchine in Louisville Ballet’s ‘Mozart’

By Eli Keel for Insider Louisville

October 12, 2018

Editor’s note: Reviewer Eli Keel was granted access to a dress rehearsal performance of “Mozart.”

The Louisville Ballet’s October offering, “Mozart,” follows a pattern that is becoming familiar in the Robert Curran era. In an evening of three somewhat connected works, there will be one ballet by Balanchine, one piece by a forward-thinking choreographer and a third that is something of a wild card.

The connective thread in this show is right there in the name — “Mozart” — and the archetypal classical composer’s flair for the dramatic has always been suited to providing the inspiration for movement.

First up is George Balanchine’s “Divertimento No. 15.” Louisvillians have been treated to a yearly dose of the American master of ballet for several seasons. “Divertimento No. 15” reflects some of the best of what Balanchine can be. Mozart’s score works with Balanchine’s athletic movement to create a piece that is almost rollicking in its tone.

Erica De La O best exemplifies this piece in a petite allegro toward the middle. Instead of making her footwork “look easy,” she does something better. She lets the steps look hard, but then immediately shows us that not only are these hard steps totally doable, but it is a joy to accomplish them because of how hard they are.

Next on the evenings card is a world premiere by Robert Curran, the Louisville Ballet’s artistic and executive director, titled “ស្នាមប្រឡាក់.” That name is word from Khmer, the language of the Khmer people of Cambodia. (Curran and designer Vinhay Keo have asked that the name not be rendered in English.)

The piece deals with themes of cultural erasure and colonialism. Naming the piece in a word from a language with a non-English/Latin alphabet is an extra textual statement about the role language plays in subjugation. Keo is Cambodian, and the statement made by the name also indicates how closely design and choreography work together in this piece — the two are completely married.

Curran doesn’t put himself forward much as a choreographer and has only offered Louisville a couple of works since he came to the ballet, instead placing the choreographic focus on Lucas Jervies and Adam Hougland.

“ស្នាមប្រឡាក់” makes Curran’s vision as a generative artist impossible to ignore. We need to see more of his work. The opening tableau shows a great golden wall and a figure in a golden mask standing vigilantly beside it. Behind him is a group of dancers clad in black, huddling like a flock of crows.

From that arresting moment, the piece moves through a very organic — yet entirely surprising — set of moments. It is a flash-blinding of beautiful, and there are moments — at least to my sensory experience — that are painfully gorgeous. For me, the beauty was worth the pain.

Anyone with sensory issues or some type of neurodiversity should know what they are getting into. This one is intense, even by the ballet’s standards.

The sublimity of the design is matched by the inventiveness and maturity of Curran’s movement vocabulary, which he uses to “speak” in several “dictions,” like the way an author can change prose styles with different first-person narrators. That’s impressive and deeply effective in this work’s emotional beats and exploration of erasure.

Only time will tell if this one stays as vibrant in my mind as it is now, but upon its finish Thursday evening, I found myself thinking it is my single favorite thing the ballet has done since Curran took the helm. Then again, to the ballet’s credit, I often think that when the curtain comes down on their contemporary work.

Rounding out the evening is another world premiere: “Force Flux” by company dancer Brandon Ragland. He’s the first dancer to present choreography on the main stage in the Curran era, a fact that speaks to Curran’s confidence in Ragland’s ability.

Instead of testing the outer boundaries of ballet movement in the vein of Jervies, Hougland and Curran, with “Force Flux,” Ragland doubles down on the structures and limitations of traditional ballet vocabulary. He pairs that with forward-facing design and spectacle aesthetic.

Ragland appears to be asking what freedom there is to be found in movement that other choreographers consign to history.

His exploration is not unlike the one undertaken by Balanchine in the 20th century. He worked to throw off older traditions and ironically is now one of the traditions that Ragland is attempting to refine and bring forward. By removing theme and character, both Balanchine and Ragland highlight the athleticism of the dancers and the geometries of the movement.

There are strong design elements at work in “Force Flux,” and Ragland is unafraid to explore them alongside the vocabulary. Scenic elements by de Leon & Primmer fly in and out of the space. The costumes designed by Alexandra Ludwig have a simplicity, almost a spareness.

The women are dressed in white leotards and tutus, but no tights. The men are wearing less still, simple black leotards. Few things signal a formal rejection of ballet’s traditions more than bare skin, and yet the dancer’s nude legs embrace the moves of Vaganova, Cecchetti and Balanchine that their naked skin would normally seem to reject.

Both sets of costumes use strong angular lines to emphasize the dancers’ musculature and again reinforce the geometry of their movements.

Lighting design by Jesse Alford is key to activating the flying elements of the piece, making them glow a variety of colors, as well as utilizing the light to paint and play on the costumes and dancers in away that is more often seen in works with more aggressively modern or contemporary movement vocabularies.

The three design elements work together to create an aesthetic sense that I’ll describe as “Ikea, if it was a very intense but disciplined nightclub.” Most importantly, the design feels right with Ragland’s own marriage of different sensibilities.

Ragland has an undeniably strong grasp of the tools of choreography, which he has clearly honed the use. He also seems to have a strong guiding star by which to chart his choreographic exploration. But “Force Flux” feels like what it is — an early leg of a long journey.

If the Louisville Ballet is committed to letting Ragland take that journey, I expect we’ll see more interesting work down the road.

“Mozart” runs Friday, Oct. 12, at 8 p.m., and Saturday, Oct. 13, at 2 and 8 p.m., at the Brown Theatre, 315 W. Broadway. Tickets start at $35.50.