Review: Missouri Contemporary Ballet's CRAVE

Photo courtesy of Missouri Contemporary Ballet

By Claire Landsbaum

A ballerina in boxing gloves is as lithe and graceful as one without. But a ballerina in boxing gloves can throw a punch.

Dancers in Missouri Contemporary Ballet’s “CRAVE” are the punch-throwing kind.

The repertoire show, which premiered last night and continues this evening, is ballet on steroids. Visceral, hard-edged ballet. One-two-punch ballet.

One on One,” the first piece of six, opens with a single dancer facing back, hunched over, bathed in orange light. A disembodied voice says “One.” The dancer spreads her elbows and curls her fingers, hunching still further. “One, two.” Hunch, then a crook in the waist, hips hung over the right side of the body, arms aloft to the left.

The voice continues while the dancer tries desperately to keep up. When the voice stops, the stage goes black. It is lit again, and a larger cast is revealed.

The piece’s choreography is innovative yet eerie. Carefully coordinated strings of movement occur against an impersonal, Martian backdrop. “One on One’s” high point is the intricate partner work between Keely Misenhimer and Fernando Rodriguez. One movement flows seamlessly into the next. The dancers support each other while maintaining the sense of isolation at the core of the piece.

In comparison, Shannon Lee West’s “When Things Move” is a relief. Its fun, playful, energetic style is accessible. The piece is about the perception of sound, and at one point a female voice explains the process of sound waves hitting the eardrum, but most of the piece is set to cool, ambient, alt-rock rhythms with the occasional throbbing bass note.

Alex Gordon, Joshua Hasam and Joel Hathaway are brilliant – they leap, twist and turn in acrobatic, technically challenging moves. Fast sections alternate with slow. Sometimes they dance together, sometimes separately. There are moments of gravity and bursts of humor. It’s a piece with variety, depth and insight.

Don’t Tell” is also insightful, but nowhere near humorous. The piece is artistic director Karen Mareck Grundy’s reaction to oppression. Its over-exaggerated “keep silent” gestures (hands covering mouth, elbows straight down) create obvious associations. Elise Eslick, the featured dancer, writhes in anguish en pointe, desperate for a fellow cast member to end her suffering. No one does.

In the end, the stage is bathed in blue as the hands over mouths separate. The music moves from agonized horror movie soundtrack to calm. Mareck Grundy’s message is clear: speak out.

Following the pattern, “The Current State of Life” is serene in comparison, but with a note of melancholy. Music fluctuates from Janelle Monáe to Josh Rouse to The XX and the moods of each section are as varied. One is blue and ominous, another orange and smiling, a third purple and intense. Sections of sharp, quick choreography are interspersed with smooth partnering and slow, endless lines and extensions.

After ambiguity comes a story. “Nigel and Marian… a Story,” to be exact. Fernando Rodriguez plays a beaming, naive Nigel in contrast with Caroline Millikin Euker’s worldly, tragic Marian. The story is easy to follow, made easier by a tinny soundtrack that narrates in song. If the music is lackluster the dancing is not. Millikin Euker’s legs stretch for miles. Her delicacy plays off of Rodriguez’s explosiveness and raw energy.

“CRAVE” ends on a high note with “The Dirt BeNeath,” an awe-inspiring piece which, says choreographer Alex Gordon in the program, “is a portrayal of the ugliness we hide from one another.” The soundtrack is stellar – booming, violin-based orchestra mixed with a hip-hop beat. Female dancers are en pointe, but still break into the occasional body roll. A fast pace and intricate formations make the piece urgent.

Overall, “CRAVE” is a one-two punch to the emotions. The audience is spun from serious to playful to melancholy to peaceful, unable to settle but content with the ride.

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