Ballet Theater of Maryland’s “Momentum: A Mixed Bill” was a full evening of dance. It featured six performances by five choreographers—Lindsey Bell, Roman Mykyta, Ashley Taylor, Karissa Kralik, and Michael West Jr.—all of whom are current or former dancers with Ballet Theater of Maryland.
…Michael West Jr. stole the show…West’s duet with Isaac Martinez brought the moment in the evening where the emotional stakes felt the most real, urgent, and human.
In the first half of the evening, Michael West Jr. stole the show. Quick and snappy, but still fluid, he perfectly captured the character of Kotyhoroshko in Roman Mykyta’s enjoyably melodramatic story ballet of the same name. Based on a Ukrainian folk tale, “Kotyhoroshko” tells the tale of a princess captured by an evil snake and then freed by the hero who chops off its head. It felt like a miniaturized version of a full classical ballet. The only thing missing was a third act wedding party. The snake—with Alexander Collen as the head, and Carrie Cornelius, Gabriella Femia, Olivia Fohsz, Lauren Geary, Ellie Goods, Rachael Spicer, and Isabella Warshaw as the body—was a fan favorite, especially with the children sitting in the rows behind and in front of me.
West’s emotiveness was also well featured in Taylor’s “This Moment, All We Have.” It brought out a mischievous twinkle in his expression which seemed to say ‘this? oh this easy… just wait until you see what else I can do.’ The piece also offered West his best opportunity of the evening to display his musicality—finding enough space and undulation in every movement that the only stillness was the occasional well timed hit with an over the shoulder smize. “This Moment, All We Have” was at its best in its most intricate, and intimate moments. There was more affective gravity in moments where the relationships were close, between only a few dancers, or in moments where the corps appeared as a sea of difference, compared to in its big unison phrases.
The work in the middle of act two, Mykyta’s “Capriccio Espagnol” troubled me. Billed as a geographical sampler of Spanish character dancing, it felt more like an elongated version of Spanish from “The Nutcracker.” In different costumes, the pas de deux could have made a lovely wedding dance for “Kotyhoroshko,” but floating on its own in a freestanding, non-narrative divertissement, it solicited very little emotional investment. That was not what troubled me however. What troubled me was its representation of flamenco.
As classical ballet developed in Europe it commandeered, appropriated, and characterized traditional dance forms from across the continent. Patterns and steps from Mazurka, Polonaise, Waltz, Tarantella, Flamenco, and many other dance forms were incorporated into, and interpreted through ballet vocabulary. Using traditional dances to indicate national identity and symbolize travel to far away places is essentially as old as ballet itself. The problem is that these balletic glosses of traditional dance forms have become stereotypes in and of themselves— perpetuated characterizations of the cultural heritage of dances that do not need to laundered and “ballet-ified” to be beautiful and hold the cultural history of the people who originally danced, and still dance them. Ballet is not a technical gateway to every dance form that there ever was, and it shouldn’t need to be to be compelling. Flamenco is more than just shimmying your shoulders with dramatic port de bras and slapping the floor while wearing character heels.
This tropic representation of flamenco also felt like it played into another parallel stereotype. Western media has a long and problematic history of stereotyping Romani people as magical nomads, and then using that as an excuse to devalue their humanity, often with mortal implications (for a more in depth discussion of this topic click here and here). I felt the shabby peasant skirts and wild hair for the women in the flamenco section of “Capriccio Espagnol,” the Dread Pirate Robert’s cosplay for their male partners, and the billing of the female lead as ‘The Fortune Teller’ played into this trope and, at least for me, it brought the work down. I don’t think the intention was malicious, it was just an unconsidered, almost unconscious rolling out of one of ballet’s worn-out and problematic tropes.
The works that bookended the second act, Kralik’s “By Any Other Name,” and West’s “Ultraviolet,” featured some of the most interesting partnered dancing of the evening, and both took the opportunity to explore men dancing with men and women dancing with women. Of the two, “Ultraviolet” felt much more exploratory. “By Any Other Name” (I assume the name comes from the balcony scene in “Romeo and Juliet”) was an examination of love in different forms. Based around three couples—a man and a women, two women, and two men—with a supporting corps, it didn’t feel like three different love stories or three different relationships, but like the same relationship three times in three different places. Although the pairing of dancers were not traditional for classical ballet, most of the choreography felt like a transposition of standard classical male-female partnering vocabulary on to different arrangements of bodies. When the work finished with the male-female couple on center and the other couples upstage, it felt more like a universalization of one mode of relation than an exploration of the possibilities of new combinations of bodies. “Ultraviolet” navigated this terrain more successfully. West’s duet with Isaac Martinez brought the moment in the evening where the emotional stakes felt the most real, urgent, and human. As each dancer hoisted the other, we were treated to a glimpse of a different modality of togetherness built around mutual support, rather than classical shapes.
Running Time: Approximately two hours including one 15-minute intermission.
“Momentum: A Mixed Bill” ran February 24-25, 2023 at Maryland Hall, 801 Chase Street Annapolis, MD 21401, and will be performed again on March 4, 2023 at Coppermine Pantherplex, 1400 Panther Drive, Hampstead, MD 21074.