Much of the dance produced by regional companies in the current era suffers from the absence of live music. It is an unfortunate by product of the economics of performance and only the largest of companies seem to mange to still maintain live music as part of their standard offering. The cooperative program between The Santa Barbara Symphony and State Street Ballet presented at the Granada Theatre in Santa Barbara on January 22nd proved the ultimate gift for a ballet company that has often danced to recorded scores but which showed itself on Saturday worthy of deserving far more.
On the program was the hallowed Appalachian Spring by Aaron Copland played in the shortened suite version with new choreography by Willliam Soleau. This is a return for Mr. Soleau who created a version of Carmen for the company for performances at the Ford Amphitheatre in Los Angeles in 2007.Anything to do with Appalachian Spring of course comes with a severe set of expectations because of the imposing weight of American dance history that comes not only with the music but with its connection to Martha Graham and her groundbreaking company. Soleau is brave in taking it on but in doing so has managed to create a striking personal vision of how the shortened suite might play as a new ballet, independent of Graham’s story but still reflecting an American temperament and a sense of original movement. I would not bet on a non-American being able to manage it. I recently saw ChristopherWheeldon’s versionof Ginestera’s Argentine classic, Estancia ,done by New York City Ballet. While he covers the design of the story well (the ballet follows a city boy who meets and falls in love with a girl from the Pampas) there was not much in the choreography that revealed a true Argentine heart. The same cannot be said for what Soleau has accomplished for Copland’s music here, which feels homegrown, American and true from beginning to end. We might have expected this. Soleau is an American choreographer after all and, as the Executive Director of the John Butler Foundation, he probably knows a thing or two about American dance and music. The source runs deep.
Soleau has altered Graham’s story to produce a narrative of a city girl and farm boy preparing for their marriage. But it is not only they who are being united, it is the families too. It’s a simple idea but it has resonance, and in Soleau’s understated but genuine choreography there is more than enough story and emotional interaction to fill the heart and some very clever dancing and theater to go along with it. The original story for the ballet was based on a house raising and it was only just before the ballet premièred in 1944 that the title was settled upon. The title turned out to be an important image for Graham. She was forever concerned with a source both for her choreography and her movement vocabulary. The idea of a spring, water, was perfect. The suite shortens the original music in the chamber version by several minutes. Copland said that he left out some of the music which was specifically tied to choreographic needs. The result in Soleau’s hands however becomes not a ballet that is diminished but one that is simply leaner and moves from point to point with greater speed and lightness. The eight sections cover a basic story line:there is an introduction, an arrival, a meeting, a celebratory picnic and broad hints at a marriage ceremony– but there are moments that flash out of time briefly to reveal an internal psychology or a darkened emotional sensibility. What’s remarkable in Soleau’s telling is how much is left unsaid while still binding us to the couple, their desires and apprehensive expectations.
The story telling against the bucolic opening sounds in the orchestra begins with a projection of lush rolling eastern farmland. The introduction is slow and deliberate and eventually the farmland gives way to two large picture frames projected onto a scrim revealing the two families andespecially the young man and woman who are to be married. They look directly out into the distance in tableau. There is no movement. The ballet will eventually close in the same way with the families backing away,leaving the new couple fixed in a single frame to face their future together. This is quite simply terrific storytelling and it is all managed with a light touch.
Soleau has wisely steered clear of anything that looks too much like ballet to tell the story. The men dance in standard dance footwear. The point shoes are banished and all of the movement is directly expressive and understandable. This is not an easy thing to accomplish and Soleau does not allow a single gesture which could mar the understated movement or appear false. The costuming by Christina Giannini pays simple attention to limning the fashion requirements of the two families. It is cast in a time with vague echoes of 19th century attire—button up pants, vests, long dresses and straw hats. The lighting emphasizes an open sky and avoids special effects except to modulate the amount of light onstage to reflect emotional shifts in the music. The sets (Mark Sommerfield) were portable sections of post and rail fencing that could be reconfigured to suggest new locations. The design was spare and allowed ample space for the dancing to unfold.
The two soloists were Arsen Serobian and Leila Drake. They were both excellent and brought believable acting, emotional depth and fresh expression to their dancing . Rather than focus on them with one extended pas de deux, Soleau allows them to freely come together,dance and then separate during the course of the ballet. These brief encounters more accurately reflect the quickly shifting moods of the music. Serobian was a last minute replacement for the part. He is more of a classical dancer but looked especially comfortable and natural in this role. Soleau leaves it up to us to sort out exactly who is who in his story. The roles are set out but they are something less than characters with names. David Eck deserves mention for his powerful impression as the young man’s father. As an ensemble, the cast of twenty one dancers was superior. State Street Ballet Artistic Director Rodney Gustafson has a talented and diverse company at his disposal and they were well used throughout.
A couple of the sections were particularly inventive. The picnic scene where the young women gather the picnic cloths at the corners and move across the stage filling them with air was visually clever. The men danced with gusto in a brief, playful trio full of amended ballet jumps. The trio included Serobian, David Sanders and John Piel. A reeling country dance makes a brief appearance evoking the hoedown atmosphere and scenes from some of the other American frontier ballets of 40s. One gesture reserved for the young girl, a vibrating open hand reveals her anxiety in two key moments. It is only the audience which sees the movement, making the gesture that much more compelling. These are moments when you sense a truly gifted choreographer at work, one who is capable of revealing much but with surprising restraint. Finally, Soleau gives one telling reference to the original Appalachian Spring in the quietly settling, out-stretched arms in the concluding moments of the ballet as the families assemble and then fade away in the last tableau. That gesture so clearly evokes Martha Graham and her enormous contributions to American dance through Aaron Copland’s music. Beautiful moments do live on.
The Santa Barbara Symphony played from the pit with a full and secure sound. Artistic Director Nir Kabaretti connected the suite’s sections without hesitation while producing secure, clean tempos. Everything about the music and the dancing felt right. Also on the program and preceding the ballet were Schubert’s Symphony #5 in B-flat Major and Stravinsky’s Suite from Pulcinella. It was a great night for both State Street Ballet and The Santa Barbara Symphony. I hope the collaborative spirit continues.