It’s not often any ballet company does a double bill with Jet Propulsion Laboratory. But the unlikely happened this past weekend at Pasadena’s ARC performance space with JPL sharing and evening of dance and science with Barak Ballet. The focus of the evening was a new work, Eos Chasma, by the company’s director Melissa Barak that imagines a human arrival on the planet where, since the 1970’s, various exploratory vehicles have touched down. The exotic name refers to a canyon formation on the planet’s surface.
Barak would not be the first to go for dance and science together. Paul Taylor’s work Syzygy (1987) strikes a glancing blow in its content and edgy music with planetary themes, while David Bintley’s Still Life at the Penguin Cafe creates a very emotional response to the story of extinction in the Anthropocene with his narrated work originally done in 1987 at the Royal Ballet. Speaking in Saturday’s concert and talk, JPL’s Mallory Lefland, who is now part of the team working on the next generation Mars vehicle, acknowledged that both choreographers and engineers are essentially problem solvers who work toward solutions in designing complex structures. Questions from the audience in the concluding discussion section addressed both aspects of Nasa’s Mars programs and Barak’s choreography, as well as lighting and musical choices.
Barak leans toward formal looking concert dance. Eos Chasma (for eight dancers) comes across as taut and well made, with alternating sections of large ensembles of unison dance alternating with a balanced flow of seamlessly interspersed smaller sections. There are recurring steps throughout as well as a brief reference to a moment in Balanchine’s The Four Temperaments ballet, an iconic work that has its own interface with the science of the ancient classical world. Barak said she wanted to leave an impression of isolation and desperation, even fear, as part of the content of Eos Chasma. Those elements were not always plainly visible in Saturday’s performance although at times the dancers projected an atmosphere of shared anxiety.
Eos Chasma, originally choreographed for Richmond Ballet in 2014, is in the process of completion with a new section to be added for a performance by Barak Ballet this spring at the Broad Stage. It was danced for the first time by Barak Ballet for this performance. The music, Julia Wolfe’s excellent and often abrasive minimalist work, Cruel Sister for string orchestra, was originally conceived as chamber orchestra version of the famed British murder ballad of the same name. It is a psychological drama of sorts that plays out in Wolfe’s music, just the sort of agitated trauma Barak hopes to inspire from her fine cast of dancers as they encounter a hostile environment. The lighting designs by Monique L’Heureux, alternately gloomy or harsh, steered clear of a literal statement of place. We can look forward to the enlarged version of the ballet in the spring and a chance to see it in a full theatrical setting.
(Wolfe is a regular composer for the contemporary mixed instrumental ensemble, Bang on a Can. You can listen to her work “Cruel Sister” by clicking this link.The costume designs are by Tamara Cobus. “Eos Chasma” travels to Palm Desert next weekend for the annual choreography festival and competition at the McCallum Theater.)