BWW Review: BalaSole Looks Anonymous Together, Glittering Alone
Roberto Villanueva founded BalaSole Dance Company nine years ago to combat the discrimination against "atypical bodies" that one encounters in dance. "Atypical" refers not to a third limb or extra eye, but to height discrepancy, variation in physique, dark skin, or simply demonstrating attributes outside of the cookie-cutter vision that is White Supremacy.
Take Villanueva himself: a dazzling soloist with bravura technique and facility that puts him in Sylvie Guillem's league, at 5 foot 2 inches his atypical height all but barred him from working with major companies. His stint with Complexions Contemporary Ballet aside, Villanueva's career never reached the heights of his abilities or persistence. Instead of giving up, he formed his own company to employ individuals who lacked the "uniform look" but possessed loads of talent. Hence BalaSole; balance + soul = equity.
So on the whole, how does his current crop of dancers balance out? Without a doubt they are all lovely soloists, though strangely their individuality dissipates when they are brought together.
The opening and closing pieces for BalaSole's concerts are created by its dancers as a team-building exercise. While the results are usually a fascinating gumbo of movement, for GAMME this "too many cooks in the kitchen" approach resulted in a flavorless mass that rendered its performers strangely anonymous. Perhaps better music would have helped, though I fear that the choreography's flattened dynamics and lack of rhythmic specificity doomed it from the start. Happily, the dancers transformed back into fascinating creatures once their solos began.
Leigh Schanfein's work presented her as a contorted ballerina who was out of sorts with hyper-flexible extremities and constantly rotating joints. The proceedings resembled a study of a wacked-out Gumby attempting ballet. Conceptually the solo worked--Schanfein fought to reign in her hyper-flexibility--but its lack of contrast left it with nowhere to go.
Kat Bark had the unenviable task of looking miserable in a collection of virtuosic feats that communicated little more than "I'm unhappy". It seems ungracious to pick at a performance that met its mandate--look grim while dancing perfectly with utter conviction--until one considers that 1000% commitment looks like yelling when it lacks nuance.
None gender-conforming, Tyreel Simpson rocked the casbah with his mane of golden hair and bawdy-awdy-body. Decked out in heels, harem pants, and a crop-top tee, Simpson's every split, lunge, and head turn popped with the vibrancy of a video-vixen working her grind. All of that was fabulous until you gathered that he was dancing solely for himself in an endless loop.
Yu Fujiwara danced beautifully in a solid construction of lyrical movement that was paired with excellent, though mismatched music (Franz Liszt's Liebesträume). Meanwhile, Alex Bar's take on returning home from war felt inappropriately charming for its subject matter, though not warped enough to meet the thrill of something done in poor taste. Jonalyn Bradshaw was fully committed to her solo's plunging back-bends and floor-work, but her choreography was dwarfed by Nina Simone's incandescent rendition of You'll Never Walk Alone.
Dear reader, perhaps you're beginning to notice a pattern: when the choreography worked, its music did not. When the concept worked, as it usually did in the first thirty seconds, it meandered for next four minutes.
What of Villanueva? His solo was an eye-catching cascade of undulating waves that concentrated on his pelvis and torso. As always his développé and penché arabesque were glorious to behold--particularly on a man pushing 50--but the repetition of his choreographic theme proved disappointing after its first three iterations. Once again, where was the development? In Ezra Goh's mesmerizing solo, Space.
Initially one worried that Goh was indulging in a clichéd movement study. Standing in a pool of light, after introducing a simple theme, his movement began to ripple rapidly throughout his frame in response to Kangding Ray's expansive music. Each new wave of sound brought on additional flourishes until the sonic intensity sent him spilling across the stage, dominating the space with a vigor that felt potently masculine. Returning to his pool of light, Goh arched backwards and pounded clasped fists firmly against his chest, lowering himself towards the floor with each percussive strike. With a slow burn, he withheld the final hit, then descended to the floor in a controlled fall that was swallowed in darkness as the lights blacked out. Bravo.
The evening's guest artist, Stephanie Rae Williams of Dance Theatre of Harlem, was a blaze of sophisticated jazz music accented with funk. In recent years, Williams has been plagued with injuries. For GAMME, she "turnt up" in splendid form. If you can imagine Eartha Kitt dressed as a sassy flapper, partying the night away in pointe shoes on top of a bar in the middle of New Orleans, then you've got the idea. Clearly influenced by her work with DTH resident choreographer Robert Garland, Willams brought a rousing wellspring of joi de vivre to her performance. Here was a professional ballerina with crisp classical technique who knew how to let her bun down and pull up "real cute" at a moment's notice. Rhythmic footwork, a menage of turns, lovely line, and panache; Williams' choreography was a simple celebration. More than her fantastic performance, what made the solo stand out was its movement variation and evolution as a vehicle for expressing the myriad modes of merriment. Brava.
If GAMME proved only one thing, it is that BalaSole stands at the forefront of battling discrimination in dance. On the eve of its 10 year anniversary, the only question I have is "How will we hail the company's future endeavours"? Perhaps Villanueva will create a choreographic institute to further his performers' artistry or offer them additional training in leadership so that he is not the only artistic director in the world leading the charge against monolithic hiring. Whatever my reservations about the company's choreographic development, I am eager to see how its mission will continue to evolve.
Balasole Dance Company originally performed GAMME, An Evening of Solos at The Ailey Citigroup Theater on August 16th and 17th, 2019.