Review: BRAVO! at Arkansas Museum Of Fine Arts

Ballet Arkansas presents three world premieres and one regional premiere.

By: May. 09, 2024
Review: BRAVO! at Arkansas Museum Of Fine Arts
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Ballet Arkansas never ceases to amaze me with their creativity and talent, but this past weekend, May 2-5, they surpassed themselves. Consuming the stage at The Arkansas Museum of Fine Arts with a combination of classical ballet and contemporary dance, The Fothergills crafted a show that included three world premieres for the first act while spotlighting award-winning pianist Fei-Fei Dong, and a regional premiere for the second act, which was originally created for the Royal Ballet. It was a feast for the eyes, ears, and heart. I fell in love with this company all over again. 

Before I get into these works of moving art, I want to talk about the amazingness that is Fei-Fei Dong. Born in Shenzhen, Fei-Fei started piano lessons young, gave her first recital at age ten and made her orchestral debut when she was 13 years old. Since then, she has played at many international festivals and concert halls and has won numerous competitions. To say she is a wonderful pianist is a gross understatement. The articulation and passion and command of the piano is mind blowing and made me mesmerized and a tad envious of her skill level. We were fortunate to be witness to the dances that were coupled with her dynamic performance.  

Review: BRAVO! at Arkansas Museum Of Fine Arts

Before the show, Fei-Fei spoke with Ballet Arkansas Board of Directors President Dr. Ann Patel talking about her experience with accompanying these performers.  

“This is the first time I played solo piano with dancers, and Michael and I had this conversation for a couple of years now, I think four years. We picked the repertoire very carefully, and it's some of my favorite music that I play a lot, but when I worked together with the dancers and saw these music selections somehow reimagined into movements and saw the music interpreted by a choreographer, it actually gave me new ideas, a new perspective to the music that I have played so much. So, it's been very, very inspiring to experience that.” 

Fei-Fei went on to comment about the pieces of music selected for the ballet and preparation to fit the choreography. 

“The repertoire we chose is Chopin and Rachmaninoff. These are romantic repertoire and they have offered the players a lot of freedom in a way so it can be interpreted and played in so many different tempos, different emotions. During these couple of days (I was) sitting through all the tech rehearsals to see the dancers dance with recordings. (I needed) to see what the choreographer had in mind and how the dancers were structuring the pieces, (so I could) process that and integrate it into my playing as well.” 

The observation paid off, because no one would have thought that she and the dancers didn’t spend months working together. Tsai Hsi Hung’s BRUSHSTROKES 2024 was like a dream set to two Chopin Nocturnes. Dancers Keith Newman, Aldrin Vendt, David Cummings, Lauren Yordanich, Celeste Lopez-Keranen, Brittany Harano, and Leah Norwine were very synchronized and intertwined the various movements with multiple pairings.  

Review: BRAVO! at Arkansas Museum Of Fine Arts
" While I Yet Live" Choreography by Alia Kache.
Photo Credit Matthew Sewell

Alia Kache’s WHILE I YET LIVE really caught my interest in the interpretation of the dance. Set to Florence Price’s Fantasie Negre No. 4 in B minor, I was certain Matthew Larson-Arziari and Meredith Loy were emulating lovers with their dance space being covered by a bed of roses. It fascinated me so much that I had to talk with the choreographer about her creation.  

“Have you ever heard the phrase "Give me my flowers while I yet live?" Kache asked me. “Well, that was my inspiration for this piece. Florence Price is one of the most prolific yet underrated classical composers of her time. She didn't really receive her "flowers" until she was gone. I wanted to make a tribute to her beautiful music as well as a reminder to celebrate the people around you. Let's not wait until they are gone to say nice things about them or show them how much we appreciate them. We should give them their flowers while they can still smell them. So, you're not completely off, but it's about more than a romantic relationship between lovers.”  

Review: BRAVO! at Arkansas Museum Of Fine Arts
"While I Yet Live" Choreography by Alia Kache.
Photo Credit: Matthew Sewell.

Little Rock native Florence Price was the first African American woman to have her work premiered by a United States orchestra in 1933, and that did not go unnoticed by Catherine Mayton, Trustee to the Stella Boyle Smith Trust.  

“Ballet Arkansas brought into the performance the diversity of Florence Price to make Arkansans aware of who she is and what we have. It’s authentic, genuine history. It's not forced. She was great, and they recognized her greatness.”  

Review: BRAVO! at Arkansas Museum Of Fine Arts
"The Web" Choreography by Michael Fothergill.
Photo Credit: Matthew Sewell.

After that enchanting piece, Broadway World’s favorite choreographer Michael Fothergill debuted his ballet THE WEB, set to the Russian composer Rachmaninoff, where I’m pretty sure the tumultuous Moment Musical portion ended in the dancers ready to fight. Their few stances seemed pretty aggressive. It was amazing! I loved the power in it all, and it was a great ending to the first act. Thursday night’s performance featured Aldrin Vendt and Murray McCormack performing the Pas De Deux.  

During the pre-show interview Dr. Patel asked Fothergill about his strategies to ensure that each of the dancers were highlighted to their specific talents. 

“Well, it's always a challenge when you're a dance maker, because what's in your mind and what you want to see on the stage can only happen through the body of somebody else. So, it's a trial-and-error conversation oftentimes, and you cast people not knowing necessarily the vein in which the choreography will go. For me, the dancers all inspire me in one way or another, and they influence the direction of which way the ballet goes. So musically as Fai-fai mentioned, we landed on musical selections that we felt would lend themselves well, not just to the concert, but individually to the choreographers. So, I had a slight idea of where I wanted to go, but the more and more you work with the dancers, it leads you in different directions. I would say every choreographer’s process is maybe a little different, but my process is collaborative in the sense that it really is based day to day on what the dancers inspires me to put on to the stage and that changes often. Of course, a smart director or choreographer will want to choreograph to the way that it best suits the talents and the company. So you take into consideration the abilities of the company and their strengths and their comfort abilities with certain things to make sure that it feels natural and it feels good for them when they're on stage."   

It is evident that Fothergill is very familiar with his company’s strengths, because their passion really shown through with his number.  

Review: BRAVO! at Arkansas Museum Of Fine Arts
“Galanteries” Choreography by Sir David Bintley. Designs by Jan Blake. Staged by Ravenna Tucker Wagnon. Photo Credit: Matthew Sewell.

After intermission, the dancers graced the stage to music composed by Mozart in the regional debut of David Bintley’s GALANTERIES, with Designs by Jan Blake and Staged by Ravenna Tuck Wagnon. Of his ballet, Sir Bintley said, “With overtones of the paintings of Watteau and Fragonard, particularly The Swing, and in the spirit of the Fête Galante, I believed I had invented the title Galanteries, only to discover years later that Sir Fred had used it for an early, forgotten piece!” Even still, Galanteries is a magnificent piece of art that will not be forgotten. I especially loved seeing the guys effortlessly toss the ballerina back and forth as if it were nothing. I have never seen that type of choreography before, and it was a wonderful surprise. 

Earlier, Dr. Patel asked Raveena Wagnon to speak about her background and what it was like to stage this ballet. 

“When I was still in the Royal Ballet, I got to dance Galanteries. When I retired from ballet, I became a teacher, and that was 30 years ago. And so now, as a stager of Galanteries, I have these memories of a dancer having danced the piece. It was a beautiful dancing ballet. That music just inspires your body to move. His choreography is very fast and travels around the stage and we feel the space and this sense of freedom, and so I have this memory as a dancer of what it felt like, and being able to pass it on to the dancers with Ballet Arkansas was a wonderful experience, because not only did I have to know my role that I danced, but I had to know everyone's role. That first day when I came in, they didn't know anything about the ballet. We started with the first movement with everyone involved, and day by day we gradually built the ballet, and day by day everyone got to see what it was like, and it was wonderful to share. It's like giving a dancer something that they love, and I think (being a stager is) probably the next best thing to being a choreographer.” Bringing the movements to life were Meredith Loy, Lauren Yordanich, Kerridwyn Schanck, Celeste Lopez-Keranen, Andrew Parson, Aldrin Vendt, Andrew Przybylowicz, Davind Cummings, Brittany Harano, Murray McCormack, Leah Norwine, and Layla Terrell.  

Review: BRAVO! at Arkansas Museum Of Fine Arts
“Galanteries” Choreography by Sir David Bintley. Designs by Jan Blake. Staged by Ravenna Tucker Wagnon. Photo Credit: Matthew Sewell.​​​​

During the Fothergills’ thank yous, Michael professed his love to one audience member in particular for her support of Ballet Arkansas. 

“I know it's terrible to point, but I'm going to point out one woman right here who is my idol and my favorite person here in Little Rock. Her name is Cathy Mayton, and she and her husband Mike are the heads of the Stella Boyle Smith Trust, and they are the presenting sponsors of this program and have been instrumental over our time here to allow us to present some really wonderful musicians as well as some incredible repertory for dance. So I'd just like to say Cathy, thank you, we love you.” 

Review: BRAVO! at Arkansas Museum Of Fine Arts
Michael and Catherine Fothergill

As Michael’s favorite person in Little Rock, I decided I had to speak with her, and her sentiments of the Fothergills were reciprocated.   

“We are so fortunate to have Catherine and Michael Fothergill here. I think they are one of the most artistic forces that I've seen in ages. It's very, very easy to invest in their future, because they're just marvelous and so talented, and I really believe their young people have so much talent. Halfway through, I was going ‘how do they remember all those steps,’ and I know it’s thousands of hours of practice, but it’s phenomenal. I was very proud of them. Stella would be very proud of them. It is so natural to support them, and I am so proud of them performing at AMFA. They're talent like I've never seen.” 

Broadway World agrees with Mrs. Mayton, and we look forward to our next show with Ballet Arkansas. Next up, this amazing troupe will be at UA - Pulaski Tech: The Center for Humanities and Arts for Snow White, tailor made for young audiences, on May 11th and 12th! Tickets ($15-$20) are available at www.balletarkansas.org/tickets.




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