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Tulsa Ballet, founded in 1956, has remained one of the most important ballet companies in the country for some time now. The troupe typically performs for its devoted community in Tulsa, Oklahoma, so it is a treat for us to enjoy this week its return to the Joyce Theater after its last run in New York, in 2009. It was then that I first saw the company perform; I went on to dance with Tulsa Ballet for the following four years.
Last night at the Joyce, artistic director Marcello Angelini took the opportunity to display pieces created specifically for his company of 28 dancers, who together represent ten countries. His curation of works by Annabelle Lopez Ochoa, Helen Pickett, and resident choreographer Ma Cong represents his mission to uphold the tenets of classical ballet while negotiating the genre into new directions.
The curtain opens on a petite female dancer in an unassuming gray leotard and skirt. Suddenly, a sea of dancers in royal blue walk in random line patterns across the stage. Annabelle Lopez Ochoa’s Shibuya Blues, created for Tulsa Ballet last year, takes place within the ordered chaos of a busy city. With Shibuya, Japan, as the setting, and the poem “City of Light” by Scarlett Treat in our programs, it is clear that Ochoa is situating an individual in an unchartered urban environment. The larger collective perform robotic arm gestures and jerk their heads back and forth in unison. Even the various pas de deux display a sort of staccato movement, peppered with hand flutters that manifest emotional excitement. Throughout, the outsider donned in gray observes these romantic encounters and attempts integration into the community by learning the other dancers’ movement patterns. Les Dickert’s lighting design supplies horizontal strips of LED lights that flash hues of pink, green, and orange both up and downstage; all the while, spoken word mingles with scores by artists including Richard Beggs, Michel Banabila, and Radboud Mens.
Meðal (Among), by Helen Pickett, has a similar theme: An individual is first seen dancing alone — this time one of the strong male dancers of the company — before trying to assimilate into a community of dancers who are distinct in movement quality and costuming. The dancers slowly crawl onstage like the smoke that wafts above them, and they twitch as they stand up against a swampy green scrim. Pickett’s atmospheric inspiration comes from the late Icelandic composer Jóhann Jóhannsson’s eerie score and creates a world where movements like the quick flipping of one’s palm seem like a sort of Morse code that only the group can understand. Tulsa Ballet’s female principal dancer, Madalina Stoica, breaks away early on and captivates the audience with a graceful solo that melts into an intimate pas de deux with Jonnathan Ramirez. In the end, a shadowy figure emerges behind the scrim, reaching desperately with outstretched arms.
The strongest piece of the night is a world premiere, Glass Figures by Ma Cong, which gave the dancers the opportunity to show off their dynamic power and emotional capability. Philip Glass’s “Concerto for Violin and Orchestra No. 1” drives the nonstop dancing; fast pirouettes are punctuated with sustained jumps and ornamental hand gestures. The piece incorporates several pas de deux among exciting ensemble work, each highlighting technical ability. While the other pieces make use of pointe and partnering as well, Cong’s choreography is perhaps the best example of innovating within the language of classical ballet. The dancers appear both powerful and free in Cong’s unique style. As the piece comes to a close, the cast gestures its hands out to the audience with longing eyes before reaching upward in front of starlike bulbs on a black scrim. Hope is restored, and any hovering questions or concerns about belonging to a group are brought to a resolution. As the dancers invite us into their worlds, it seems they have beautified our community as well.