Between them, they have worked with some of the most significant modern choreographers on the dance scene today and have performed in top-ranked companies. One is a former dancer with Dance Theatre of Harlem and the other grew up on a ranch two miles east of Boise, Idaho.
They are Kellye A. Saunders and Matthew Prescott, and they’ll be performing for the second season as a duo in ballet tech cincinnati’s eighth Gala of International Dance Stars this weekend to choreography by Prescott and Thaddeus Davis. The two appear with 10 other dancers of world note in duets and solos at The Aronoff Center Saturday night.
Saunders, making her fifth appearance at the Gala, first appeared in a torrid duet with Donald Williams in 2004. She’s been partnering with Prescott (who performed with her here last year and made other recent appearances in Cincinnati with The Suzanne Farrell Ballet and Cincinnati Ballet) for two years.
“We make a good duo. We met doing freelance work in New York City. Matthew is a wonderful dancer, a nice person, a great partner — all in one package,” Saunders says. “The fact that he is a choreographer is just icing on the cake.”
For years, the gold standard for gala productions was that they tend to be enjoyable variety shows crammed with top-rank dancers out to make the audience gasp with astonishment.
But Saunders, a busy performer who is currently a principal with Fugate/Bahiri Ballet NY, has noticed a gradual change from almost exclusively classical show-off pieces to more thoughtful, yet just as technically demanding modern ones.
“That Marvel (Marvel Gentry Davis, the gala’s producing artistic director) has started to present modern mixed in with strictly classical is definitely where dance is headed. It’s one reason that we are excited to be doing Matthew’s world premiere, choreographed specifically for this gala,” she says. “You can’t pigeonhole works like these as just ballet any more — they are modern in that they take the energy, strength and focus of ballet, squeeze out every last bit of juice and transform the dancing into material that is totally different.”
Prescott is clearly high on the thrill of presenting his own work.
“For the last few days, I’ve been watching it on my computer. Watching it the last time we put it together in the studio, I just said ‘Oh, I think it’s done!’ ” he says.
He agrees with Saunders on the inroads contemporary works have been making in the rep of the standard gala evening. He cites the intensely physical style of modern choreographers he’s worked with like Alonzo King (LINES Ballet), Dwight Rhoden (Complexions) and Donald Byrd (Spectrum Dance Theater) as influences.
Prescott’s new work, Encantado, is set to Erik Satie’s Gymnopédies, three short, airy piano pieces from the late 1800s. While delicate, the pieces are somewhat unusual. The Gymnopédies defied the traditions of its time, with hushed dissonance and a somewhat sorrowful spirit.
In Spanish, encantado is what people typically say to each other after “Hello,” Prescott says. It means “Enchanted to meet you.”
“So, in my piece, a couple meets and comes together,” he says. “They say ‘This is me. This is you,’ and ‘How can we two make one thing together?’”
THE GALA OF INTERNATIONAL DANCE STARS takes place at 8 p.m. Saturday at the Aronoff Center. For ticket info, go to cincinnatiarts.org.