No guts, no glory. No risk, no reward. These clichés generally hold true for Cincinnati Ballet’s annual season opener — its modern-leaning, mixed-bag New Works showcase — but they seem more apt than usual. This year’s Kaplan New Works Series, which opened on Thursday night at the Ballet’s own intimate Mickey Jarson Kaplan Studio, delivers on its titular promise — four of the five new works were world premier.
The daringly understated “The Man in Black,” choreographed by James Kudelka and set to Johnny Cash renditions of popular tunes, is an off-the-beaten-path piece. The surprising lack of flashy steps highlights the quality of movement. An atypical cast combination of three men and one woman lends a pleasingly off-kilter feel. Male-male partnering is nothing new, especially in modern dance, but it’s unusual to see so much of it here.
The piece veers down a path of American folk forms — heel stomps and scuffs, slaps and claps. The recurrent reaching with outstretched arms, handholding and support of each other (literal and physical) conveys a strong sense of unity. It’s not easy to meld gritty earthiness with understated grace, but the quartet strike the right chords in their black cowboy boots.
On the more urban side, “Blind Man’s Map” represents another provocative choice — the eloquent voice and poetry of JaHipster, aka Tonya Matthews, who performs spoken-word onstage.
“I’m your new neighbor,” she says.
“No, correction: You’re my new neighbor.” This gentrification callout feels especially timely and relevant to our surrounding areas, including the Ballet’s headquarters, which is in Over-the-Rhine.
The cast of 11 swiftly sails, soars and spins through the exciting whirlwind of Heather Britt’s highly kinetic choreography, and JaHipster tells it like it is .
The score didn’t always seem to sync up stylistically against her bold spoken words, but perhaps the music was intended as a counterpoint. JaHipster commands such a powerful presence that she needs music to stand up to her more equally. Awe-inspiring poetry and motion came together best in “Black Man, I Wish You a Better Death.” JaHipster movingly underscores the weight of her words by connecting with and speaking directly to solo dancer Joshua Bodden.
The Ballet’s Resident Choreographer Adam Hougland’s luminous conclusion to the bill, “To the Fore,” features portable work lights on extension cords used as versatile props for both lighting and interactions. And they never got gimmicky. Quick as a flash, but free of lights, Corps dancer Courtney Conner pulls off a series of échappés and lightning-fast piqué turns.
The other two pieces, which are both set to live music played onstage, might not seem as risky, but still bring unexpected elements into the foreground. Husband and wife creative partners Andrew Hubbard and Missy Lay Zimmer’s “Barre et Trois” explores relations between a man and two women, who lean, lounge and walk fingers along a ballet barre between encounters with the lone homme. Who knew a barre could be so sexy?
Romance and sensuality also come alive in the ambitious “A Hero’s Prayer.” Choreographed by former Cincinnati Ballet dancer and longtime Principal Ballet Mistress Johanna Wilt Bernstein, the piece is a likeable blend of classical and contemporary within a loose narrative. The women look ultra-feminine in corset-inspired bodices and flowing hair as they piqué and pirouette.
Early on, some unison within the men’s sections felt off. Opening night jitters? Principal dancers Cervilio Amador and Janessa Touchet’s intricate partnering has rarely appeared more solid, relaxed and confident. When Amador pirouetted seemingly endlessly, on a dime, Baryshnikov’s turns in White Nights came to mind. Just like Misha, Amador, who’s from Cuba, knows defection takes guts. Luckily, the audience gets to share in all the dancers’ glory.
Cincinnati Ballet’s NEW WORKS runs through Sunday at the Cincinnati Ballet Center’s Mickey Jarson Kaplan Studio. Visit www.cballet.org for tickets and details.