Saint Paul Ballet — Nadine — Image via facebook.com/saintpaulballet

Saint Paul Ballet at the Cowles

Contemporary Work by Five Choreographers

I will begin by saying that I am relatively new to attending dance performances and not terribly familiar with the conventions of the art form, particularly the systematized tradition that is classical ballet. The Saint Paul Ballet works within that tradition, extending it through collaboration with contemporary choreographers who infuse it with influences from modern dance. In its season-culminating performances this weekend at the Cowles Center, the company focused on this contemporary work, introducing several regional premieres alongside works that have become central parts of its repertoire. And despite my inexperience as an audience member, I could tell that I was witnessing a talented group of dancers committed to creating accessible work that engages the audience with compelling images.

The program started with two contrasting works, Joseph Morrissey’s Mein Weg and Katie Elliot’s Blind Contour. Morrissey’s intense piece, set to a minimalist score of the same name by Arvo Pärt, emphasized angular movements, the dancers walking mechanically across the stage into position, then executing precise rhythmic gestures and athletic solos. In Blind Contour, on the other hand, fluidity was the order of the day; named after a drawing technique, Elliot’s piece seemed to translate the parabolic motion of an upward leap into other dimensions, and at times the dancers gave the impression of parting the air in front of them. Inhabiting a space between these two approaches was SPB artistic director Zoé Henrot’s Gray Matter, a piece reflecting on the mind-body duality explored by René Descartes in his Meditations on First Philosophy, recorded excerpts from which were played during the performance.

Saint Paul Ballet — Shifts — Image via facebook.com/saintpaulballetAfter the intermission came a set of three shorter works: Lirena Branitski’s Capriccio Espagnol, the most traditional-feeling piece on the program, set to what sounded like a worn old vinyl record of Rimsky-Korsakov’s famous suite; Henrot’s Nadine, a piece distinguished by a gradually increasing pulse, as well as the significant dramatic role of the dancers’ brilliant saffron-colored costumes; and Morrissey’s One, a coolly romantic duet documenting the transitory coming together of a couple. The program then culminated in Kinsun Chan’s Shifts, a piece featuring the SPB’s full company with live accompaniment by cellist Adam Stiber. As Stiber performed three movements from Bach’s cello suites, the dancers first moved about the stage holding folding chairs in the air — creating an effect of trees swaying in the wind — then began to settle down, eventually forming a line in which they sat and imitated the cellist’s playing.

All told, this weekend’s program was an effective showcase of the dancers’ abilities and the company’s relationships with like-minded choreographers. The SPB is two years into an innovative new dancer-led artistic and administrative model, and this arrangement appears to be empowering it to build a coherent identity and connect with its audience. I look forward to seeing what the dancers have in store for the 2015-16 season and how they will continue to expand their company and repertoire.

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Eric Prindle

administers Bad Entertainment. He is also an attorney who leads a team of legal marketing copywriters at FindLaw. He is not Eric Prindle, the mixed martial arts fighter.