Looking back, looking forward

Dayton Ballet’s dance lineage unfolds in new directions

By Arnecia Patterson

Photo: The Dayton Ballet will perform “Interactions” as part of New Directions, March 20 through March 23 at the Victoria Theatre; photo: Scott Kimmins

As it concludes its 76th season, Dayton Ballet is old enough to revisit a past that was new at the time and hint at a future beyond what is au courant. Back in the 1980s, its new artistic director, Stuart Sebastian, began an artistic relationship with Dermot Burke, one of the young, artistic staff at the Princeton Ballet [now the American Repertory Ballet]. It resulted in performances of Burke’s “Fêtes des Courtiers,” set to the music of Johannes Brahms, which will be reprised in the program New Directions at the Victoria Theatre in downtown Dayton, Thursday, March 20 through Sunday, March 23. Additionally, it will include Susanne Payne’s “Interactions,” danced to music by composer Jesse Ayers; “From Foreign Lands and People,” with the music of Robert Schumann, by New York City-based choreographer, Jessica Lang; and “Canyons,” choreographed by artistic director Karen Russo Burke to music by Michael Rasbury. New Directions begins by looking thirty years into the Dayton Ballet’s repertoire and unfolds what is current in the world of ballet today.

When Russo Burke decided to remount “Fêtes des Courtiers” by the former artistic director of the Dayton Ballet, Dermot Burke, she wanted dancers to get a sense of the artistic history that had gone before them. Choreographed for four couples, “Fêtes de Courtiers” harkens back to the Renaissance era, when couples exercised tentativeness while becoming acquainted – a counterpoint to the openness of today’s online setting for meeting people. The ballet’s gestures and steps are flirtatious. “It is very much a boy-meets-girl ballet,” Russo Burke said.

While artistic past is automatically built into a company’s repertoire, the organizational back-story is rarely present in the choreography. When the dance was first performed, both Burke and Stuart Sebastian (1950-1991) were relatively new in their artistic positions with the Princeton Ballet and Dayton Ballet, respectively. They forged an artistic alliance that traded dancers between companies for performances – a relationship that forewent Burke’s tenure as artistic director of Dayton Ballet a decade later. According to Russo Burke, “This ballet was a part of a ‘trade’ between Dermot and Stuart way back when doing that was not even considered. It brought together two companies by sharing dancers.”

The new direction of bringing companies together 30 years ago is only one untraveled road taken by the Dayton Ballet. More recently, it brought together choreographer Susanne Payne and composer Jesse Ayers when the two of them won the New Music, New Dance competition in 2011. It resulted in Payne’s “Interactions,” her first work for a professional ballet company, using Ayers’ original composition, “Mountain River Escapes.” Payne thought her solid background as a professional dancer with Dayton Contemporary Dance Company would inform a new opportunity to work in her learned milieu. “I had it in my mind to do a pretty straightforward modern dance piece, then I realized the most important thing was for the dancers to feel like they were inside their element,” Payne said. The result was a classically executed ballet en pointe with a contemporary feel. She chose Jesse Ayers’ “Mountain River Escapes” because of the lightness of its irregular tempos and meters. “His music was uplifting to me,” Payne said. “It mimicked life in its bounciness and lightness. My gut was just drawn to it.”

By acquiring “From Foreign Lands and People,” Dayton Ballet is joining a host of dance companies, in the U.S. and abroad, which perform the 80-plus works choreographed by Jessica Lang since 1999. Lang has become a critically celebrated New York City choreographer who is known for artistically embedding digital and physical media into her dances as interactive movement elements. In Lang’s description of “From Foreign Lands and People,” she said the presence of five black boxes – two long and three short – represent the black keys on a piano, while the eight dancers reflect a musical octave. The choreography finds the dancers interacting with each other and the boxes in a constant reconfiguration of the stage via choreography and object movement and placement. Lang’s incorporation of the boxes gives the choreography many more possibilities than exist without them. “The boxes enhanced the overall concept,” Lang said in an email from Japan. “Incorporating the boxes allowed me to constantly reconfigure the space with both human and inhuman constructions. I was always thinking about how to integrate them seamlessly into the dance.” Russo Burke was attracted to Lang’s work for its innovation and smartness. “She has the modern approach and vocabulary, yet she is lyrical and clever and clear in her intentions,” Russo Burke said.

“Canyons,” Russo Burke’s ballet, was inspired by the striking hues and history of the Grand Canyon’s landscape. She recalled, “The colors of clay, teal and intense blue sky were so vibrant and its history so interesting.” An additional historic note is added by the music of Michael Rasbury from the “Blue Jacket” production, which used to be performed annually in the Miami Valley. Russo’s choreography takes viewers through Native-American inspired drawings, a hunt and dances of community, then celebration in four movements.

For each performance, Russo Burke will conduct a pre-performance talk for ticketholders 45 minutes prior to curtain time in the Burnell Roberts Room at 126 North Main Street, accessible through the foyer of the Victoria Theatre, and a Q&A with dancers will follow each performance in the theatre. Pre- and post-performance talks are free of charge for all ticketholders.

The Dayton Ballet will perform New Directions from Thursday, March 20 through Sunday, March 23 at the Victoria Theatre, 126 N. Main St. Thursday, Friday and Saturday performances will be at 8 p.m., with 3 p.m. matinees on Saturday and Sunday. Senior, teacher and student discounts available at box office. For tickets or more information please call (937) 228-3630 or visit daytonperformingarts.org.


Reach DCP freelance writer Arnecia Patterson at ArneciaPatterson@DaytonCityPaper.com.

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Arnecia Patterson has an infinite capacity to view concert dance. She found her former career as dance executive, funder, and consultant extremely satisfying—and finds writing about dance equally rewarding. Reach DCP Resident Dance Critic Arnecia Patterson at ArneciaPatterson@DaytonCityPaper.com.

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