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Dance review: Morphoses/The Wheeldon Company at Granada Theatre

January 31, 2010 | 11:01 am

Wheeldon

One of the more semi-ironically radical aspects of Christopher Wheeldon’s celebrated and adventurous young dance company Morphoses may be its willingness to soften the very edges of radicalism, to make peace between modernity and traditionalism. Wheeldon’s background as a soloist with the New York City Ballet and his measured strides as an iconoclast make for a mostly happy stylistic marriage here.

Or at least that was the impression from evidence laid out lavishly and athletically at Santa Barbara’s Granada Theatre on Friday in the company’s Southern California debut, presented as part of UC Santa Barbara Arts & Lectures’ 50th anniversary.

Morphoses nudges outward toward the edges while heeding a cultural gravitational pull toward the center, and Wheeldon and company seem to be seeking fresh ideas and creative energies in the process. If not everything works out in this push-pull scenario, the sum effect can be dazzling and reassuring for the cause of making the modern accessible, and vice versa.

On this program, a generous two-and-half-hour affair with two intermissions and framed by large-scale pieces choreographed by Wheeldon, the best came first. “Continuum” feels like a mission statement, with its myriad variations of inventive, striking and beautifully realized designs for its eight dancers set to keyboard music by the late, great Hungarian composer György Ligeti. Pianists Julie Steinberg and Betty Woo played Ligeti’s varyingly lyrical and chromatically terse music, with apt dance movements to suit. But it was a brief, bracing and dense harpsichord miniature, played by Genevieve Lee, that upped the expressive ante and thickened the choreographic plot. Organic fluidity meets sudden gymnastic change-ups, on a virtuosic moment’s notice.

Dance In “Softly as I Leave You,” choreographed and costumed by Lightfoot Leon (partners Paul Lightfoot and Sol León), the stilling poise of music by J.S. Bach and Arvo Pärt is subjected in dance through alternating contradiction and rapprochement, tension and release. For starters, some basic friction is at play between Bach’s formality and Drew Jacoby’s jolting spasmodic motions within a repressive vertical box. By work’s end, Jacoby and male counterpart Rubinald Pronk make lyrical, sensuous peace with Part’s haunting “Für Alina.”

Alexei Ratmansky’s choreography for “Boléro” found its six dancers clad in costumes with numbers, a wry athletic and mathematical touch. In effect, the work does intricate body math, hints at sports -- and yes, sex -- in a fresh dance interpretation of Ravel’s famed exercise in the art of slow-mo crescendo.

Wheeldon’s aesthetics returned for the final work of Friday’s performance, “Rhapsody Fantaisie,” set to piano music of Rachmaninoff (again played by Steinberg and Woo). In contrast to the freewheeling yet highly disciplined contours of the Ligeti-fueled “Continuum,” Wheeldon’s take on the Rach veers inward in tradition, toward more conventional quarters of ballet instincts. Still, twists, small and less so, line the seamless flow of the piece.

As if inserting a winking sight/motion gag in the fading moments of otherwise fairly straight-ahead choreography, the dozen dancers unraveled at the end, suddenly lapsing into primal writhing after the music ended and the lights slowly faded. Whether intended or not, that surprising tiny coda suggested that Wheeldon’s sly, subtle mediation work between tradition and innovation has only just begun.

 -- Josef Woodard

Photos: Top, the company performs "Bolero." Bottom, Drew Jacoby and Rubinald Pronk in "Softly as  I Leave You." Credit: David Bazemore / For The Times

Related:

Faces to Watch 2010: Alexei Ratmansky, Choreographer

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