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  • Writer's pictureJen Norris

Review: Laguna Dance Festival presents Cincinnati Ballet -Feb 24, 2023 at Laguna Beach Playhouse, CA

Updated: Feb 26, 2023

Kudos to Jodie Gates, Founder and Artistic Director of the Laguna Dance Festival for presenting two amazing Midwestern dance companies, Cincinnati Ballet and Hubbard Street Dance Chicago, in a single February weekend. Gates, newly appointed as the Artistic Director of Cincinnati Ballet was anxious to get the company back on tour. She likely also wished to introduce them to her hometown dance audiences, making the Laguna Festival the perfect first post-COVID outing. In a dynamic ninety-minute program Cincinnati Ballet performs a mixed repertory program that shows off the range of the company’s contemporary works, along with a classical interlude for good measure.

Choreographer Andrea Schermoly’s Swivet (2019) opens the evening with a bang. “Swivet” means a condition of fluster, haste or extreme excitement which is apt given the speed of the dancing and the unconventional shapes their bodies form. Four women, dressed in shiny day-glo bustiers and matching briefs (designed by Schermoly) are the focus, though each is well supported by a male partner outfitted in unassuming black. Upside down, or sideways, the women are carried, Melissa Gelfin De-Poli (bright yellow), crawls on her hands, her partner grasping her legs to his chest in a strange game of wheelbarrow. Maizyalet Velázquez’s (day-glo orange) legs kick and arms crawl as she swims above the stage carried at her partner’s hip. Sirui Lui (fluorescent green) strikes an elongated downward dog pose, her body folded between the tips of her toe shoes and the ends of her fingers. The inventiveness of Schermoly’s choreography made each new pose, lift, or carry a revelation.

The second Swivet features a duet danced with nuanced emotions by Bella Ureta (hot pink) and Michael Mengden. The electronic buzzing sounds of the ensemble section yields to the tender piano piece, 20:17 by Ólafur Arnalds & Nils Frahm. The haste has been replaced by a couple finding their way. While it begins with her running in place against him, we soon see them performing wide fanning kicks together. At its conclusion, she melts into him, assured of his support.

Cincinnati Ballet cast of Andrea Schermoly's Swivet takes their bow at Laguna Beach Dance Festival. Photo J.Norris

The athleticism of Swivet might be a hard act to follow for some, but dancers Katherine Ochoa and Chandler Proctor do a valiant job with their performance of the iconic Act III pas de deux from Don Quixote. Ochoa, as Kitri, is youthful confidence embodied, her face positively glowing as she repeatedly strikes perfectly balanced arabesques en pointe, her arms elegantly displayed. Her partner Chandler Proctor, as Basilio, defies gravity with his double turns in the air.

Katherine Ochoa and Chandler Proctor bow after their Don Q Act III pas de deux. Photo J. Norris

After intermission we are treated to an excerpt of William Forsythe’s off-kilter, muscular In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated (1987). This ballet takes classical ballet vocabulary and reinvents it by requiring the dancers to push their extensions and balances to their limits. There are many quick direction changes. Simon Plant is a Forsythe natural with his fast agile footwork. He is soon joined by the equally compelling Llonnis del Toro, who makes fierce eye contact with the audience, and chases Plant off with a swagger in his step. Melissa Gelfin De-Poli attacks the final pas de deux assuredly, making me wish I could see the entire piece later this spring in Cincinnati, rather than only this ten-minute selection.

We sit in silence. No dancers in sight. The black floor is covered in white feathers, a few more float down from above. So begins Alejandro Cerrudo’s Extremely Close (2008). Three head-high walls, perhaps 8x8, glide across the stage and settle in a line, with space between them, through which a man appears windmilling. The feeling is claustrophobic. Tanja Ruehl’s lighting is shadowy, and occasionally confrontational as bright banks of lights shine into our eyes obscuring figures.

As a cast of ten dancers swirl through space, the walls constantly shift, like a life-size Tetris game. A man lies on his back, bent-kneed, his feet against a wall, a woman balances on his shins as the wall steadily pushes them downstage his back leaving a skid in the feathers. My favorite moment happens as a woman is pushed feet first into the wings, as she lies, extended-arms locked, grasping the end of panel which is exiting toward her. Jhaelin McQuay performs a yearning solo. His face full of hope, he points urgently at the sky, before slithering on his belly through the feathered floor to stand once more; with expansive deep breaths he lunges.

Extremely Close closes with a fascinating duet by Michael Mengden and Bella Ureta. Theirs is a complicated and disturbing partnership. He lays his head into her palm trustingly, his body in a stiff side plank. She lifts him up and regards him carefully, before sinking her teeth into his chin. In a deep lunge, his arms spread and chest thrust out, he allows her to hold his chin in her mouth, slowly sinking to his knees.

The final tableau is a show-stopper. Mengden comes downstage picks up the edge of the black cloth ground cover and drags it behind him as he plods upstage, stepping over Ureta's prone body. His glistening torso shimmers as the lights dim.

The dancers of the Cincinnati Ballet perform with clarity and commitment. Their contemporary repertoire is exciting and likely to become even better rounded with Gates at the helm, bringing with her a long association with Forsythe. The company will perform one more time at the Laguna Dance Festival, Saturday February 25, in a shared program with Hubbard Street Dance Chicago.

Bella Ureta & Michael Mengden take their solo bows at conclusion of Cerrudo's Extremely Close Photo J.Norris

Review by Jen Norris, published February 25, 2023 with corrections 1:20p.m.



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