Candlelight Ballet; Sheep Meadow Dance Theatre at Irondale Review






Light energy, in a quantitative sense, is measured in lux or candelas, the illumination of square meter surface at one meter away from a single candle. With thousands of ambient candles lighting the Highline String Quartet and dancers of Sheep Meadow Dance Theatre, the Irondale Candlelight Ballet experience is one that fills the physical space and the mind’s eye with beauty, energy, and romance of the past. The show manages to recapture and honor timeless classics in live performance, ephemeral as a candle’s bright flame.

Held in the churchlike architecture of the Irondale in Brooklyn, the experience begins at the door, walking up a flight of wooden stairs lit dimly by electric candles glowing on the steps. The performance space upstairs feels similar to a cathedral, with high windows on the far sides of the room letting in pools of light. There is a bar on the way into the performance space, adding to the theatricality and delight of the senses. The seating is designed with a thrust stage layout, allowing for audience to surround the side angles of the curtainless stage as well as the typical proscenium viewpoint. This always presents an interesting challenge within ballet, since the essence of ballet’s trademark turn out was established with the single viewpoint of the audience and the performers anatomy in mind. While the French king Louis XIV wanted everyone to see his highly desirable calf muscles, with a thrust stage, we can see all angles of the body and sometimes miss patterns and architecture of balletic choreography.

The ol’ sun king of ballet. Good Lord, this costume.

It reminded me a little of my favorite audience experience ever, seeing ‘La Bayadere’ by the Mariinsky Ballet in St. Petersburg, sitting dead center of the balcony, sipping champagne with my fellow dancers. Tell me this isn’t the dream.

Each musical piece was introduced by one of the members of the Highline Quartet. From their raised platform behind the dance space, they gave interesting background and tips on things to listen for in the selections. The chosen works were popular favorites from major composers, Brahms, Khachaturian, Dvorak, and Tchaikovsky among them. My personal favorites were the beautiful adagio from Massenet‘s Thais- ‘Meditation’– and the youthful athleticism of the ‘American Quartet’ from Dvorak‘s ‘Vivace ma non troppo’, the finale of No. 12 in F Major, Op. 96. The latter had a feeling of the old west, staccato playfulness that sounded like horses trotting, and swelling harmonies evocative of triumphantly crossing a finish line at full speed with energy to spare. I barely remember being young, but I think it felt like that. This piece brought such enthusiasm from the audience that the quartet actually stood for a well-deserved bow.

My other favorite from the musicians was a tango piece that I didn’t know, described as being inspired by Buenos Aires (one of my favorite cities) and something with winter. I didn’t catch all of the details and they didn’t give us a program. They played with a diversity of sound; the deep passionate pull of the cello mixed with romance of the viola, the occasional scratchy high-strung tension from the violin. The piece and flawless performance inspired visions of faraway places and romantic nights. This is the power of art, the ability to transport one to different times and places, those truly experienced and those only imagined.

Dancing and teaching in Argentina plus a review: Tango Lessons

Many pieces were accompanied by live performance with dancers from Sheep Meadow Dance Theater in choreography from director, Billy Blanken. The choreography offered a wonderful array of styles from the classical canon, from adaptions of the Sugar Plum Fairy variation, the act 2 Garland Waltz from The Sleeping Beauty, to my personal all-time favorite, The Dying Swan variation. There were selections from classical work that included more exotic flair such as the opening solo set to the Brahm‘s Hungarian Dance, the Sabre Dance pas de deux, and a neoclassical duet with more jazzy use of turn in reminiscent of many of Balanchine’s works. The works offered an array of emotions; from joy to fragility, sensual connection and overt bravado perfect for newcomers to classical ballet to seasoned theater-goers. Choreography included beautiful lifts and moments to showcase both technique and artistry, with difficult technical steps and moments of simplicity. This was especially true in the neoclassical duet and in the opening Hungarian dance solo. The choreography was never over-complicated, made beautiful use of the stage space, and showcased what was intended to be expressed through the music and characterization in both dramatic and delicate movements. The array of beautiful costumes, from the white classical tutu to crop tops and silky harem pants as seen in ballets like Scheherazade added to the fantasy of the experience and showcased the beautiful physique of the performers. The stunning vision of the dancers, with their sculpted flexible bodies decked in elegance and grandiose costumes, is half of the draw of ballet.

The other half is what lies beyond the visual spectral, the part of music and dance that somehow makes visible the invisible. It was here that the performance, for me, did not live up to the ambiance of the space and the gift of the music and choreography. Many times, the dancers looked hesitant in their technique, their eyes dropped to the floor, you could see tension in their necks or even an angry facial expression that did not match the pleasantness of, for example, the final Tchaikovsky waltz. I could see fear in the preparation before a pique arabesque, a side arm that was too high that signified strain in the body. There were some performances where the dancing body looked fully capable, strong, articulate, but the energy stopped at the eyes and the fingertips. In some of the more dynamic selections, there could have been more enthusiasm, charm, a pop of energy that highlights the music and demands the attention of the audience rather than apologize for it. Each dancer had fantastic attributes, some had gorgeous lines and extension, beautifully shaped feet, nice port de bras. A male dancer, Malcolm something (again, no program to properly cite names) had the most generous energy, with powerful jumps and attentive partnering. He seemed present with the other dancers onstage and within his own body in a confident, bold way that was a pleasure to watch. Another highlight was dancer Sabrina in the Dying Swan variation, with lightening fast fluttering bourees in the entrance and deliberate pauses for breath in great dynamic effect. There was a bit of the spastic quality that some performers choose to highlight in this variation, Makarova for instance, where the descent into the final submissive pose is fraught with struggle, the arms swinging with momentum in the circling winged port de bras rather than feather-like softness. The display of energy and muscular power suited this adaption with its inclusion of allegro steps like tour jetes. This variation presented a classical work with fresh, deliberate artistry that had something to say. Each dancer had moments of brilliance; the directional changes in dazzling chaines in the opening solo, the crystalline sharpness of the Italian pas de chat and the dramatic strike of the final pique turns ending on a perfect still and shining b plus in the sugar plum variation. This was a jewel of a performance in extremely demanding choreography that shined with majestic and powerful grace.

There’s a funny phenomenon in the natural world where physical eyeballs are only developed in species where there is light in the environment. Creatures in the deep dark of the ocean would have no use for such appendages so they simply don’t have them. The thing about music though, is that you can sit in a dark room and imagine such incredible things in your mind. So the vision of the dancers can add illustration of what is hidden within the music, the emotions that can be expressed, an added layer of beauty. They were very successful in the latter, but I personally wished for more in the expression. A lot of the illumination stopped at the body. There was very little brightness of the soul. When I watched these performances, I mostly sensed the attempt to be correct, the fear of messing up. I wish I could reassure these dancers of their capabilities so that when they took the stage, we could experience their passion more than what is easily detected by the eye. Our physical eyesight was developed to see visual data, but we as humans developed music and art to display the abstract and timeless of experience.

Photos by Patrick Hopkins

I have the feeling I am watching this show as we all do, from a personal history and skill set. I know the feeling of tension and insecurity in ballet, so I know how it manifests in technique. I am not sure if others without a skilled eye would pick up on these small nuances. I think what is transmissible in watching dance performance is largely dependent on how far down the line a person can imagine the experience of themselves doing what the performer does. If someone has no experience being onstage in a costume, in that level of flexibility, in the power of the jump, then the physical capability is enough to be truly dazzling. For those of us who know the action of the body, we imagine ourselves doing things familiar. I suppose for me, as someone experiencing disability after a lifetime of dancing, the jealousy I feel at the physical capability is staggering and hard to bear. When I see dancers who seem to me to be fearful or not enjoying it, I wish there was something to reassure any doubts and allow them to enjoy these opportunities so that we in the audience, can too. Even in a perfectly healthy body, the time frame to enjoy this level of athleticism and action is brief, precious, a dwindling candlewick that will inevitably go out either by age or injury or a simple dissolvement of passion. If the passion and the opportunity is there, I would wish for all dancers to allow themselves to shine the inner light as much as possible, dial up their inner ‘lux’, and light up the unseen-yet-worthy in the world. I am hoping for and looking forward to, the growth in confidence and artistry of this company and the performances at Candlelight Ballet. I can’t wait to see, with shimmering open eyes, what beautiful creations honoring past, present, and future they bring to life next.

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