Review: Kaleidoscope by Ventana Ballet and Austin Camerata
by David Glen Robinson
Dance in Austin is said to exist in a state of underfunded flux. Some say it is dying out, an artifact of twentieth century fine arts having no claim on the twenty-first. Ventana Ballet says no to all that, producing dance in ballet and contemporary technique and blends of the two. Ballet purists take note; widen your horizons a smidge by giving some creative attention to Ventana Ballet. Ventana’s show Kaleidoscope gives us a powerful, outstanding example of showing by doing, and it announces to the world that strong, multiform dance is here to stay in Austin.
Ventana joins with the string quartet Invoke in Kaleidoscope to present music that is as varied and strong as Ventana’s dance. The show gives equal weight to music and dance, indicated by the musicians performing live upstage center during the performance. One of the show sections was entirely a musical piece without dance, “Syl.” That piece was both deeply serious and lightly whimsical. The effect was marvelously absorbing, and it gave the audience the opportunity to investigate the virtuosic stringwork of the musicians, Zach Matteson, Nick Montopoli, Karl Mitze, and Geoff Manyin. The Draylen Mason Music Studio was built for music and has perfect acoustics. The choice of live music in this studio was an extravagant gift to the audience. Naturally, it heightened the appreciation of all the movement played out on its exceptional floor. As fellow haikuist Zach Matteson might appreciate,
In a studio
music becomes the dancers
the night tastes it all.
Kaleidoscope was a choreographic collaboration between A.J. Garcia-Rameau and Ty Graynor. A.J. is a Houston native and founder and producing artistic director of Ventana Ballet and a partner-owner of First Street Studio in Austin. Her training credits cover five column inches of text and include much training in ballet, jazz, and contemporary technique, including under scholarship with such luminary institutions as the Alvin Ailey School and Joffrey Jazz and Contemporary. Thence to Austin, Ventana Ballet, and Kaleidoscope. With this background, blended forms come easily to A.J. They are thoroughly accessible in the show.
Ty Graynor is the consummate well-sculpted power dancer and, like A.J., is well versed and experienced in ballet and modern/contemporary forms. His experience includes training, teaching, and performance stints with Limon Dance Company and the Martha Graham company, Graham 2. While with Graham he performed lead roles in such world-changing art as Appalachian Spring and Diversion of Angels. Now he resides in Austin to spend some time with us.
Daniel Kopp of Austin Camerata is the leader of that organization that plays a lot of award-winning music. Not only that, Austin Camerata creates collaborations of chamber music, dance, and storytelling for music and dance performances across central Texas, including this one, Kaleidoscope. Kopp is also a performing cellist, with credits from Tanglewood and Aspen to Austin. He is responsible for bringing Invoke and Ventana together. One hopes there are many such collaborations in the future.
“Lift” was the first piece in the show, choreographed by Ty Graynor, and very much a joyous exploration of “the capacity for harmony, color, and rhythm itself to evoke and inspire,” as the program stated. That was about the music, but Graynor took it literally in the dance mode, costuming his dancers in bright red full-body tights, and he didn’t neglect harmony and rhythm in movement. It was a powerful start to the show, showing the truly inspirational union of music and dance. The dancers, Rachel Cox Culver, Tikiri Shapiro, Elaine Fields, and A.J., lifted much, but also lined up downstage to face the audience and occasionally upstage to face the musicians or to face away from them. It seemed like a game of competing focus between the musicians and dancers. The well-lit musicians showed great energy playing music hard to define but accessible and easy to enjoy. The bright red dancers downstage blocked the view of the musicians and performed compelling shapes and sequences. Back and forth it went to create an intriguing dance piece.
“Fragments” was a strong showcase of A.J. Garcia-Rameau’s choreography. The ballet basis was clear, the dancers costumed in skirts and shirts with socks below. The piece and its deeply thoughtful music addressed, and clearly evoked, darkly complex emotional states. Body language of the dancers took us on that journey. Emotionality was expressed strongly on the faces of the performers. The musicians were dimly lit. Altogether, the piece drew heavily on the full range of talents of the dancers, and they performed the dance with exquisite timing and subtle humor. In Garcia-Rameau’s words on the program, “In a world of anxiousness, triggers, and suffering…we find peace in community.” Garcia-Rameau also called her fellow performers her longtime veterans. They are Kanami Nakabayashi, Rachel Cox Culver, and Rachael Hanlon. They hail from different, diverse backgrounds. Nakabayashi has well-perfected technique that keeps them all together. Rachel Cox Culver is a star rising, and her limits cannot be estimated currently. Rachael Hanlon has the confidence of perfected technique that makes her hard work look easy. She has additional credits as the choreographer of the uncategorizable touring and recording band Golden Dawn Arkestra. All the dancers, with Garcia-Rameau, have the look of a very collegial ensemble, and it shows in their moments of physical contact and near-perfect unison work.
Ty Graynor’s “Evolve and Travel” was a refreshing male-male duet with Graynor and first-time Ventana performer Connor Timpe. The music and movement were marked by exuberance and accessibility, with the dancers pointing in different directions—pathways for travel—as they evolved in their lives. The piece was also a showcase of virtuosic movements, particularly rising and leaping from the floor from unusual positions. Altogether remarkable work by the veteran and the newcomer, so well-matched for the piece.
“Wall” was also Graynor’s choreography, a group piece by four women, and anything but ballet. Instead, it was almost a historical modern piece loaded with angst, the atmosphere of emotion that modern technique deals with best. Throughout, the dancers defined wall boundaries with their arms, fingers, and bodies. And they did it along the stage boundaries, on the floor, along the stage center floor, and wherever they entered. That was reminiscent of mime performers trapped in a phone booth, only this wasn’t funny. When we knew it was walls, the intensity of the dance soared, and we learned again everything we don’t like about them. The dancers couldn’t get over them or under them in music and movement of increasing anxiety. The dancers drew into a tight tableau of people standing, almost as in an elevator. But this elevator was going nowhere, and the walls kept closing in. In the esthetic of true modernism, the piece gave no relief and no happy ending. The dancers labored expertly and hard with no loss of the beauty of their movement, but their exertions were revealed by perspiration and stringy, fly-away hair. The impeccable, hardworking dancers were Kanami Nakabayashi, Rachel Cox Culver, Jessica Siclari, and Lisa Kobdish. Kobdish looks well to be performing at the top of her game. She performs with other companies in addition to Ventana, and notably she is an aerialist with Blue Lapis Light, the high-flying company of choreographer and performance artist Sally Jacques.
“Burst!” was the final work in the show with A.J. Garcia-Rameau’s choreography. The piece was an upbeat movement ode to running, and the seven dancers all wore a diverse set of running shoes, no doubt personal gear brought to the stage from home. They wore bulky over-shirts or smocks in an array of pastel colors. The music and movement offered a running pace throughout. At two points in the dance, the dancers clumped together in a running-in-place sequence downstage center. One-by-one the dancers came to the front and demonstrated different running styles and postures, all dance-inflected. Was this a postmodern, post-ballet recitative? The dancers were Kanami Nakabayashi, Tikiri Shapiro, Rachael Hanlon, Jessica Siclari, Lisa Kobdish, Ty Graynor, and A.J. Garcia-Rameau. Talk about upbeat, Tikiri Shapiro has the brightest smile on stage in all her pieces to go along with her perfected technique. Garcia-Rameau wrote in her program notes, “Running buddies are the best buddies, whatever journey you’re on together.” She dedicated the piece to her husband. “Burst!” was a satisfying, bright finish to the program.
Ever since Martha Graham unstrapped the toe shoes of her dancers and removed them from their feet, footgear on the dance stage has symbolized the material differences and contrasts among the various modes of dance. Martha’s dancers loathed ballet, saying its crippling toe shoes (and the dances requiring them) were the emblems of confinement. For their part, ballet dancers thought vulgar barefoot dancing showed a lack of commitment, discipline, and talent. The two major strains parted ways until the persistent ‘Now” of the twenty-first century. Now the blendings are everywhere, as a choreographer friend told this reviewer recently. Steven Mills of Ballet Austin is recognized as one who thought bare feet were not ugly and happily worked with diverse costume concepts as well as the high technique The Nutcracker once per year. Jennifer Hart of PerformaDance is one who embraces fully different modes, techniques, and details in her notable shows Bluegrass Junction and Mad Scene. The latter dance drove a spikelike decibel meter through the very paradigm heart of Louis XIV’s canonized ballet technique. One of the principal dancers in that show, Alexa Capareda, later turned to the east to bring Philippine folklore and mythology into her Maria and the Mouse Deer to form its conceptual basis. And Capareda insists (as do audiences) that the show is ballet, nothing else. Here is essential artistic transformation, its continuance to be encouraged by all.
For Ventana Ballet’s part, the full embrace of Invoke’s genre-defying music using traditional strings as well as banjo and mandolin did a lot of the work of transformation in Kaleidoscope, and the intricate blends of contemporary technique and ballet brought us the full distance, all the way home to the Brave New World. A possible exception to this was “Wall” with its unrelieved angst. Psychological stress is the undisputed realm of modern dance in the twentieth century Age of Anxiety. Showing us the new, with pop sensibilities, was “Fragments.” There, below ballet costumes, were feet clothed in bulky brown socks. A clearly choreographed maneuver, never seen in ballet and certainly not allowed on its stages, required each of the dancers at various times in the dance to run halfway across the stage and then slide on their socks, standing, eight or ten feet to their next blocking point. It was like kids playing dance in the upstairs bedroom. Roll over Beethoven, tell Tchaikovsky the news.
Next up for Ventana Ballet is Komorebi, a show by resident choreographer Navaji David Nava, premiering in September of 2023. Ventana participates in the design and production of the dance. Administration of projects by companion artists and groups represents a growth direction for the company and is part of A.J. Garcia-Rameau’s vision. Much of that is facilitated by Garcia-Rameau’s half-ownership of First Street Studio, with Dorothy O’Shea Overbey. Overbey herself plans a major work, Moonfall, for 2024. Here are artists who wrestle with funding as all producing artists must, yet still embrace the future with shining hopes.
May 11 - May 13, 2023
41 Navasota St.
Austin, TX, 78702
May 11 - 13, 2023
Draylen Mason Music Studio, KMFA-FM, Austin