Dancing forward, foot firm in the past

March 13, 2011
Vail Daily
Cassie Pence


It's not every day that 100-year-old opera songs, arranged in rock ‘n' roll style, meet contemporary American dancers on stage for a modern re-telling of a classic love triangle. But “Remember Me” isn't your typical ballet.

This week, the Vilar Performing Arts Center hosts Parsons Dance in “Remember Me” Saturday and the Joffrey Ballet earlier in the week, on Tuesday, showcasing two American dance companies that use the classics to create the contemporary. Both troupes are dancing forward with a foot firm in the past.

In “Remember Me” members of Parsons Dance and the music and lead vocalists of the East Village Opera Company collaborate. This multi-media rock, dance, opera extravaganza erupted after artistic director and choreographer David Parsons saw the East Village Opera Company perform live from Town Hall in New York City. What attracted him was the reinvention of century-old opera. It wasn't just the rock ‘n' roll, Parsons says, but it was East Village Opera's fresh approach to classical instrumentation. as well.

“These songs are so classic, such gems. Young people only hear them on commercials,” Parsons says. “We are taking these pieces and bringing them into today, and performing them in full length, in their entirety, is reaffirming the classics. It's great for young people to be able to hear that.”

‘An emotional journey'

Parsons Dance is known for its athleticism, a characteristic that's carved the company a niche. “Remember Me” is no different, but it does depart from the troupe's typically uplifting themes. Parsons, Tyley Ross, lead male vocalist and co-founder of East Village Opera Company, and AnnMarie Milazzo, lead female vocalist, sat down for months to create the storyline connecting the East Village's arias and Parsons' choreography. Both Ross and Milazzo sing live on stage with the dancers.

“It's an opera — every one dies in the end,” Parsons says. “But they come to a place of resolution, it's not a downer. It's an emotional journey. It's a hard thing to pull off, to start happy go lucky and then get very heavy between the threesome. It takes a real dark twist, but it resolves beautifully.”

“Remember Me,” Parsons Dance's first full-length production, has evolved quite a bit since it debuted in 2009. The vocalists, for example, originally were on stage as characters with the dancers, but it clouded the story.

“When you make something from the beginning, you usually clutter it,” Parsons says. “We got rid of the junk. Less is more. We distilled it down to its essence, and it's quite powerful.”

‘Looking forward, while honoring the past'

Joffrey Ballet, performing Tuesday at the Vilar Center, takes a much more classical approach to dance than say Parsons Dance, but one of the company's highest priorities — beginning with its founder Robert Joffrey in 1956 — is to bring newly created work to the company and to the audience, says Artistic Director Ashley Wheater.

“I believe that new work is the life-blood of any company,” Wheater says. “This spring, we present two new commissions in Chicago: another piece by Ed Liang and a new work by Yuri Possokhov. Our plans for commissioning new work currently extend at least five years into the future.”

The program for Beaver Creek reflects the company's range of repertoire: an homage to Joffrey Ballet's co-founder Gerald Arpino in “Reflections” and “Sea Shadow,” a passionate “Fantasie on Themes by Richard Rogers,” choreographed by Lar Lubovitch and a window into today's Joffrey with their recently commissioned “Age of Innocence,” by Ed Liang.

“We try to look forward, while honoring the past,” Wheater says.

The Joffrey Ballet is a classical company, but Wheater says it's also an “eclectic company.” There's no Joffrey style except for perhaps “diversity,” he says.

“The Joffrey celebrates the individual as well as the ensemble, and has been called “the most American” of classical companies,” Wheater says. “On stage, our dancers are as diverse as our repertory. Dancers are not forced into a single mold. We try to showcase each person's talent, and at the same time, build a harmonious corp. This seems to me, as a relatively new American citizen (Wheater hails from Scotland), to be one of this country's finest traditions.”

Touring also remains a priority for the company. The Joffrey Ballet is large enough to present major ballet work, but small enough to tour. This is a balance they carefully maintain, Wheater says.

Robert Joffrey began touring in the 1950's with six dancers in a station wagon. They have a loyal audience in Chicago, the troupe's home, but are constantly looking at ways to bring ballet to new eyes and ears.

“Travel has the ability to remind us of the richness of the world and, at the same time, to help us appreciate the place from which we come,” Wheater says. “Dancers, in reaching new audiences, learn from those audiences. We hope, in return, that we can enrich the lives of the people who share a couple hours with us in the theater.”