Festival Ballet Reaches Beautifully into the Past and Future

Mar 7, 2013

Festival Ballet presents "Orchis" and "Agon" at The Vets in Providence.
Credit Thomas Nola-Rion

"Groundbreaking” is the word used in the press release announcing Festival Ballet Providence’s program this weekend at the Vets in Providence. And you know what? That’s probably not just publicity hype.

No, indeed. It seems that Festival Ballet has come up with a promising doubleheader one that reaches to the past and, perhaps, to the future. They will be doing George Balanchine’s landmark ballet, “Agon” which, with music by Igor Stravinsky, premiered to rapturous reviews and packed houses back in 1957. It’s still considered a masterwork, combining classical ballet with American energy and drive.

On the program with “Agon,” comes a world premiere dance called “Orchis” which is inspired, actually literally generated by, well, photographs of orchids.

All of this requires a little explanation. After all, this enticing evening of ballet brings together the ancient Greeks and modern day Russians– that would be Balanchine and Stravinsky’s “Agon” which means “contest” in Greek.

Then mix in choreography for “Orchis” by another Russian, Boston’s Viktor Plotnikov, and realize that a half-dozen Rhode Island –based artists are designing the costumes and sets, then understand that the music for “Orchis” is being done by a 20-something Russian woman, who composed the score, in Los Angeles, and you surely have a compilation, of talents, not to mention a challenge.

Let’s begin with “Agon.” With its classical base, and American attack, the plotless dance brought on sirens of praise in December of ’57. It was compared to the debut of Stravinsky’s  “The Rites of Spring” and The New York Times later reported that the New Yorker magazine’s Rhode Island-born critic, Arlene Croce, said she did not sleep for a week after seeing it.

To dance such a work is not an easy thing and not just because of its complex and arduous choreography but because you must first be accepted by something called the Balanchine Trust. That’s a New York organization that owns the rights to the master’s dances and allows them to be done only by ballet companies meeting a certain, pretty high, standard. Most of the troupes that accomplish that are big-city outfits. Think San Francisco or Boston or Miami. According to Sandra Jennings of the Trust, Festival is one of the “very few” non-major companies allowed to do Balanchine’s works. Jennings adds that Festival, relatively small as it is, is “a really first class, first-rate ballet company.”

And Festival Ballet’s artistic director Misha Djuric says the day his company received permission to do Balanchine dances he was “the happiest man in the world.”He adds that doing the “Agon” will make his company even better.

Now about “Orchis.” It began with Djuric seeing 36 black and white photos of orchids by Rhode Island photographer A. Cemal Ekin. They were an immediate inspiration, he says.

Such are the ways that art is born. Djuric turned to his frequent collaborator Vicktor Plotnikov, once a principal dancer at Boston Ballet and now making his way as a choreographer. Plotnikov brought in another Russian, Sonya Belousova, who recently completed a masters degree at the University of California Berkley.

Working from the photos, she composed the music and she and Platnikov burned up the wires between L.A. and Providence discussing the dance. It sounds complicated but Plotnikov, a big, intense man, says no. “I listen to the music, what it tells me,” he said in an interview.  “And I have the piece.”

Plotnikov adds that some of the dance is very literal, actually trying to re-create the soft curves and folds of an orchid in the photographs. Other parts, though, take off from his imagination. “For me, it is an amazing experience,” the dance maker added.

Well, it sounds to me that an amazing experience is a definite possibility. This weekend we could have, hopefully, maybe, see not only an acknowledged masterwork at Vets but the beginning of a new one, too.

Want to Go?

Festival Ballet performs Friday through Sunday this weekend at The Vets in Providence.

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