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Momentum

This is historical,” Ballet22 co-founder Theresa Knudson told the audience between works on the company’s latest program, “Momentum.” It may seem a big claim for a small company, but as the young people like to say these days, she’s not wrong. Launched in 2020, Oakland-based Ballet22 is the only company in the world with a mission to present men and non-binary dancers en pointe, not as a drag joke (as in Les Ballets Trockadero), but in earnest. And it’s doing so at a time when the rights of transgender and non-binary people are under unprecedented political attack in the United States. As “Momentum” co-artistic director Lorris Eichinger added in his plea for support, “It’s really bad out there.”

Performance

Ballet22: “Momentum”

Place

Z Space, San Francisco, CA, July 29, 2023

Words

Rachel Howard

Daniel R. Durrett in the Lullaby Solo from “Blake Works III” by William Forsythe. Photograph by Reneff-Olson Productions

A Ballet22 concert does not feel like a mere arts event. Rather, there’s a sense in the audience of community building as an act of resistance, and an atmosphere of cheering on the dancers as they reach for new heights in both technical ability and personal expression. What’s at stake here is not just a fouetté combination, but freedom. I feel personally grateful for Ballet22’s work: As a hetero cis-woman who lived in San Francisco’s Tenderloin in the early oughts, I witnessed the persecution of trans women there. And as a hetero married cis-woman with no interest in conforming to gender hierarchies, I have a stake in these dancers’ mission. This is a ballet review and not a political tract, but it needs to be said again: Trans and non-binary people are being targeted by the political right because asserting freedom from gender conventions threatens patriarchy. The conservatives’ campaign to exert control over trans, queer, and non-binary bodies is directly related to their program to exert control over my body, and yours.

Daniel R. Durrett as Aurora in Rose Adagio from “The Sleeping Beauty,” supported by Trevor Williams, with Duane Gosa (green), Maxfield Haynes (blue), Zsilas Michael Hughes (gold). Photograph by Reneff-Olson Productions

For all these reasons, it was heartening to see support for Ballet22 growing with this, approximately its 10th program (the counting gets tricky what with a few touring performances and galas). The audience for “Momentum” seemed unconcerned about the recent departure of Ballet22 co-founder and star dancer Roberto Vega Ortiz, who left earlier this year to pursue other performance opportunities, or the absence of Carlos Hopuy, a National Ballet of Cuba-trained mainstay with similarly sterling turnout, foot-strength, and partnering finesse. Despite these losses, Ballet22 appeared to be moving forward with gathering speed.

Two star appearances especially helped. Boston Ballet second soloist Daniel R. Durrett danced the “Lullaby Solo” from William Forsythe’s “Blake Works III,” which was created on a female dancer, Tiler Peck. Durrett was fabulous in it, stretching into swift, high arabesques with an entrancingly pliant back, traversing the length of a barre with sweeping phrases and pausing with syncopated precision in retiré. Notably, the solo is not en pointe.

The other star of the night was Ashton Edwards, a corps member at Pacific Northwest Ballet, where they dance roles traditionally assigned to women. Edwards is petite and compact, which must help with speed, and has rock-solid pirouettes that especially impressed in the first Shade variation from the third act of “La Bayadére.” (This staging of the traditional Petipa choreography presented just the three Shades’ variations.) Edwards was also at the center of Eichinger’s new “Intimité,” to movements from two Chopin concerti that channeled the music’s lyricism into swift, spinning pods of group partnering that, in a few instances, needed a bit more rehearsing. The vocabulary seemed freshest when the two main couples paused, one dancer lying on the floor, the other balanced on pointe between the lover’s knees.

Ashton Edwards (lifted) and Duane Gosa in Lorris Eichinger’s “Intimité.” Photograph by Reneff-Olson Productions

A strength of Ballet22’s programming is how the company roots itself in 19th century classicism while mixing in slinky contemporary works. In this category, Project Flux Dance founder Lydia Sakolsky-Basquill’s “Pink or Blue” was short, potent, and passionately danced by Zsilas Michael Hughes and Maxfield Haynes, who acted out enforced gender codes as the voiceover poem listed them off. A world premiere by rising choreographer Thang Dao, who was also recently commissioned by Hubbard Street Dance Chicago, capped the evening with fast, urgent ensemble movement to music by Michael Gilbertson (aching strings) and James G. Lindsay (driving percussion). The tall dancers were tasked with moving fast and big, and they looked energetic but not always fully stretched.

As for that nineteenth-century classicism: as many a balletomane knows, Petipa’s “Sleeping Beauty” choreography is not forgiving! Echinger, Knudson, and Durrett created the costumes for these stagings, which dressed the suitors of the famous Rose Adagio in tutus so they could also come back out and dance the third act “Precious Stones” divertissements. Edwards triumphed in Aurora’s temps de fleche-flicking Act One solo. Victor Magaud had some of the most pliant footwork of the bunch, and fabulous fast piqué and chainé turns, in the Vision Scene variation. 

The other dancers did not yet have the strength of footwork Ortiz and Hopuy formerly showcased as Ballet22’s gold standard. But the audience offered abundant cheers to encourage their hard daily work towards that ideal. As Eichinger said in his request for support, “We have so many plans, we want to reach so many lives.” God speed, Ballet22. Your dancing has the potential to change society in ways we all need.

Rachel Howard


Rachel Howard is the former lead dance critic of the San Francisco Chronicle. Her dance writing has also appeared in the New York Times, the Hudson Review, Ballet Review, San Francisco Magazine and Dance Magazine.

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