Studio K at Tulsa Ballet was small, self-described as intimate and certainly that last Friday night. Three hundred chairs all a stone’s throw from the stage, every seat was the best seat in the house. Before the night’s program, “Creations in Studio K,” began, a dimly lit red curtain hid the stage from us with only Tulsa Ballet’s Instagram handle on it, @tulsaballet.
At some point the lights finally dimmed and the smooth sound of crowd chatter dissipated. A man walked onstage in front of the curtain, introducing himself as managing director Scott Black. He welcomed and thanked the crowd, thanked a few foundations who’d made donations to Tulsa Ballet and wished us a good experience as he stepped off stage and the curtains parted to show us the first part of “Creations in Studio K.”
“Creations in Studio K” is really a conglomerate program of sorts, hosting three separate programs by three different choreographers. It’s hosted annually, 2017 being its 11th year. This year’s “Creations in Studio K” is unique for having all-female choreographers and costume designers. This quality has been a major selling point for the program, as it is apparently a rare occurrence. In a letter of sorts to the audience found within the program’s brochure, Tulsa Ballet artistic director Marcello Angelini says of “Creation in Studio K” that “the emotional charge of each and every work on stage, their individual and cumulative intensity and the depth of emotion displayed by all three dances depict, define and epitomize female choreographers.”
The night’s first program was “Shibuya Blues,” choreographed by Annabelle Lopez Ochoa, followed by “Meðal (Among),” choreographed by Helen Pickett and concluded with “If,” choreographed by Young Soon Hue.
“Shibuya Blues,” a program in four parts, began with “The Outsider,” where a spotlight shined on a lone woman clad in gray, looking down and facing away from the crowd. Typical city sounds, voices and songs played as she stood, dejected, and a number of men and women, all clad in blue, pass her by. One of them shoulder-bumped her, and the group of blues started to crowd around and surround her. A man ran through the crowd and grabbed her for a moment, lifting her and setting her back down, and the performance began in earnest. A chilling, distorted electronic soundtrack began playing, and the group of blues started dancing with hypnotic, robotic movements. They at times surrounded the lone gray and at other times moved away from her, as if she bore no interest with them. The lone gray seemed desperate, running around and trying to replicate or join in with them, but she was repeatedly ignored. Classic serendipity was practiced as the viewer’s eyes were dragged from one group’s set to another’s as the lone gray ran between them all, trying to find a way in.
Finally, the group of blues formed a line and the lone gray ran down it, dragging her hand across each person where they seem to break down like robots. All but two of them leapt off the stage, and the two that remained, a man and woman, crowded around the lone gray as the music faded.
Next began the second part, “First Duet,” where the haunting electronics were replaced with a string-heavy, plucky arrangement. The two blues that had been crowding the lone gray now danced together while she stood off to the side, watching, observing, at times moving furtively around them. The duet was impressive, the dancers’ movements fluid and their ability to hoist one another around impressive. It felt sensual, if not vaguely distant. It was hard to remove the robotic image from earlier as the two danced in front of us like humans. When their duet ended and the walked off stage, the lone gray nearly followed them out before another two blue dancers jumped in and began performing “Second Duet.”
It was much the same, but the lone gray was far more involved this time. She danced with the man, seemingly just out of sight of the blue woman, and moments of scorn passed between the blue couple. They appeared to simulate a relationship of sorts with a few rough periods. Perhaps we were witnessing a stint of infidelity when the lone gray and the blue man “secretly” danced together? As the duet closed, the lone gray left the stage with the dancers.
“Gray Couple” kicked off with a fast paced, orchestral soundtrack. The whole ensemble of blues from the first scene were now back onstage, and the lone gray came back in between them, now seeming to successfully replicate and join in with their dances. I found myself fearing for her individuality. I thought that at any moment she would rip off her gray clothing to reveal blue underneath, and that then she’d be just another cog in the machine. That thankfully didn’t happen, because despite her better attempts at blending in with the blues she still ended up an outsider, and when they all stood at attention around her, looking away and standing next to their respective partners, she seemed more lost than ever.
Yet suddenly, a man clad in gray walked onstage. They looked up and found each other and started dancing slowly, more slowly and more sensually than any choreography we’d yet seen on stage. The blues slinked away as the two grays danced together, and the curtain closed.
The dancers all bowed onstage with the choreographer, Annabelle Lopez Ochoa, and the costume designer, Danielle Truss. In the program brochure, Ochoa provides a poem to go with “Shibuya Blues.” Called “City of Light,” by Scarlett Treat, it goes “This city, this monster, created by man himself, / Ingests me, swallows me and spits me out. / No sun, no moon, no stars… / Only the glitter of streetlights casting / A tiny pool of light which serves no purpose.”
The next program, “Meðal (Among),” wasn’t split into scenes (although it certainly had distinct “parts”). It was by far the most avant-garde performance of the night, if I can even use that term correctly in regards to ballet. The soundtrack, like the previous program, combined the classical and the electronic, but all at once instead of in parts. Booming, drawn-out notes of pure bass rattled the theater with an incessant plucking and striking of strings alongside accompanied the opening moments of the performance. Use of the stage’s backdrop was made, with hands reaching up and distorted by light into slender, spindly shapes that reached for the ceiling. There was again a “loner” of sorts, but the emphasis wasn’t as clearly placed as the first program’s.
Speaking of the dancers, their movements can only be described as inhuman throughout the performance, and not in the robotic way as the previous program’s. They were sharp and erratic. Their legs lunged outward as their necks snapped back. Even when standing still, some appendage was always shaking or rotating in some way. It looked as if they were puppets, being poorly controlled by some amateur puppeteer. It gave the audience the vibe that the dancers in front of them were all unwilling and are all in some turmoil of sorts; it seemed to be implied that they were all being controlled by something else.
At one point, a group formed in the corner of the stage to observe a duet between two of the dancers, something that seemed innocent and a little sad in the previous program, but that now felt dirty and voyeuristic. Though the dancers in the duet moved more fluidly now, they still retained some charm that kept them looking under the influence of whatever was “controlling” all the dancers. Their movements felt a bit “off,” and not in a technically unimpressive way but in a well-acted, well-performed way.
The performance ended the same way it began, with someone behind the backdrop slamming their torso against it like some cry for help. The audience could only see a dark silhouette and the ripples along the sheet as the curtains closed. Choreographer Helen Pickett appeared onstage to bow with all the dancers.
Pickett’s blurb about her program in the brochure was a bit shorter, reading simply “To live peacefully among each other, surrounded by one another, despite differing views and practices: Coexistence.” She then listed Icelandic composer Jóhann Jóhannson as the inspiration for the “title and the essence of this piece,” and she dedicates it to a Clemens Sippel.
As the second intermission began and the lights turned back on, I couldn’t help but feel there was some overarching metaphor I’d missed in the program. Was there a deeper dichotomy between the lead dancer (whom I previously described as a second “loner”) and the rest of the inhumanly-moving dancers? What was really causing all of their alien twitchings, their crawls on the floor and their twisting of limbs? Maybe it all went over my head, but it was damn fun to watch and was the most engrossing performance of the night.
The final program of the night, “If,” returned to a multipart format with five scenes. It painted a story, much like the night’s first program, but in a way that put the story above all else, I feel. The soundtrack and choreography didn’t stand out to me as much as the events of the story did.
The first part, “Draw Breath,” was simple enough. The curtain opened to reveal a man and a woman dancing lovingly to foreboding music. This went on for awhile, in a fashion that I can’t describe better than graceful, before a second man came onstage and, quite literally, snatched the woman away. She began dancing with the new man, but seemed unwilling and acted more as an instrument than a dance partner. The first man swung around in anger, slashing his arms this way and that, storming about the stage while the woman looked on longingly. After a bit of this, the dancers left the stage.
The second part, “Out of Breath,” seemed to show some greaser-esque conflict between two groups. One group wore only black coats, and the other only white coats. They were all open, displaying their bare chests beneath. Throughout the tug-of-war type conflict between the two groups, a black-coat boy and white-coat girl seemed to fall in love, until by the end of the program they were dancing together while their respective group members looked on, presumably frozen in shock.
As part three, “Family,” began, most of the dancers from the previous part left the stage except for the two lovers and one random black-coat dancer. A family walked on stage, complete with a husband, a wife and what appeared to be a daughter. They danced in unison, firm and stiff, without much emotion (though this was intentional). The white-coat lover took great interest in the family, refusing to move until the black-coat lover dragged her offstage. Suddenly, the daugher of the family broke away and ran to the random black-coat standing off to the side, and after staring at him for several minutes they start dancing themselves and appear to fall in love.
During the minutes in which they stared at each other, the husband and wife began dancing more erratically, and with more emotion. They were fighting, it looked like. He kept bending down to dust the floor in front of him, painting him as some anal-retentive character that was constantly ignoring his wife, who was jumping all around him, sliding between his legs and yelling at him, seeming to vie for his attention. It gave the idea that the daughter was the only thing holding the family together, and her absence allowed an overflow of emotions.
Eventually the daughter returned to the family with her black-coat boyfriend. They changed his outfit and stood in a line, staring at the audience as a new family unit. The audience might wonder, “Is everything ok now? She’s back, are the problems fixed?” As the husband brought his arm around the wife, she slipped from his grasp and moved deep backstage before hopping off. It seemed things weren’t okay. The rest of the dancers took their leave.
The next part, “Last Breath,” was the most chaotic and hard-to-follow. Almost all the characters from each part made appearances. It started, however, with a new character, a woman, running from droves of shirtless men. As this went down, the husband and wife reappeared, and it appeared that he tried attacking her. The daughter and her black-coat boyfriend came back, and the four stood again as a family unit from which the wife didn’t escape this time. Had she been subjugated back into the family? Or was this a dream sequence of sorts? The white-coat lover from “Out of Breath” appeared back onstage with her black-coat lover, and though he tried to drag her away again she broke off, embracing the family and forcing herself in between them. The black-coat lover looked on, frozen with a sadness that each member of the audience could feel, but the white-coat lover looked happy as she could be. It’s clear that some desire for a family pervaded her character.
Finally, in what appeared to be a near-seamless transition to the final part, “Before Six,” the man from the very first part returned, as did the woman and her new man. The new man and the woman still danced stiffly together, though she seemed to move a bit more this time. She still stared longingly at the first man, however, and he still thrashed in anger. But the new woman who had been fleeing droves of men in “Last Breath” suddenly ran onstage, and the original man spotted her. Suddenly, he had a new woman, and they danced onstage in their own duet. All of the other characters left the stage, followed lastly by the first woman, now making a slow and sulky walk, stealing one last glance over her shoulder before disappearing backstage as the man and his new woman act out their love story and dance until the curtains close.
As with the rest of the performances, the choreographer, Young Soon Hue, came out and bowed with the dancers. Her blurb in the brochure is a bit too long to quote in full, but the jist involves the “if” questions that people have in their lives when they think back on past choices and relationships. “We all have moments in our lives when we question ourselves and our past, and wonder what could have been. … The five scenes of this ballet tell a story while exploring this theme; we see individuals making choices and wondering how their lives could have been different. While we may never know all the possible outcomes of our lives, we remain connected to other people through our choices, and like a circle, life goes on.”
“Creations in Studio K,” altogether, was an engrossing experience. The dancers put on amazing performances, and the stories were told well enough that I literally found myself on the edge of my seat at times. For the brief moments of dance that lacked a soundtrack, the organic noises made by the dancers as they grunted and inhaled sharply added a new level of genuineness to the performance.
They were giving it their all out there, and it showed. It was a wonderful performance, and as I walked away that night I thought to myself that I was now a fan of ballet.
“Creations in Studio K” will run until September 24, with performances on Sep. 21, 22, 23 and 24. Next in Tulsa Ballet’s 2017/18 season is “Don Quxiote,” which will be performed November 3–5 at the Tulsa Performing Arts Center.