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Bryan Koulman Dance Company made an impressive return to live performance with its Summer 2022 Show. Koulman, the artistic director and choreographer, teaches ballet at the Pennsylvania Academy of Ballet in Narberth. Four dances new and old highlighted the originality and beauty of Koulman’s choreography, which combines elements of classical ballet, modern, ballroom, and contemporary dance in lush and often seamless ways. Performed by rising talents and luminaries from the Philadelphia Ballet and PHILADANCO! with live musical accompaniment and striking lighting design at the Performance Garage, this show was a grand and intimate dance experience.
The program began with Treadmill (2002), performed to an original live drum set by percussionist and composer Ismael Biaz. Austin Eyler and Grace Kimble performed the duet, a mesmerizing portrait of two people in a complex, fraught relationship. Koulman’s choreography often addresses human interactions and relationships, and his treatment of their complexities constitutes a thematic touchstone and strength.
Treadmill also afforded dancers the opportunity to shine. It opened with Kimble alone on stage, kicking her legs out to the side rhythmically and mechanically, like a robot or a doll, before the momentum slowed. Eyler appeared and repeated the kicking movement until Biaz’s drumming began, propelling the duo into a partnered dance. High kicks and lifts were dramatic yet graceful, reflecting a couple at odds with each other yet unable to reconcile or part, as when Eyler paused mid-lift to hold Kimble balanced on his chest while she extended her arm away from him. When he finally set her down, they paused for a long moment and then embraced. Later in the dance, Eyler and Kimble maintained wary eye contact while circling one another in wide berths. Biaz’s percussion, Jen Dugan’s costumes, and Matt Lewandowski’s lighting design and stage management enhanced the movement, making Treadmill one of the evening’s highlights.
The next piece, Tiger (2004, 2022), made interesting use of space, formation, and tempo in group sections as well as standout solo sequences. Tiger offered musical variety as well, from Michael Moss’s live saxophone accompaniment to recorded music by a range of composers. Koulman employed pauses and gestures to dramatic effect, such as when Nayara Lopes, a principal dancer with Philadelphia Ballet, brought her hand to her mouth in a movement that suggested blowing a kiss or silencing herself. Lopes lingered in elegant poses, then jumped and turned with controlled grace. Kimble leapt beautifully in her solos, and Lucia Erickson, Gabriela Mesa Ochoa, and Pau Pujol brought artful precision to partnered and group segments.
Against a blue-backdrop with wavelike patterns, Erickson and Pujol seemed to be a couple underwater in a duet full of kinetic lifts. Later, Pujol partnered with Ochoa for a passionate duet in which gestures such as extended hands, clasped shoulders, and open palms evoked servitude, longing, and desire. In another section, Erickson, Kimble, and Ochoa formed a ring, then eased their bodies down to the floor as if melting before rolling into sculptural poses that were both beautiful and unnatural. For Tiger’s dramatic finish, all the dancers took the stage to form lines that shifted, intersected, rotated, and changed position before breaking with the momentum of a repeated arm gesture.
A snake and Shchedrin
In lieu of an intermission, Moss and Biaz performed a collaborative musical improvisation. It highlighted their skills, from Biaz’s intricate and responsive percussive rhythms to Moss’s breath control and ability to make the sax speak or sing. The dancing resumed with The Lonely Snake (2022), a solo in which Kimble wore a nude bodysuit with a curving green reptilian stripe. Kimble’s flicking hands resembled a serpent’s tongue, and the movement’s tempo and mood paired well with Continuum Percussion Quartet’s recording of Petite Suite 1 and 2 by John “Billy” VerPlanck. The Lonely Snake could not match the visual interest of the program’s other dances, though, and some of the slower movements and balances were less smooth and even.
The dancers and Koulman’s choreography returned to form for the world premiere of Shchedrin (2020, 2022), performed by Erickson, Eyler, Lopes, Ochoa, Pujol, and Cory Ogdahl to selections composed by Rodion Shchedrin. Koulman imbued contemporary ballet with classical grace and modern earthiness in a dance that included finger snaps, hand claps, and sky-high lifts. Lopes and Eyler were particularly effective in a duet where they folded their arms around each other in a low embrace and launched their bodies off one another. Eyler impressed with light, energetic jumps, including a leap into a single-leg balance. But the timing seemed off for one of the couples in a paired sequence, as well as in a quartet where some movement appeared out of sync.
Skillful dancing and soulful choreography eclipsed the evening’s flaws, which are easily corrected and potentially easy to miss. Koulman’s choreography drew from various forms of dance without compromising his unique style or its beautiful, striking, and evocative imagery. And while it incorporated elements of modern and contemporary, the choreography demonstrated little to none of the awkward, jerky movements and gestures I often see—and find distracting—in newer dances. Lopes, a lovely dancer who has performed principal roles such as the Sugarplum Fairy and Cinderella with Philadelphia Ballet, dazzled, as one would expect. The other dancers, especially Eyler, Kimble, and Erickson, were a serendipitous delight to admire up close in the intimate setting of the Performance Garage.
What, When, Where
The Summer 2022 Show. Choreography by Bryan Koulman. Bryan Koulman Dance Company. $17-$25. June 17 and 18 at the Performance Garage, 1515 Brandywine Street, Philadelphia. More info via the Philadelphia Dance Journal.
The Performance Garage advertises that proof of Covid-19 vaccine and masks are required, but the measures were not enforced at these performances.
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