Ballet Ariel’s Avoca: A Tale of Molly Brown
A review by Gwen Gray
As dance companies look for innovative ways to reach new audiences, two approaches seem to be gaining traction in today’s dance landscape: collaboration and relevant storytelling. Ballet Ariel’s Sunday evening production at the Lakewood Cultural Center fell smartly in line with these strategies during the program’s two original ballets: Ilena Norton’s Avoca – A Tale of Molly Brown and Gregory Gonzales’ “…que más…es toda una vida….”
Norton, who is artistic director and executive director of Ballet Ariel, points to her background in anthropology as inspiration for turning Molly Brown’s life story into a ballet. She says, “One of my interests as a choreographer is to portray different aspects of our culture, and to highlight the beauty of our history. I dig up old stories and old music. I often go into the past looking for stories to tell.”
The story, in this case, may be a bit different from the familiar Hollywood version of the “Unsinkable Molly Brown” — but more true, more intimate, and, perhaps, more interesting to Colorado audiences. Norton collaborated with the Molly Brown House Museum every step of the way — even during dress rehearsal — to ensure that the representation of Brown’s life was as accurate as possible. In fact, the ballet’s three acts are each given a narrative introduction by a feather-and-velvet-draped, elder Molly Brown, played by Janet Kalstrom, who also plays Brown at the museum.
As Kalstrom’s narration ends, there is a brief disconnect as Ballet Ariel’s slender, sinewy Doina Florea’s steps onto the stage as the young Molly Brown. But the divide is quickly crossed as the audience becomes engrossed in Florea’s determined embodiment of Brown — her hunger for life, her desperate desire to fit into the high society she found herself among once her husband J.J. strikes gold in Leadville, and her passionate and empathetic nature that made her a philanthropic heroine of her time. Florea’s dazzling arabesque turns don’t hurt.
The ballet’s score, compiled by Norton and John Richardson, is pulled from traditional tunes of the era, and audiences find themselves bobbing their heads along to songs such as “Yankee Doodle” and “To a Wild Rose,” played live by the Gossamer Winds Quintet — yet another collaboration forged by Norton.
The ballet, Avoca, is named after a poem by Thomas Moore, which Molly Brown loved and used as the name of her summer home. And indeed, this signals a focus on the interior workings of Brown’s life as a wife, mother, socialite, traveler and eventually leader in suffrage and philanthropic movements.
Despite this broad scope, there was naturally a certain tense anticipation in the audience, as the ballet led up to the Titanic scene. Norton has choreographed it with great care. In reality, the lifeboat Brown found herself on had two men, one boy, and 21 women aboard. In Avoca, we see only the female cast slowly and quietly filling the boat, embracing one another, and swaying together as one, silhouetted in the dim moonlight. A hand eerily shoots up among the group, grief-stricken, and grabbing the air.
Here, as in in the traditional, pioneer-inspired dances sprinkled in to represent Brown’s humble upbringings, the ballet shines.
In another of Norton’s local collaborations, Gregory Gonzales’ contemporary ballet “…que más…es toda una vida….” joined the bill, preceding Avoca. Gonzales is familiar to local audiences from his role as principal dancer with the Colorado Ballet from 1996–2004, and his riveting character acting in many of their productions.
Here, he dances soulfully in his own “que más,” as one of nine performers who move on and off the stage in alternating trios or couples to the romantic, swelling and swooning music of Pablo Zeigler, an Argentinian composer and luminary in the “tango nuevo” movement.
We witness three couples negotiate their relationships and intertwined lives, as a trio of females appear and reappear among them, as three graces might.
In what was the highlight of the entire evening, Doina Florea and Gonzales danced the piece’s third, and, by far, most accomplished, and well-rehearsed pas de deux: a section so mesmerizing that every small twitch of Florea’s lithe feet sent reverberations through the theater.
See Them Next in The Nutcracker
The company will perform the holiday classic at the Cleo Parker Robinson Theatre at 119 Park Avenue West, Denver, Colorado, on Sunday, December 8th and 15th, at 3:00 pm and December 14th, at 3:00 pm and 8:00 pm. Tickets are available online.