Milwaukee Ballet’s Spring Mixed-rep: ‘Lambarena’ is a Miscellany of Cultures and Moods

A review of the Milwaukee Ballet’s ‘Lambarena’

As Milwaukee Ballet’s 49th season speeds toward the finish line, the company’s spring program pairs two world premieres by former Genesis Choreography Competition winners and the Wisconsin debut of Val Caniparoli’s Lambarena.

Lizzie Tripp and Garrett Glassman, Compieta; photo by Nathaniel Davauer

A massive, gorgeous chandelier, dripping with gems and suspended just feet above the stage, casts an incandescent, gloomy glow on dancer Lizzie Tripp as the curtain rises on Enrico Morelli’s Compieta. Tripp is prone, as if sleeping on her stomach, with one arm extended overhead. She startles, lifts her head and turns to rest the other cheek on the mat. The title, Compieta, is Italian for “evening prayers,” but the mood oscillates between hopes and fears, dreams and nightmares.

An ensemble of 14 dancers, plus Garrett Glassman, Tripp’s partner, softly pace about a temporary wooden wall placed upstage. It’s as if Tripp and Glassman are among ghosts, the setting subtly Victorian between the chandelier and Morelli’s Scottish-inspired costumes. Half the men wear kilts, while the women don soft, flowy skirts with prim, high-collared necklines.

That wall might be the star of Compieta, tipped 90-degrees to become four tables, and later, once again, tilted up on their legs as individual columns. The piece doesn’t have a narrative, per se, though there are subtle signs of domesticity and familial relationships, particularly in satisfying sections performed on, over and under the tables, and in tangled Rubik’s cubes of interconnected groups and pairings.

Garrett Glassman, Compieta; photo by Mark Frohna

We realize, toward the end, that this is neither a prayer nor a dream for Tripp, who is left to fall hard on the stage while all the other women’s partners softly catch and cradle them. Glassman’s character returns to her, takes her face in his hands and tries to make amends (in the form of a rather lovely pas de deux), but I don’t think she’s quite having it – conflicted between her apparent affection for him and feeling betrayed by that not-cool move.

She returns to her belly, this time directly under the chandelier, reminding us that the stories we write in our minds about Compieta needn’t be palatable, or even make sense, for this is the stuff of our dreams.

Barry Molina, Albatross; photo by Mark Frohna

Coming second, 2017 Genesis winner George Williamson similarly plays in an abstract world in Albatross, though this feels more careful, otherworldly and benign than Compieta.

Williamson tugs at his theme from multiple angles: albatrosses mate for life, embodied by the lead couple, Nicole Teague-Howell and Davit Hovhannisyan, who grow into intimacy as the piece goes on. But there’s some sense of the metaphorical myth of a mariner’s cross to bear, a psychological burden which permeates this dark, enigmatic dance.

Williamson’s style is measured and deliberate; shifts of weight are not entirely natural, leaving the dancers without a ride of momentum to take them from one move to the next. And he has a rather odd sense of musicality in tackling his score, a mix of mostly minimal piano and strings layered over cinematic atmospherics by Olafur Arnalds, Missy Mazzoli and Edmund Shaw.

So it’s a piece that is exceedingly hard for the dancers, and not wholly satisfying for us, with two exceptions: a pair of absolutely breathtaking pas de deux for Teague-Howell and Hovhannisyan.

Marize Fumero, Lambarena; photo by Mark Frohna

Closing the program, Val Caniparoli’s exuberant and fun Lambarena was a welcome break from an otherwise moody evening. The 1994 score, Lambarena-Bach to Africa, originated as a tribute to Albert Schweitzer, a French renaissance man and Nobel Peace Prize-winner who studied Bach and spent much of his life as a missionary in Gabon, a richly diverse central African country bordered by the Atlantic Ocean, Equatorial Guinea and the Republic of the Congo.

Pierre Akendengue, a Gabonese musician and composer, and Hughes de Courson, a Frenchman, collaborated to fold Bach Inventions and Suites into the distinct sounds of Gabon, marked by strong percussive beats accentuated by a multi-cultural mix of melodies sounding similar to those of West Africa, South Asia and the Amazon. Akendengue and de Couson muddle the lines between East and West, layering the two genres atop one another, as if recognizing that “East” and “West” is a social construct between their two countries which are geographically aligned just East of the Prime Meridian.

Davit Hovhannisyan and Marize Fumero, Lambarena; photo by Mark Frohna

Caniparoli picked up the score to physicalize this melting pot of rhythms and sounds, blending Classical ballet with movements extracted from African dance traditions. That sounds great, but it’s a cursory investigation, at best, following double pirouettes with chest thrusts and hip isolations on pointe.

I don’t have to tell you that ballet dancers aren’t trained to move like this – they’ve spent their lives refining upright postures and alignment totally contrary to African dance’s low center of gravity and articulated torsos. The ordinarily exquisite Milwaukee Ballet dancers struggled with both here, unable to fully master the transitions between Lambarena’s high and low stances despite integrating African dance training into their rehearsal process. Awkward, clunky hip shaking only threw them off their legs for those double pirouettes.

Can these dichotomous music and dance traditions make good bedfellows? Absolutely, but while that is the case with Lambarena-Bach to Africa, the dance – not so much. In the ‘90s, most ballet audiences hadn’t much been exposed to non-Western cultures, so the universal appeal of the piece and credit Caniparoli gained for energetic and genre-defying innovation were understandable. Today, it’s wiser to position Lambarena as a relic, worth seeing as a catalyst for conversations about collaboration and cultural appreciation.