Three Original Ballets Break New Ground in Program 2

How do you follow the frothy fun of “Follies of 1915?” If you’re Marigny Opera Ballet, you do something that challenges and stretches the ability of your dancers and choreographers.

No performing arts group in the region takes the risks involved in presenting original material that Director Dave Hurlbert and his team do. And that’s the essence of Program 2, opening its four performance run Thursday, January 17. Ambitious, edgy and diverse, the program of three original ballets spotlights work by three choreographers, two of whom are dancers setting works to the ballet for the first time.

Audiences –no children under 18, please — can also anticipate a commissioned score by Byron Asher, a rare performance of an Arnold Schonberg avant-garde composition, and one ballet that’s accompanied by a concert pianist. “No doubt about it,” says director Dave Hurlbert, “Program 2 is difficult to categorize. I’d say overall, though, that it’s an evening for adults. Not the confection that ‘Follies of 1915’ was, but it’s a supremely beautiful—and challenging program.”

To open the evening, dancer Derwin May Jr. is choreographing the three-part “Gottschalk Suite” by New Orleans-born Créole composer Louis Moreau Gottschalk (1829-1869). Featuring accompaniment by concert pianist Katalin Lukacs “Pasquinade” and “Bamboula,”are rooted in old Creole melodies. And, then there’s “Grande Tarantelle,” Gottschalk’s take on a Southern Italian folk dance that actually gained new popularity mid-century as “Tarantella,” a ballet created by iconic New York City Ballet co-founder and ballet master George Balanchine.

To Marigny Opera Ballet newcomer Rebecca Allen, Hurlbert assigned “the very difficult challenge of capturing the essence of one of the monuments of 20th century avant-garde music – Arnold Schoenberg’s “Pierrot Lunaire, Opus 21.” Allen, a New Orleans native whose career in dance took her to Nashville in 2001, is now back home, pursuing a graduate degree at Tulane and exploring the intersection of visual arts and dance.

Rarely performed, “Pierrot” is composed for a chamber group and singer in the sprechstimme mode, partly sung and partly spoken. In three sections of seven verses translated from French to German, the ballet depicts the famous commedia d’ell arte clown’s encounters with love, sex, religion, crime, violence and, ultimately, death.

Third-season dancer Joshua Bell leads the cast in the bravura role famously played by Rudolph Nureyev. Acclaimed Soprano Phyllis Treigle is on board to interpret the signature sung/spoken dialogue, with the New Resonance Chamber Ensemble conducted by Francis Scully.

Is “Pierrot Lunaire” too much of a stretch for New Orleans audiences? Hurlbert thinks not and so agrees with the critic who said “rule one is not to worry about the sung/spoken words” that there are no lyrics in the program or projections on walls. In other words, let the music and movement transport you.

For the center piece of “Program 2,” Hurlbert commissioned a bold, new work by frequent collaborator Byron Asher that’s based on the then scandalous 1947 novel “Querelle of Brest” by Jean Genet. Asher, who is known to audiences for his work with Nutria and last season’s Jazz Ballets, developed the score during a residency at The Barn Arts Collective in Tremont, ME this summer.

“Querelle” choreographer Diogo de Lima is also well known to Marigny Opera Ballet audiences. “He’s choreographed a good number of award-winning ballets for us over the years: ‘Salterelle,’ ‘Wary Heat,’ ‘Aguas de Dezembro,’ among others,” Hurlbert says. For the murderous sailor Charles Querelle, Hurlbert and de Lima tapped Edward Spots, known for soaring leaps and jumps in eight previous productions.

Always edgy and controversial, Jean Genet’s novels and plays generally focus on outcasts — drug dealers, pimps, thieves, murderers, sexual deviants and others who are somehow alienated from conventional society. Sailors, men alone at sea with other men for long periods, are often seen as metaphors for homosexuality. Interestingly, Genet’s work includes an unfinished ballet “Adame Miroir,” which also has a sailor as the protagonist.

Although there is no nudity in Querelle, Hurlbert advises that the content is not suited to children under 18.

Members of the Marigny Opera Ballet Company include Kellis McSparrin-Oldenburg, Gretchen Erickson, Lauren Guynes, Edward Spots, Derwin May Jr., Donovan Davis, Lauren Ashlee Messina, Aaron Wiggins, Meredith Pennison and Arden McKee (Apprentice). Jarina Carvalho Taylor is the company’s Ballet Master; McSparrin-Oldenburg serves as Rehearsal Director in addition to dancing and choreography assignments. Set design is by Steve Schepker, with lighting by Lydia Kolda. Costumes are by Laura Sirkin-Brown. Photography is by Bobby Bonsey.

Program 2 performances are scheduled at the Marigny Opera House, 725 St. Ferdinand St., Thursday, Jan. 17 and Sunday, Jan. 20 at 7 pm; Friday and Saturday Jan. 18-19 at 8pm. Tickets $45/$32 (students and seniors) are available at at the door. Additional information: