Grand Rapids Ballet’s ‘Eternal Love’ is a magical exploration of love and art
By Adrienne Warber
There is a show in town that celebrates artistry, creativity and love, and it is Grand Rapids Ballet’s “Eternal Desire.” Each performance by Michigan’s only professional ballet company keeps reminding West Michigan why their shows can’t be missed. “Eternal Desire” is a classical ballet and contemporary dance showcase featuring the works of choreographers Penny Saunders, Danielle Rowe, Trey McIntyre and Grand Rapids Ballet’s Artistic Director, James Sofranko. Many of last weekend’s shows were sold out, but there is still one more chance to see it this Friday, February 21 at the Peter Martin Wege Theatre.
‘Eternal Desire’ is a Love Letter to West Michigan
The fact that “Eternal Desire” opened on Valentine’s Day was perfect. The show is comprised of five different numbers with the theme of love in many forms. Three of the numbers are world premieres. The show features both classical ballet and contemporary movement. Grand Rapids Ballet Artistic Director James Sofranko’s dedication to honoring the roots of classical ballet while still exploring new styles of movement is very apparent in this production. The production showcases the strong talent of the Grand Rapids Ballet company dancers and Sofranko’s talent for both artistic leadership and choreography.
Sofranko talks about the love theme in “Eternal Desire” and why it opened on Valentine’s weekend, “Nothing is more fully described through dance than our common human desire to love and be loved. We have five different ballets in one evening that look at love from all different angles. For example we have passionate love in “Romeo and Juliet,” we have a contemporary look at the ‘messiness’ of love in “November,” and we have a fun playful look at love in “Wild Sweet Love.”
The show is enjoyable because of the high level of talent, the inventive choreography, the enthusiasm and mastery of the dancers, and the riveting details of each number. Each number is staged perfectly to highlight the beauty of the dancing with the lighting, props, set and music. This dancing is inspiring because of the emotion of the dancing and choreography. The emotion and artistry of Grand Rapids Ballet’s performance in “Eternal Love” is a love letter to West Michigan.
“With five different ballets on the program, three of them world premieres, I am so proud of what this company has achieved. There is so much great dance in one evening and these dancers are eating it up. You’ve got to see them in person to fully understand how great they really are!,” says Sofranko.
Penny Saunders’ ‘Give Me’
Grand Rapids Ballet Resident Choreographer Penny Saunders’ “Give Me” is a lovely and cheerful duet between two men set to music by Louis Armstrong. The piece is another example of why the Princess Grace Award-winning Saunders is such a highly sought-after choreographer. She originally premiered the number at Grand Rapids Ballet’s recent Fall Gala. Saunders’ signature inventive style was apparent in this contemporary number.
On opening night, Ednis Gomez and Nigel Tau gave an excellent performance of the number. Gomez and Tau danced with strong technique and artistry. Their performance held the sweetness of falling in love and celebrated new romantic love.
When asked about the inspiration for “Give Me,” Saunders said it was the music. She talks about the inspiration, “Louis Armstrong’s voice is just so captivating and fun. I also realized that the song would typically evoke a love duet between a man and a woman. So, I thought that that was the perfect reason to instead make the duet for two men. Same sex relationships are underrepresented in dance (and everywhere else for that matter) so I thought that this would be a wonderful way to celebrate the fact that LOVE IS LOVE!!”
Saunders comments on her hopes for the number, “I hope that the audience will enjoy watching these two dancers fall for one another. Love can be a captivating and contagious feeling––something we could certainly use more of in the world!”
Danielle Rowe’s ‘November’
Premiering for the first time, Danielle Rowe’s “November” is an intriguing contemporary piece filled with artistry about the power struggle in love. The use of a mirror and a platform work well with the lighting to set moods. The number is divided into two parts. Rowe is a gifted contemporary choreographer who has choreographed for companies internationally. In “November,” Rowe’s choreography creates scenes that resembled miniature paintings.
The cast of five dancers on opening night were Emily Reed, Adriana Wagenveld, James Cunningham, Nathan Young and Matthew Wenckowski. The cast danced the number with expert technique and an artistry that made movements into miniature works of art. The use of poses in the background while others danced added to the mood of the number. The movements were eloquent and communicated with the audience.
Rowe describes her inspiration for creating the “November” number, “James Sofranko approached me about creating a new piece for GR and asked me to keep in mind that the premiere would be on Valentine’s Day. Love became the inspiration, which is so broad and really anything and everything could be about love when you break it down, but it was a starting point. After stewing over this idea for some time, I came across these words by Phoebe Waller Bridge (a brilliant screenwriter):
Love is awful. It’s awful.
It’s painful. It’s frightening.
Makes you doubt yourself, judge yourself. Distance yourself from the other people in your life.
Makes you selfish.
Makes you creepy!
Makes you obsessed with your hair.
Makes you cruel!
Makes you say and do things you never thought you would do!
It’s all any of us want and it’s hell when we get there!
So no wonder it’s something we don’t want to do on our own.
I was taught, if we’re born with love, then life is about choosing the right place to put it.
People talk about that a lot, it feeling right.
“When it feels right, it’s easy”
But I’m not sure that’s true.
It takes strength to know what’s right.
And love isn’t something that weak people do.
Being a romantic takes a hell of a lot of hope.
I think what they mean is…
When you find somebody that you love…
it feels like hope.
I believe that love and loving someone and being loved can be messy and hard, but that it’s worth it and that allowing oneself to fall in love is to live! Her words resonated with me completely and so, they became the foundation of the piece. “November” uses the words of Phoebe Waller Bridge as inspiration and amidst the piece there are bite-sized stories that evolved over the course of the creation, however there is no one story that continues throughout.”
Rowe shares her hopes for audience reaction, “I hope the audience will be left with a deeper sense of what love means to them and that “November” will evoke the profound feelings that are inexplicably interwoven with succumbing to love.”
James Sofranko’s ‘Romeo and Juliet Balcony Pas de Deux’ and ‘A Dreamer’
Grand Rapids Ballet Artistic Director James Sofranko keeps proving his strong talent for choreography in each new piece. He premiered two new works of “Romeo and Juliet Balcony Pas de Deux” and “A Dreamer” for the “Eternal Love” production. “Romeo and Juliet Balcony Pas de Deux” is set to popular score by Sergei Prokofiev. “A Dreamer” is set to live music by the string quartet, Electric String Music Ensemble. The two pieces show Sofranko’s diverse talent for elegant classical ballet and creative contemporary movement. Both of Sofranko’s works receiving standing ovations from the audience on opening night.
Yuka Oba-Muschiana and Josue Justiz were well-paired on opening night for the “Romeo and Juliet Balcony Pas de Deux.” The classical ballet piece held the romance of the legendary story, and Oba-Muschiana and Justiz danced it to perfection. They performed the number with elegance, expert technique and the joyful emotion of young love. Justiz’s use of the cape, the lovely balcony, and the sharing of Romeo and Juliet’s first kiss all worked well together to create the romance. The scene ending looked like a painting with the way Oba-Muschiana and Justiz posed. It was a beautiful tribute to beloved Shakespearean play.
“A Dreamer” is inspired by the life and works of the famous physicist and cosmologist Stephen Hawking. Set to live music performed by a string quartet, the number is a visual feast of classical ballet blended with contemporary movement that shows the versatile talent of Sofranko’s choreography. The number captures Hawking his quest to answer some of the universe’s questions and how his love of knowledge and the love of his family and community sustained him through difficult times. On opening night, the cast of “A Dreamer” was Nigel Tau, Yuko Horisawa, Sarah Marley, Alexandra Meister-Upleger, Yuka Oba-Muschiana, Isaac Aoki, James Cunningham, Steven Houser, and Branden Reiners. The nine dancers all danced with strong technique and athleticism that was enjoyable to watch. Nigel Tau’s performance as Stephen Hawking captured the wonder, beauty, sometimes painful life of the brilliant scientist.
Sofranko talks about the inspiration for his works, “Inspiration can strike any time, and in numerous ways. I have always loved “Romeo and Juliet” as a ballet, especially because of the powerful Prokofiev score. I dreamed of dancing it as a student, and Mercutio was one of my favorite roles that I performed in my career with the San Francisco Ballet. I was so excited to try my hand at choreographing the Balcony Scene, and to coach the dancers in their acting as well as their dancing techniques. I love when great dancing combines with great storytelling, and I did my best to give the dancers the best of both worlds.
I heard about Stephen Hawking, and his love of music, especially a particular string quartet by Beethoven (opus 132), from a story on the radio following his death. I was intrigued to learn more about this piece of music, which I discovered was written by Beethoven not only after he had lost his hearing, but after a bout with an illness that almost killed him. Beethoven titled this work “Heiliger Dankgesang” or “Holy Song of Thanksgiving.” I was struck by the connection that Hawking must have felt with Beethoven, and I decided I must make a ballet to this music, honoring the determination of Hawking’s spirit, and his eternal quest for knowledge about our universe.”
Sofranko shares his hopes for audience response to his two works, “Whether it is experiencing the passion of the two young lovers in “Romeo and Juliet,” or connecting with Stephen Hawking’s story of his continual search for answers, I hope that the audience will feel moved in some way by watching these ballets, and take those feelings with them out into the world. The world can sometimes be a depressing place, so if I can help bring forth joy and beauty to honor the best of what human beings can create, and maybe inspire others to do the same, then I will be happy.”
Trey McIntyre’s ‘Wild Sweet Love’
Trey McIntyre’s “Wild Sweet Love” is back after its world premiere last season. It is easy to understand why Grand Rapids Ballet choose to repeat the number in the “Eternal Love” production. It is superb. McIntyre of the Trey McIntyre Project has choreographed many critically acclaimed works. McIntyre’s inventive choreography and the Grand Rapid Ballet cast’s excellent dancing set to popular retro love songs from classics like Queen, Roberta Flack and The Partridge Family, creates an enjoyable comment on romantic relationships and the quest for love. The number was the most popular of the evening on opening night.
The cast included Adriana Wagenveld, Emily Reed, Nathan Young, Alexandra Meister-Upleger, Ednis Gomez, Madison Massara, Matthew Wenckowski, Gretchen Steimle and Isaac Aoki. All nine dancers gave a spectacular performance. The soloist Adriana Wagenveld gave a mesmerizing performance full of emotion and artistry on opening night. She danced from her heart out and it showed. This number was an audience favorite and received an enthusiastic standing ovation.
Eternal Love Show Time and Ticket Information
There is one more chance to see “Eternal Love” this Friday, Feb. 21 at 7:30 pm at the Peter Martin Wege Theatre. Tickets are available online at TicketMaster or by calling the Grand Rapids Ballet Box Office at 616- , etc. For more information about “Eternal Love” and other upcoming shows, visit Grand Rapids Ballet’s Facebook page. Hurry and get tickets before they sell out. This is a show you don’t want to miss.