Grand Rapids Ballet’s outstanding ‘Beethoven’ creates excitement for the future
By Adrienne Warber
Grand Rapids Ballet ended their successful 2014-15 Season with an outstanding performance of Mario Radacovsky’s “Beethoven.” The world premiere “Beethoven” production ran for two weekends on May 8-17, and was critically acclaimed. This high quality production, along with many of their recent shows, is proof that Michigan’s only professional ballet company can produce performances equal to the production of any national level dance company. The inventive choreography, flawless dancing, and selections of Beethoven’s music created a moving and engaging narrative.
Grand Rapids Ballet and Mario Radacovsky
Choreographer Mario Radacovsky, the Director of the National Theatre of Brno, Czech Republic, has worked with Grand Rapids Ballet on a number of different works, each one critically acclaimed. He created the full-length ballets of “Black Swan White Swan” and “Romeo & Juliet” for Grand Rapids Ballet, as well of a short work, “Bolero,” for Grand Rapids Ballet’s “Movemedia” contemporary dance series.
Radacovsky is known for his inventive choreography, which has the precision and elegance of classical ballet mixed with the flowing, loose movements of neoclassical and contemporary techniques. He is particularly good at telling a narrative through a sequence of movements and capturing the full artistry of the dance technique in his choreography.
Grand Rapids Ballet’s Artistic Director Patricia Barker and Creative Director Michael Auer worked with Radacovsky over a year and a half period developing “Beethoven.” Radacovsky extensively researched Beethoven’s life and his musical works to figure out how to best represent Beethoven’s story in a ballet. He came up with a musical selection that best represents key moments and relationships in Beethoven’s life. He developed a choreography that he feels will tell Beethoven’s story and match the intensity of the music.
Radacovsky’s ‘Beethoven’ Choreography
Radacovsky’s previous works for Grand Rapids Ballet were largely contemporary. “Beethoven” is a classical ballet mixed with some neoclassical and modern movements. It features pointe work and the beautiful lines of classical ballet along with some sequences that include more contemporary movements.
In Radacovsky’s “Beethoven,” the story is often told using a series of pas de trois featuring an older Beethoven, a younger version of him, and someone significant to his life. This use of pas de trois sequence made the scenes appear like memories or dreams of the senior Beethoven, and was a clever narrative tool to reveal both Beethoven’s history and personality. The ballet also includes solos, pas de deux and corps de ballet sequences in the storyline.
Radacovsky’s choreography showed great emotion and seamlessly wove the narrative through movement into Beethoven’s music with grace and strength. His mix of classical ballet and contemporary movement was inventive and was a fitting tribute to the composer.
Stephen Sanford as ‘Beethoven’
Grand Rapids Ballet dancer Stephen Sanford portrayed the senior Beethoven as his final professional dance performance before retirement. Sanford gave a stunning performance as Beethoven, showing great emotional depth, artistry and athleticism in his movements. All eyes were on him when he was on stage, and the audience experienced Beethoven’s story in a vital way through Sanford’s performance. West Michigan ballet fans will miss seeing him perform in future Grand Rapids Ballet productions.
‘Beethoven’ Production Highlights
The production of “Beethoven: The Man and His Music: a tale of drama and conflict,” may be one of the gems of the 2014-15 Season. The production was radiant, absorbing and masterful. The ballet told the Beethoven’s story in a flawless pairing of movement and music that depicted moments of tenderness, passion, fear, anger, love, joy, loneliness and ultimately peace.
The set was atmospheric, mostly dark at times, with the use of lights to illuminate the mood and tell the story. Screens are sometimes used to for backgrounds. The piano is moved around the stage, and is almost a character itself.
The audience learns of Beethoven’s abusive father in the Symphony No. 7 sequence. Senior Beethoven is haunted by the memories of his father beating him. The audience hears the lash of multiple belts hitting the stage behind screens, and young Beethoven, portrayed by Ethan Kroll, is running around, and hiding from his father. Yet the belts and shadowed figures of men keep coming at him. At one point, the men and belts overtake senior Beethoven. There is a powerful moment when senior Beethoven shields young Beethoven from his abusive father, and together they find joy in the music at the piano. Sanford and Kroll gave great performances in the scene.
Beethoven’s deep and ill-fated love for his sister-in-law, Johanna, is revealed in the Piano Concerto No. 5 pas de trois between senior Beethoven (Steven Sanford), his younger self (Nicholas Schultz) and Johanna (Micaelina Ritschl). The sequence showed the passion of the relationship, its love-hate complexity, as well as the tenderness and sad longing of unfulfilled love. Sanford, Schultz and Ritschl made this one of the most memorable scenes in the ballet.
It is truly delightful when the dancers become a living orchestra and mimic the movements of musical instruments in Symphony No. 5. The number demonstrates Beethoven’s love of music and his creativity. It also showed Radacovsky’s trademark inventive choreography. After some of the more emotional numbers, this sequence was all about joy and fun with music and movement. All the dancers did a great job and gave a seamless, high quality performance in this large group dance number.
The highlight of the show was the sequence set to Symphony No. 9, which is known as Beethoven’s masterwork. The staging, choreography and dancing was masterful and had moments of beauty, that if frozen in place, resembled a scene in a painting. This passionate number showed the oppression of dictators, human suffering, and the human strength to rally together to perform acts of heroism and ultimately rise victorious in brotherhood over oppression. It was also a symbol of Beethoven’s victory over his own life challenges since he created the ground-breaking Symphony No. 9, which changed music forever.
The story of Beethoven’s life ends with a message of hope and peace. The last number set to Piano Sonata No. 8, an angel (Connie Flachs) appears before Beethoven, and tenderly enfolds him in her healing embrace. Flachs gives a beautiful and graceful performance as the angel, where her arm movements and her flowing gown give the impression of wings. The angel dance seems to represent that he found peace in his life.
‘Beethoven’ and Grand Rapids Ballet’s Promising Future
The “Beethoven” production told the story of Beethoven as the musical genius and the man who found happiness and peace in his life through his music and the important relationships in his life. Ballet fans and Beethoven music lovers will all find something to enjoy in Radacovsky’s “Beethoven.” This high quality production is a wonderful addition to Grand Rapids Ballet’s repertoire, and West Michigan ballet fans hope to see it come back to their stage again in the near future. Ending the 2014-15 Season with “Beethoven” has left West Michigan ballet fans eagerly anticipating Grand Rapids Ballet’s 2015-16 Season. People may want to secure their 2015-16 Season tickets now because sold-out shows are becoming more and more common for Grand Rapids Ballet.
Originally published on Examiner.com on June 7, 2015