Richard Steinert wants you to know one thing: When you come to Ballet Pensacola’s spring production “American Icons”, don’t expect “ballerinas being swans in white tutus.”
While Ballet Pensacola teaches and is influenced by classical ballet tradition, it has evolved into a contemporary movement company interested in creating an artistic exchange between the dancers and the audience. In recent history, Ballet Pensacola has produced experiential dance theatre, which interacts with the audience by asking questions and proposing answers in the pieces performed. Their newest production, “American Icons”, is an homage to great American artists and will be performed at the Pensacola Cultural Center March 18-19.
Steinert’s vision for “Icons” was a response to current uncertainty about America’s place in the world—economically, politically, artistically and personally. Steinert says, “Our nation has problems but also opportunities, and so I wanted to hearken back and look at great thinkers and mind benders. In a time of crisis for average Americans, we wanted to put a program together that celebrated the great artistic thinkers of this nation.”
The pieces are choreographed from the inspiration of these American artists. The great thinkers Steinert’s ballets celebrate are playwright Tennessee Williams, composer Leonard Bernstein, painter Jackson Pollack, gospel singer Mahalia Jackson, and a love letter written by a Civil War soldier.
The production’s central piece and first act is an exploration of Tennessee Williams’ play “Summer and Smoke”, which delves into the psychology of a family burdened by mental illness and strict social expectations. A puritanical Reverend’s daughter, Alma, struggles to reconcile her sense of spirituality, sensuality and sacrifice. The ballet exposes the inner turmoil of this young woman navigating her mother’s sickness, her father’s distance and the off-and-on unrequited love of her bad-boy physician neighbor, Dr. John Buchanon. The relationship between Alma and John provides a catalyst for recognizing the parts of Alma’s personality struggling to find expression.
Choreographer Christine Duhon and set designer Lance Brannon use movement and image to communicate the central themes of the work. Iconic symbols from Williams’ play—an anatomy chart and an angel fountain—are displayed as well as a “pas de deux” (dance for two) performed between Alma and John in which their physical closeness and distance, as well as that of their shadows, tell the story of their beliefs and emotions.
The second act opens with the brilliant and jubilant “On the Town”, based on Leonard Bernstein and Jerome Robbins’ 1944 musical comedy and ballet, “On the Town” and “Fancy Free”. The story follows sailors on 24-hour leave in New York and captures a lifetime of emotions and desires in just a snapshot of time. This dance is pure fun and was originally created for the “Beethoven and Blue Jeans” collaboration between the Pensacola Symphony and Ballet Pensacola.
Also in the second act are reflections on artistic passion and process in a piece inspired by the life and work of Jackson Pollack. In this piece, Pollack’s human and artistic relationships are explored with dancers performing as both the artist and materials, becoming the paint Pollack is working with. This decision can even be seen as a kind of meta-statement about visual arts and the relationship between dancers and choreographers to create moving visual statements.
Next is a piece inspired by a love letter written by a Civil War soldier to his wife. It is a short piece—“cutting” according to Steinert—and explores the grief and immediacy of war. The dance is a solo exploration of the creation and reception of the love letter as well as the legacy of the Civil War in the United States. The letter also serves as a lens to view the current American involvement in war and the emotional toll that it takes on individuals and families.
The evening ends with a spiritual exploration to the backdrop of celebrated gospel singer Mahalia Jackson. Although Jackson’s roots are deeply imbedded in a Southern Christian tradition of music and spirituality, this piece is an exploration of each person’s personal experience with the transcendent and “Other”, however they define it. The piece embraces the physical ways we relate to the spiritual, from postures of prayer to charismatic snake charmers. The dance celebrates the relationship between the individual and the community. Steinert’s goal for the audience is to “feel what their spirituality feels and see what others’ spiritual experiences are.”
What ties the pieces together is a sensibility celebrating American innovation and creative thought. Steinert carefully chose pieces to speak to and stimulate a particularly Pensacola audience. The influence of Tennessee Williams’ Southern Gothic textures, the joy and sorrow of soldiers at war and at home, and Mahalia Jackson’s connections with a distinctly southern African-American spirituality all speak to the life and pulse of Pensacola.
“American Icons” strives to be a dance experience accessible to all those interested in the artistic spirit of America and to start a conversation about what it means to be American in this time and place.
WHEN: Friday, March 18 and Saturday, March 19
WHERE: Pensacola Cultural Center, 400 S. Jefferson St.
DETAILS: 432-2042 or balletpensacola.com