The ever-active Gail Towbes Center for Dance buzzed with an extra burst of energy last week as three professional dance companies came together to preview their upcoming collaboration on Common Ground, a program of original work to be presented Saturday, May 9, at the Granada Theatre. State Street Ballet Director Rodney Gustafson began by introducing the choreographers — Edgar Zendejas, William Soleau, Christopher Pilafian, and Gina Patterson — and explaining how this unusual three-way collaboration came about.
Ever since Pilafian took over UCSB’s professional dance group, Santa Barbara Dance Theater, back in January 2012, members of State Street Ballet have been imagining what might happen if the two companies performed together. While State Street is best known for its contemporary take on traditional ballet, under Pilafian, Santa Barbara Dance Theater retains its commitment to modern dance. Combining these two styles of dance in a single work requires choreography that respects the fundamentals of each approach yet rejects the assumption that dancers on pointe can’t mix with other kinds of movers.
It’s indicative of Gustafson’s adventurous spirit that his solution to this challenge involved bringing even more artists into the mix. The decision to also include dancers from Detroit’s Eisenhower Dance came as a result of their previous success as the visiting company responsible for State Street Ballet’s memorable 2009 performance of Motown in Motion at the Lobero. Eisenhower choreographer Gina Patterson knows the languages of modern dance and ballet equally well, and has a long track record of developing works that bridge the divide.
But that’s not all, because the evening’s most ambitious component — a dance choreographed to Max Richter’s acclaimed “re-composition” of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons — comes courtesy of Zendejas, a Montreal-based artist whose vigorous, freewheeling style and fearless attitude toward merging multiple groups make him an ideal choice to create the night’s centerpiece. In fact, it was Zendejas, and his ambition to make a large work using Richter’s music, that provided Gustafson with the impetus to put all three companies onstage at once.
While the program will climax with Zendejas’s ambitious three-way free-for-all, each piece leading up to it represents an important new development for the individual companies involved. “Canvas,” by longtime State Street Ballet choreographer William Soleau, was inspired by the paintings of Mark Rothko and is set to music by Santa Barbara composer/guitarist Chris Fossek. Fossek, who is married to State Street principal dancer Leila Drake Fossek, will perform his own music live for the program. Patterson’s piece “Between Shadow and Soul” comes out of a longer work called “The Light Show” and is designed to demonstrate what Eisenhower Dance can do based on unique lighting design. Pilafian took his inspiration for “Smolder,” Santa Barbara Dance Theater’s contribution to Common Ground, from visual art and from music, in particular the spell cast on him by Rachmaninoff.
Seeing segments from each of these works under the bright lights of the studio, it quickly became apparent that collaboration holds tremendous appeal for the talented young dancers in all three companies. While each dance revealed a different mood and feeling, it was the finale, Zendejas’s stupendous meditation on the Four Seasons, which really got the blood racing. Things should get even more interesting onstage at the Granada, when all the companies combine for a night of forceful, significant expression.
Common Ground takes place Saturday, May 9, at 7:30 p.m., at the Granada Theatre (1214 State St.). For tickets and information, visit granadasb.org or call (805) 899-2222.