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Eugene Ballet moves Heaven and Earth

A major new work from choreographer Suzanne Haag, delayed by the pandemic, arrives at last on the Hult Center stage.

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Eugene Ballet explores the dynamic and contrasting forces of movement and music in its April production of “Heaven and Earth.” Photo from original 2020 casting; Ari Denison / Eugene Ballet

Headlining the final performance of Eugene Ballet Company’s 41st season in 2020 was to be the world premiere of Heaven and Earth, an original work choreographed by EBC’s Suzanne Haag, set to a powerful and passionate score for percussion by internationally renowned musician/composer Pius Cheung and performed by OrchestraNext’s percussion ensemble. But then, on March 13, a national COVID-19 pandemic emergency was declared, and life as we knew it changed. Now, two years later, that premiere will finally take place on Saturday and Sunday, April 16-17.

Heaven and Earth originated as a 20-minute musical tone poem commissioned by the Taiwan-based JuPercussion Group, in 2013. A recording of the performance was brought to the attention of Toni Pimble, Eugene Ballet’s artistic director, who suggested to resident choreographer Suzanne Haag that she might enjoy the challenge such a dynamic score would provide. 

Initial discussions with Cheung lead Haag to apply for a Commission Initiative Grant from New York City Ballet’s Choreographic Institute for 2018-2019. Her proposal was one of two funded that year, allowing her to begin studio sessions with Cheung and a small group of dancers that May. 

The goal of this collaborative effort was to discover how best the music and choreography could work together. While Cheung played the keyboard and drums, Haag and the dancers explored various routines. 

It was mutually agreed, Cheung told ArtsWatch, to expand the score into a full ballet. This included adding a solo bass drum section, dancers playing Thai gongs onstage, and a slow section near the end that would be revised and extended into a full pas de deux.  

Haag’s work, such as her The Large Rock and Little Yew, which premiered just before the pandemic struck, has often been driven by narratives. Although Heaven and Earth has a vague reference to a creation myth that thematically explores the ethereal ideal of “heaven,” the powerful grounding of “earth,” and the place in between where union and peace can be found, she and Cheung decided to take an approach that she says is “less about story and more about pure movement representing the music.”

The result is a 40-minute performance with eight movements: Heaven, Angels’ Dance, Earth, Time, Birth, Mankind, Union, and a Finale. Although titles suggest a narrative, there is no story arc. 

Eugene Ballet dancers anchor Earth to the Hult Center stage. Photo: Ari Denison / Eugene Ballet / 2020

Heaven and Earth is an ensemble piece, and Haag uses the entire company of dancers divided into three interactive groups. Five women represent heaven, five men represent earth, and a group of twelve men and women represent humankind. 

In an effort to showcase the physicality of both dancers and musicians, Haag has placed OrchestraNext’s seven-member percussion ensemble on risers at the rear of the stage. This helps the the audience to fully experience the dynamic forces of sight and sound that such a combination creates. 

The staging also facilitates the engagement of dancers with the percussion ensemble. Erin Johnson begins the ballet with a solo to “Heaven,” masterfully played on the marimba by Eriko Daimo. “Earth” is the third movement, in which Koki Yamaguchi dances to a thundering performance by Pius Cheung on the bass drum. And in the fourth movement “Time,” a cadre of dancers become dancer/musicians, striking gongs suspended over the stage and played in concert with the percussion ensemble.

Dancers become musicians when they interact with Thai gongs. Photo courtesy Eugene Ballet

Haag observes that Cheung’s music is rather fluid and involves a fair amount of improvisation. ”The musicians take cues from each other as to when to move on to the next section.” This means that the dancers must also be close to the ensemble and be “open to listening for transitions that could end up being 30 seconds earlier or later than expected.” 

Heaven and Earth presented one of those rare opportunities Haag has had to work directly with a composer, she told ArtsWatch. This collaborative experience has allowed her to rethink her approach to dance movement and its creative relationship to music. At the end of it all, she hopes, the audience will leave feeling energized, excited, and impressed by the talent of the dancers and musicians Eugene is fortunate to have in its community.

Orchestra Next Percussion Ensemble: Seven-member ensemble with Eriko Daimo (marimba) and Pius Cheung (drums) in a 2020 concert webcast. Photo courtesy University of Oregon School of Music and Dance

Filling out the program

Opening the program are two shorter works, Conduct and Age of Innocence

Conduct is a more recent creation by Suzanne Haag, undertaken when she was an artist in residence at Texas Christian University’s School for Classical and Contemporary Dance in 2021. 

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Due to the pandemic, Haag’s TCU “residency” was actually virtual; she worked with dancers through Zoom video sessions. The piece was conceptualized as a ballet to be performed for an online audience. 

The work, set to the music of Antonio Vivaldi, uses seven dancers dressed in conductor coattails who explore a movement palette based loosely on the gestures of an orchestra conductor. The dancers, Haag says, explore all facets of the word “conduct,” including behavior, control, and transfer of energy as they waver between being in and out of control of their own movements.  

After the residency, Haag added two more movements for inclusion in the Eugene Ballet’s own virtual program, “A Dream Within Reach.” 

“Conduct,” by Suzanne Haag, features music by Antonio Vivaldi. Photo courtesy Eugene Ballet. Access video here.

Haag told ArtsWatch the current version of this ballet has been choreographed for performance before a live audience, and although the dancers are separated for most of the work, there is a bit more physical connection and interaction. “There is no narrative or plot to this ballet,” she says, “but each of the five sections explores a different aspect of the word ‘conduct’.”

Eugene Ballet’s Artistic Director Toni Pimble invited guest choreographer and BalletMet Artistic Director Edwaard Liang to work with the company’s cadre of dancers for the Oregon premiere of his Age of Innocence, a piece that she feels reflects his lyrical, restrained, and romantic choreography. It was originally scheduled for performance in 2020 and is now the second work on this program.

The Joffrey Ballet’s preview video: Edwaard Liang’s ‘Age of Innocence” (2009). Access video here.

The 30-minute ballet, Liang writes in a Ballet Met article, was inspired in part by the writings of Jane Austen and is set to the minimalist music of American composers Thomas Newman and Philip Glass

The ballet portrays a tension of longing, expectation, and uncertainty of a 19th century ballroom where no one has more than a few moments and a few whispers to find love. “While the theme of Age of Innocence looks back to the Regency Period, its manners and mores, its treatment, through the use of spare set design and costuming, is contemporary and technically demanding,” according to Pimble. 

The programming of works created by guest choreographers has always been important to Pimble. It challenges company dancers to learn from someone with different ideas and techniques and provides audiences with the opportunity to sample the diverse world of contemporary dance.

Preview video from Eugene Ballet’s “Heaven and Earth.” Access video here.

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Eugene Ballet’s Heaven and Earth will be performed at 7:30 p.m. Saturday, April 16, and at 2 p.m. Sunday, April 17, in the Hult Center for the Performing Arts, Eugene. Tickets: $15 – $60.

Gary Ferrington is a University of Oregon Sr. Instructor Emeritus whose career spanned over 30 years as the College of Education’s Instructional Systems Technology program director. He has been, since retiring in 1998, actively involved in the Eugene arts community serving for nine years on the Board of Directors for the Downtown Initiative for the Visual Arts Center where he also coordinated its online and print public relations efforts. Since the closing of the center during the Great Recession he has committed himself to advocating for the performance of contemporary music and dance. He is a volunteer with the Eugene Ballet Company and is an advocate for the UO School of Music and Dance programs in music composition, Intermedia Technology, and jazz studies. His articles for Oregon ArtsWatch, focusing primarily on music, dance and occasionally theatre in Eugene, can be found online at artswatcharticles.blogspot.com.

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