Orlando Ballet 'Uncorked' offers an enlightening look behind the curtain

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Orlando Ballet artistic director Robert Hill - PHOTO OF ROBERT HILL VIA ORLANDO BALLET
Orlando Ballet artistic director Robert Hill

I rarely cover Orlando’s dance scene, because, while I’m a professional at theme parks and theater, where dance is concerned I’m an admitted amateur. Also, my wife happens to run Orlando’s longest-running modern dance company, so in order to avoid any perceived conflict of interest I end up ignoring the art form.

But sometimes I see something exciting enough to temporarily override my self-imposed edict, as on my recent trip to New York, where I enjoyed three extraordinary dance experiences within 24 hours. I started in Union Square at Fuerza Bruta’s Wayra, an intoxicating mashup of environmental performance art and warehouse rave involving surreal set pieces, such as a see-through swimming pool suspended just centimeters above spectators’ heads. The next day I explored the art installations on Governors Island, especially a gallery devoted to Trisha Brown’s groundbreaking site-specific work. Finally, I finished at Montclair State University for Liz Lerman’s Healing Wars, a searing exploration of military trauma, combining choreography with video, spoken word and immersive scenic installations.

Thus it was with elevated expectations that I returned home for Orlando Ballet’s Uncorked at the Abbey (Tuesday, Sept. 30), and I was elated to find it the most enjoyable evening I’ve ever spent in the company’s company. In past reviews I’ve been hard on the Ballet’s interpretation of the classical repertoire, and this event’s nebulous description left me uncertain as to what the program would involve. It turned out to be an enlightening look behind the curtain at the Ballet’s creative process, yielding fresh insights into the intense lives these performers lead.

Uncorked was composed of three segments, starting with in-progress excerpts from this month’s Vampire’s Ball revival. Having previously seen the finished product, I was fascinated by the difference effected by the absence of costumes and scenery; while the eccentric mad-scientist sequence seemed especially absurd without the lab coats and fright wigs, the innocent lovers’ pas de deux appeared more impressively athletic in gym sweats instead of a gauzy gown. The Abbey’s small stage isn’t ideal for artistic director Robert Hill’s choreography – it’s hard to leap off stage when there’s a solid wall where the wings should be, and some high lifts came heart-stoppingly close to the lighting grid – but the room’s relative intimacy, even from my seat in the back row, was a welcome change from the Bob Carr.

The meat of the presentation was prompted by Hill’s selection of three dancers to instantly choreograph a couple of minutes of movement to a previously unheard song, building the piece onstage in 15 minutes with the audience eavesdropping. Given their choice of comrades to cast, all three selected Sebastian Serra. It was fascinating to see how differently each artist responded to the same insipid loop of synthesized beats. In the end, the three brief pieces were stitched together into one surprisingly coherent whole, even if Arcadian Broad (a dancing and piano-playing teenage wunderkind from Titusville) went a little out there with his hand-jive finale. I’ve been in many a rehearsal hall, but still found the exercise engaging; for non-performers watching, I imagine it was eye-opening.

Uncorked concluded with a Q&A conducted by Hill (who is serving his sixth season with Orlando Ballet), which shed light on the life local professional dancers lead. Though they come to learn and perform in Central Florida from all around the world – Tokyo, Bogotá, Portugal, even Philly! – to make ends meet, some work 5 a.m. Starbucks shifts before putting in a full day at the barre. And though ballet pointe shoes break down after a single performance, they are only budgeted one pair per week for the 31 weeks per year they are under contract. Speaking of shoes, audience members asked for and received a blisters-and-all earful of the agony that is dancers’ toes, and the improvisations (involving paper towels, makeup sponges and wrapping tape) employed to keep them ambulatory.

The audience also got an up-close look at Hill and his enthusiasm for the new Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts, which the Ballet (with the Bach Festival Society choir and orchestra) will help inaugurate with Carmina Burana; Hill called the center “a game-changer for Orlando’s cultural scene” and “a big part of [his] decision” to move here from NYC. In order to fill the seats in that big new hall, the Ballet needs fresh fans, and events like Uncorked are an ideal start. I’d love to see them expand their demographic appeal by appearing at events like the Fringe Festival. Even if (like me) you aren’t up for another Nutcracker, Orlando Ballet’s contemporary works should satisfy any So You Think You Can Dance? fan.

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