The term ballet carries a very specific weight for a lot of people, most likely images of leotards and tutus come to mind, or possibly the intensity of Black Swan. In my case, it’s the memory of being forced to sit through Boston Ballet’s performance of The Nutcracker, supporting my tiny next-door neighbor in her big stage premiere. I lumped it in a category with “things-I’m-supposed-to-like-as-a-cultured-white-person” and summarily dismissed the dance form.
I’ve grown up since then, more open-minded I’d like to think, but the term ballet moved into a neutral category rather than one that immediately inspired affinity. My ears didn’t perk up when it’s mentioned, but I wasn’t oppositional.
Metropolis changed that. I approached the production by Winston-Salem Festival Ballet with guarded anticipation, unsure what to expect and unsold on the concept presented in promotional material and other reviews. Screaming like a BuzzFeed or Upworthy headline, the marketing push declared, “YOU HAVE NEVER EXPERIENCED URBAN LIFE OR THE HANESBRANDS LIKE THIS!”
Yeah right, y’all.
But in this case, the hype didn’t overpromise and under-deliver. The two-act production was broken into 11 pieces, fast-paced vignettes with different styles and tremendous music, deviating enough from traditional ballet to win over fence-sitters like me while still retaining the dance form’s integrity.
Low seating in a horseshoe around the stage helped the performance remain all the more engaging, but I couldn’t believe 90 minutes had passed at the end. I sat transfixed on the dark and occasionally humorous story lines, alternating costumes and lighting, music that frequently felt straight out of a John Carpenter horror film.
I brought someone who studies ballet to help me better understand the production — primarily because we’re dating — and she also came away very impressed. The challenging part, we agreed, is how to describe something of this nature without sounding hokey or cheesy. In conversations with friends we settled on descriptors like “awesome” and “impressive,” but those too fall short.
Two of my favorite pieces in Metropolis masterfully incorporated harnesses, suspending dancers from the ceiling low enough that they could execute moves on the floor or drop from standing on another dancer’s shoulders into a graceful swoop. In one, construction workers circled women as foreboding music crescendoed. The men initially moving like cogs, then twirled as if injected with life before listlessly circling the women, ultimately hanging like limp dolls.
The harnesses and other elements — prticularly the white lights held by dancers that dramatically illuminated their counterparts — could’ve easily been overused by a less talented producer, but Metropolis didn’t rely on any crutches for its powerful execution.
The message of some scenes was more literal — men hitting on a woman picking up trash, a man infuriated about city noise at night, a woman trapped at work — while other times the emotion of a piece was all the plot needed. Several evoked a sense of impermanence, particularly in romantic endeavors.
Maybe you just had to be there. Recounting some details out of context can sound cheesy, like descriptions of a modeling runway, or the incorporation of construction or street noises into sometimes discordant music.
That may be Metropolis’ greatest feat: exceeding expectations by avoiding predictability while pushing beyond the scope of what many may conceptualize as the bounds of ballet. The emotion was raw yet believable, the narratives absurd but comical, the music both stripped down and orchestral. In a word: It was phenomenal.
The production of Metropolis is over now, concluding with three performances this past weekend, but the inventiveness and skill of the company was more than enough to sell me on attending future productions by producer Gary Taylor and the Winston-Salem Festival Ballet.