Ballet Fantastique warmed up a cold, rainy winter’s evening with its latest offering, “The Book of Esther: A Rock Gospel Ballet”, featuring the UO Gospel Singers and live original Persian rock music led by Gerry Rempel and band.
The design team shines here, with rich, illustrative costumes by Donna Marisa Bontrager and Allison Ditson, which transport, from the first moment the dancers enter from the back of the house, carrying warmly lit lanterns.
The gospel music is a soothing and stirring undercurrent, and the choreographers, Donna Marisa and Hannah Bontrager conceive of using these performers artfully, arranging their entrance and spacing cleverly, seamlessly, so that the singers become an integral part of the whole.
Hats off to Andiel Brown, UO Gospel Choir director, as Mordecai in this production. Brown’s voice is compelling and clear, his gestures relatable and connected. He even has a couple of lifts! Bravo.
As Esther, Leanne Mizzoni dances with a precise, yet earnest approach. Her delicate, lyrical quality is tempered by her strength, and as Esther traverses through this narrative, we see Mizzoni’s determination grow.
A strong duet ends Act One, danced to music by Byron Cage: The pairing exudes a longing, a sinuous connection between Mizzoni and King Xerxes, played here by Justin Feimster.
Feimster anchors the men’s roles. He is physically grounded, convincing, with great acting chops.
As the antagonizing Haman, Gustavo Ramirez throws out a ton of passion, but one wonders if choreographically, there wasn’t something left in his back pocket. (Ramirez dances the hell out of what he’s been given, I just would have liked him to be a bit more of a baddie.)
The ensemble works together nicely, and as a narrative, this classic tale delights, especially with BFan’s musical choices, and a thoughtful and judiciously interwoven narration adding dimension.
At times, group dance work has a predictable rhythmic and patterning cadence, leaning heavily on the 4/4 power of gospel. Set to jazz, BFan’s choreography slips and slides and works over and under the beat, but here, especially in Act Two, the movement at times sacrifices organic dynamic intensity for adherence to the musical phrase.
But we quibble. Will most notice the technical dance structures, and see them repeating? Probably not.
BFan sets a remarkable course here: Taking an ancient story, making it new and fresh, and presenting it for all audiences.
“The Book of Esther” is a story for the ages, and a timely one at that.