Topia, a Ballet Arizona performance that runs through Sunday, is back-dropped by the prickly landscape of Desert Botanical Garden and Papago Park beyond. And it has as many peaks and valleys as the hills beyond the stage.
The show takes place just after 8 p.m., as the sun dips below the horizon, which you'd think would be impeccable timing thanks to Phoenix's supreme sunsets. The 80-foot stage frames a perfect view of Hole-in-the-Rock, the foreground filled with yucca, cactus and palo verdes. But it's set just to the side of the main parking area, which proved to be a minor distraction as the lot’s piercing white lights continued to shine on either side of the stage throughout the evening.
Another issue becomes apparent as everyone is seated. We're huddled at small four-seat tables which slope slightly upwards from the stage, but it's not enough elevation for everyone in the middle or back sections to have a view of the stage unimpeded by someone’s voluminous hair. That being said, the gorgeous outdoor setting still feels worthwhile.
Broken up into five movements, the show is billed as a presentation of "movement, sound and multimedia."
The First Movement is light and airy, with a softly lit stage and a fairly large cast. The dancers perform gracefully, but there are few standout moments. The desert background is not really incorporated into a performance without a distinct narrative.
The Second Movement is the high point, however. The lighting shifts to a blue tone, making the dancers glow a ghostly white. At a certain point, several of the ballerinas schlep in a white, reflective tarp across the stage, holding it up behind three pairs of dancers.
Spotlighted one at a time, each couple performs against the white backdrop. As the first pair danced, I'm moved for the first time during the show. Their connection feels utterly complete, tender and intimate. As the spotlight shifted, the next two pairs of dancers don't quite meet the same standard, which is often the danger of vignettes.The movement closes with a rainbow cascade of lights reflecting off the desert landscape, reaching as far as the distant hills. The dancers are swept into darkness and turn their backs to the audience, admiring the natural beauty just as we are. The performers become the onlookers.
The Third Movement is the final one worth noting. It features a clear protagonist, dancer Nayon Iovino, who performs with elegance, strength and a phenomenal level of precision. With a slight Latin influence, the performance is a display of wonderful vigor and liveliness. But the choreography – which focuses on traditionally masculine movements – can come off a bit cheesy. For instance, Iovino is more than once spotlighted in a type of circus strongman’s pose, two female dancers dangling from each bicep. This came off rather silly and unnecessary. Iovino’s performance exudes more than enough strength and enthusiasm to carry the number without these odd reaffirmations of his manhood. (It should be noted that about half of the dancers were men, which is unusual for ballet.)
The final two movements conclude in a whirlwind of drama and energy, but lack the clear endings of the former performances. I guess when I go to the ballet, I expect storytelling. But Topia isn't a narrative. There's no beginning, middle, or end. It's about stunning feats of movement against an ethereal, changing landscape. It's art, with movement. So if you can go without preconceived notions of what ballet is supposed to be, you'll be taken with Topia.
Topia runs through Sunday, June 10. 8 p.m. nightly
General admission $36
Tickets can be purchased at balletarizona.org.
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