What do you do to cap a 40-year career as artistic director and choreographer for a small contemporary ballet company in Newport? You collaborate with 70 voices and 15 instruments that make up the Rhode Island Civic Chorale and Orchestra; you hire the largest dance venue in Providence; and you adapt a classic hour-long piece of music for 18 dancers.
Island Moving Company’s Miki Ohlsen, with Associate Artistic Director Danielle Genest, has choreographed and staged Carl Orff’s 1936 cantata, “Carmina Burana,” for an evening of dance called Masterful Movers, which also includes Nicolo Fonte’s “Where We Left Off” on March 11 at the VETS Auditorium in Providence.
“Carmina Burana” is a series of 24 poems, set to Orff’s pounding rhythms and soaring notes, based on a medieval collection, written from the 11th to 13th centuries. With the opening and closing poem, called “O Fortuna,” the lyrics question the fickle turns of fate.
“We wanted to bring that forward in time,” Ohlsen stressed during a recent rehearsal. “We think of the wheel of fate as, ‘I’m living fate and I have the opportunity to change fate.’”
“That opening passage takes your breath away,” agreed Genest. “And the dancers look struck and tortured. But they are winding through it. There are circular motions of the wheel in the dance but then something breaks through that.”
Indeed, as the familiar strains of Orff’s signature work start to vibrate through the auditorium, 18 dancers in a vertical line stride toward the audience, determination and perseverance etched in their faces and their stance. They begin, individually, to raise hands in supplication or to stretch them up, palms together, evoking medieval towers, or to wrap them around their heads at the futility of “fate.” Their bodies bend, spin, jump, step back, step forward — all 18 of them in a round-like chorale of movement.
Then they break out, into trios, quartets, quintets and several captivating duets. The dancers run in circles or execute quick turns, and sometimes they are moving in and around the vocal soloists.
The next sequences celebrate the return of spring, in dances that focus on women supporting and lifting one another; on the loyalty and friendships between men; and on the attractions between men and women or between same-gender couples. The scenes move on to the tavern, with the excesses of youth expressed by four male dancers leaping high one minute and sprawled on the floor the next.
And from there to young lovers, sometimes “tightly coupled,” in the lyrics, with linked arms, in the movement. The duo partnering is joyful and tender, as the music turns almost lullaby-like in one scene.
“The reprise of ‘O Fortuna’ shows the circle of life,” Ohlsen pointed out. “We take our fate into our own hands.”
“And the magnitude of the music reminds us of the greatness of nature and humanity,” added Genest.
The second work in Masterful Movers has become a seminal piece for its choreographer, Nicolo Fonte, currently the resident choreographer at Ballet West, in Salt Lake City, but also a sought-after freelance choreographer for the past 20 years.
In 2011, he created “Where We Left Off,” for the Aspen Santa Fe Ballet, the title referring to his previous half-dozen commissions for them. Written for 10 dancers and set to Phillip Glass’s “Mad Rush” and “Metamorphosis #2,” is “all bending and flowing, moving like water,” in Fonte’s words.
Fonte’s dance is influenced in part by Virginia Woolf’s “The Waves,” in which six characters are schoolmates and then meet again and again over the course of 40 years.
“That rolling or careening or cascading into different people, with an encounter and then it’s over, inspires this ballet,” he notes. “In some ways the piece is a lyrical metaphor for the different stages of life.”
In that sense, it’s a perfect partner to IMC’s “Carmina Burana” on this program. It also uses many duets and trios that shift among the male and female dancers. Like Ohlsen, Fonte wants his dancers to “get inside the movement.”
“They have to invest their imaginations and connect with one another, as if we’re riding the same wave,” Fonte said. “If a gesture doesn’t have meaning, it’s like sophisticated acrobatics. It has to mean something to the dancers and they have to convey that.”
And with Glass’s mesmerizing solo piano permutations, the IMC dancers create the drama that Glass and Fonte intended.
Presented by Island Moving Company. At The VETS Auditorium, 1 Avenue of the Arts, Providence, R.I., March 11, 7:30 p.m. Tickets $49-$129; VIP reception, $75 additional charge. 401-421-ARTS. www.thevetsri.com