Ballet Austin’s “Sarah’s Songs” proved an excellent evening of dance, and a beautiful tribute to the long-time leadership and philanthropy of Sarah Goodrich Butler, the Founding Chair of the Ballet Austin Foundation Board of Trustees.
Ballet Austin fans may recognize Sarah and her husband Dr. Ernest Butler as the namesakes of The Butler New Choreography Endowment, The Butler Fellowship Program for aspiring professional dancers, and The Butler Dance Education Center, which hosts dance classes, performances and fitness classes. These philanthropic projects are just a sampling of the goals the Butlers have made possible over their 25 years as supporters of Ballet Austin.
Curated by Artistic Director Stephen Mills, Sarah’s Songs included three dance works, beginning with George Balanchine’s “Serenade” (1934). This ballet plays with topography while remaining timelessly elegant. When the curtain rises, an array of dancers in powder blue costumes fills the stage. Washed in the blue light of Mark Stanley’s lighting design (recreated by Erin Earle Fleming), as the dancers begin to move their bodies layer behind each other creating interesting shapes. Moments of statuesque stillness punctuate these arrangements. As the dancers rise up on pointe and walk with small steps, their shoe tips tap against the stage percussively. When they freeze, the quiet while they balance highlights their controlled energy. Continuing to play with control through choreography, one of the movements ends with a lone dancer falling and lying on the stage floor. “Serenade” is underscored by Tchaikovsky’s “Serenade for Strings in C major, Op. 48” (1880), expertly performed by Austin Symphony Orchestra. The ballet ends with a haunting lift, with two rows of dancers facing upstage, their arms outstretched.
The second piece was Jessica Lang’s “Garden Blue” (2018), with music from Antonín Dvořák’s Piano Trio No. 4 in E Minor ‘Dumky,’ Movements 1, 2 and 3 (1891), performed by musicians from Austin Chamber Music Center (Violin: Mariama Alcantera, Cello: Douglas Harvey, Piano: Dr. Michelle Schumann).
While blue is in the ballet’s title, it doesn’t dominate the color palette. Contrasting the flowy skirts and soft blues of “Serenade,” the dancers wear unitards of vibrant red, yellow, purple, green, and white. The costumes are designed by visual artist Sarah Crowner, who also designed the ballet’s set pieces. These sculptural, abstract, curved pieces are made of smooth wood. Contrasting the wood grain on the set pieces, there are visible brushstrokes on the backdrop. Crowner’s set pieces resemble large petals. The dancers lean on them, leap over them, and manipulate them, rocking them backwards and shifting them into new positions. Activated by the dancers, the pieces at times resemble a skirt or wings.
The final piece was the world premiere of “I am the Monument,” choreographed by Mills in collaboration with the artists. Danced to Philip Glass’ Symphony No. 3 (1995), (accompanied by Austin Symphony Orchestra), the choreography is dominated by machine-like movements that respond to the music’s driving rhythms and fast tempo. In one formation, dancers look like the cylinders of an engine, moving their arms in sequence. The dancers are costumed in black, except for one woman wearing yellow. With low stances and an emphasis on dynamism, parts of the choreography feel futurist.
Mills says that the title of the work “refers to the idea that our time on earth is measured by the good that we do, and that we, ourselves, our spirits are left behind as the monument to that good.” Evoking the concept of monumental permanence through the ephemeral medium of dance, Mills offers a new way to think about legacy.
The three works in the program offer distinct contrasts that make each piece more rewarding individually. Still, the selection demonstrates only a sliver of the range of creative possibilities Sarah Goodrich Butler’s gifts have made possible for dancers, choreographers and audiences to explore in Austin, Texas.