Shedding Layers

‘Fluctuating Hemlines’ tests Eugene Ballet Company’s dancers

I like new contemporary work that will push me to the next level,” says D.C.-based Washington Ballet’s Jared Nelson, who was in town last fall to set a demanding new dance on the Eugene Ballet Company.

Nelson’s handiwork, the Eugene premiere of Washington Ballet artistic director Septime Webre’s pulsating “Fluctuating Hemlines,” will serve as the performance opener when the 15-member Eugene Ballet Company performs it, along with Tommy The Ballet, April 11 and 12.

With a wink to the “hemline index” — the long-recognized correlation between recession and skirt length in women’s fashion, “‘Fluctuating Hemlines’ is all about letting loose,” Nelson says.

Opening on a subdued ’60s cocktail party replete with poufy wigs and flouncy dresses, “Fluctuating Hemlines” playfully explores what happens when, one by one, dancers “begin to shed an outer layer,” Nelson says, “giving themselves over to the infectiously percussive music.”

Webre’s piece is rhythmically charging, relying on a movement vernacular that presses classically trained dancers to perform at the edge of their comfort zone.

“This is different movement, a different style,” Nelson says. “It’s all about timing — entering and exiting. If you don’t exit or come in at the right time, it throws the whole thing off.”

In an early rehearsal, Nelson sets an intricate moment on a trio, each dancer charged with fluidly snapping into a crisp, new shape on a different rotating accent within the same musical phrase (e.g. one dancer shifts on “1” and “4” in the first measure, only to shift on “3” and “7” in the second, while the other members of the group follow distinctly different patterns).

In performance, this choreographic detail will likely zip by for audiences, but getting there takes everything a dancer has.

“For the men, especially, the piece is very athletic, full of jumps, tricks, lots of turning,” Nelson says. “It requires tremendous stamina. And the pas de deux work is kind of insane.”

Webre’s composition tests ballet dancers to go beyond the controlled, precise movement lexicon that they’re accustomed to, and to embrace an innovative shape and form with tremendous torque and flexion.

“Nothing is placed, everything is off balance,” Nelson says. “This hypermobility, this extremity, pushes the edge of the envelope.”

EBC should be commended for the administrative and artistic heavy lifting that incorporating Webre’s piece into their repertoire has required.

Sharing the bill, Toni Pimble’s Tommy features a live band playing the iconic rock opera by The Who onstage. Together, this high-octane event is a no-miss.

“New works push boundaries, and keep the arts alive,” Nelson says.

Learn more about this performance at Ballet Insider with EBC artistic director Toni Pimble, 45 minutes before curtain in The Studio, lower level at the Hult Center. “Fluctuating Hemlines” opens for Tommy with performances 7:30 Saturday, April 11, and 2 pm Sunday, April 12, at the Hult Center; $28-$43.

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