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Raising the Barre

Raising the Barre

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For Columbians whose experience in dance audiences has been limited to viewing annual performances of The Nutcracker by tulle-bedecked amateur or out-of-town troupes, the term “ballet” has just taken on an entirely new meaning.

The first performance of Columbia’s own brand-new professional dance company, the Missouri Contemporary Ballet, invigorates hope not only in the vitality of the city’s dance scene but also in the future of the local arts community.

Easily rivaling big-city productions in both quality and edginess, “Twisted,” MCB’s mid-November show at the Missouri Theatre Center for the Arts, featured a diverse and mind-bogglingly strong ensemble of classically trained dancers performing styles running the gamut from ballet en pointe, modern dance and lyrical dance to Broadway and Vegas styles—all visibly and solidly rooted in ballet traditions.

Somehow the show managed to find a foothold on the shaky middle ground between convention and pretension. The choreography was complex and dramatic but accessible. There was a dearth of tutus; costumes ranged from ordinary street clothes and filmy white dresses to primary-colored spandex undies and purple leotards. The stark backdrop alternated between a simple black curtain and the gritty bare brick of the Missouri Theatre’s backstage area. The clearly Tchaikovsky-free music included tunes by the Dave Matthews Band, Danny Elfman (known for hundreds of film scores as well as Oingo Boingo) and indie folk rocker Anni Defranco as well as an international assortment of vocal and instrumental pieces: French cabaret music, Italian string compositions, Argentinean tango nuevo. There was a little something for everyone.

Of course, getting to opening day was no small task. Artistic director Karen Grundy had formed MCB a mere four months earlier, after Wal-Mart heiress Nancy Walton Laurie discontinued the ballet company for which Grundy was the artistic director: Cedar Lake II, a Midwestern offshoot of Laurie-founded New York ballet company Cedar Lake.

With help from University of Missouri-Columbia professor Bill Bondeson, Grundy connected with David A. White III, executive director of the Missouri Symphony Society/Missouri Theatre Center for the Arts, and found the new company fit neatly into the community vision of transforming the Missouri Theatre into vibrant and far-reaching center for the arts. She teamed up with ballet master/ associate artistic director Sean France, seven energetic dancers, guest choreographers, volunteer fund-raisers, countless supporters in the business community, and a board of directors (of which her husband, Mark Grundy, is president) and cobbled together a show that elicited a standing ovation from the nearly full house on opening day.

Reflecting on her exhaustion while addressing the crowd during a costume change, Grundy explained it was the dancers’ dedication that made the work worthwhile. “I’m doing this for them,” she said.

Upcoming MCB performances include a children’s show, “Storyland,” in January and “Boundless” in April, both at the Missouri Theatre Center for the Arts.

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