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Interviews: Oklahoma City Ballet welcomes back dancer Ronnie Underwood, showcases Oklahoma and world premieres with triple bill

by Brandy McDonnell Published: February 2, 2014
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Ronnie Underwood and Stephanie Pitts dance in Oklahoma City Ballet's 2011 production of Mozart's "Requiem," choreographed by Robert Mills. Underwood, who grew up in Tulsa, is returning to the OKC Ballet as a principal dancer. Photo provided.
Ronnie Underwood and Stephanie Pitts dance in Oklahoma City Ballet's 2011 production of Mozart's "Requiem," choreographed by Robert Mills. Underwood, who grew up in Tulsa, is returning to the OKC Ballet as a principal dancer. Photo provided.

A version of this story appears in the Sunday Life section of The Oklahoman.

Oklahoma City Ballet showcases Oklahoma and world premieres with triple bill
The company’s diverse February program will feature “Carmen,” George Balanchine’s “Rubies,” a new work by acclaimed choreographer Matthew Neenan – and the return of dancer Ronnie Underwood, who was featured on the reality TV show “Breaking Pointe.”

The Oklahoma City Ballet’s 2014 “triple bill” will feature the debut of the company’s reimaging of a beloved ballet, the state premiere of a piece by one of the most iconic choreographers of the 20th century and the world premiere of a new work by a highly regarded contemporary choreographer.

Plus, the ballet’s midwinter performance will mark the comeback of Ronnie Underwood, who returns to OKC Ballet as a principal dancer after a stint at Ballet West in Salt Lake City, Utah, that led to him starring in the reality TV series “Breaking Pointe.”

“I love Ronnie. Ronnie is great to work with. He was an audience favorite when he danced with us in the past … so he’s a huge asset for the company. And we’ve already got a strong company,” said Artistic Director Robert Mills.

“And being a part of the reality show ‘Breaking Pointe,’ he’s got somewhat of a fan following from this TV show that was bringing our art form to more people.”

The triple bill headlined by a new version of “Carmen,” along with George Balanchine’s “Rubies” and a new work by award-winning choreographer Matthew Neenan is set for Friday through Feb. 9 at the Civic Center Music Hall.

“The evening I think is going to be really fun for people because they’re getting everything,” Mills said. “I can show them so many different facets of ballet in a triple bill. It’s an opportunity for me to educate our audience in terms of how broad classical ballet is today in 2014, how versatile the dancers have to be.”

Sarah Jane Crespo appears in costume for Oklahoma City Ballet's performance of George Balanchine's "Rubies." Photo by Simon Hurst.
Sarah Jane Crespo appears in costume for Oklahoma City Ballet's performance of George Balanchine's "Rubies." Photo by Simon Hurst.

Chic “Rubies”

The triple bill will open each night with “Rubies,” a portion of Balanchine’s abstract neoclassical ballet “Jewels.”

“This was looked at in 1967 as the first full-length abstract ballet that didn’t tell a story. He just choreographed beautiful dances where the emotion and the feelings were evoked from different jewels,” Mills said. “I’m very, very proud that we have been given the rights to dance this ballet. George Balanchine, hands down, is the most iconic, prolific and famous choreographer in any medium … of the 20th century.”

The company had to go through an application process with the George Balanchine Trust to be granted the rights to “Rubies,” a technically difficult piece danced to the music of Igor Stravinsky.

“Quite frankly, if the company wasn’t good enough, they would not allow us to do it. So I’m really proud that we are bringing this work to Oklahoma City. It’s never been seen before in the entire state of Oklahoma. It’s a huge coup for us to be doing this work,” Mills said.

“This is what people don’t expect: This piece, ‘Rubies,’ is so sexy and fun. It’s just so chic. … Everywhere it’s performed around the world, the audience loves it.”

Ryan Piper appears in costume for Oklahoma City Ballet's world premiere performance of Matthew Neenan's "EXURGENCY." Photo by Simon Hurst.
Ryan Piper appears in costume for Oklahoma City Ballet's world premiere performance of Matthew Neenan's "EXURGENCY." Photo by Simon Hurst.

World premiere

The middle portion of the program will be the world premiere of Neenan’s new work, “EXURGENCY,” an abstract contemporary piece set to the music of living composer Zoe Keating. Neenan is the resident choreographer of the Pennsylvania Ballet and co-founder of Philadelphia’s BalletX.

“It’s so modern and avant-garde and just really fantastic,” Mills said. “Our dancers eat it up. … They get to go from en pointe in ‘Rubies’ dancing this neoclassical work to taking the pointe shoes off and getting in grounded in plie and using their torsos in this more modern work with Matthew.”

Ezlimar Dorotlina appears in costume as Carmen from Oklahoma City Ballet's production of "Carmen." Photo by Simon Hurst.
Ezlimar Dorotlina appears in costume as Carmen from Oklahoma City Ballet's production of "Carmen." Photo by Simon Hurst.

“Carmen” closer

The triple bill closes with a new version of “Carmen,” inspired by the Prosper Mérimée novella and using the famous ballet suite Rodion Shchedrin arranged from Georges Bizet’s opera of the same name. OKC Ballet dance master Jacob Sparso choreographed a new neoclassical version, which sets the story in Madrid in 1936, the year the Spanish Civil War broke out.

“It’s a more modern telling of this tale,” Mills said. “We’re creating our own version new from scratch … and we have taken a lot of the extraneous little side plots in the story away and really focused on the love triangle between Carmen, Don Jose and Escamillo.”

Ezlimar Dortolina and principal dancer Miki Kawamura will perform the role of Carmen, principal dancers Underwood and Yui Sato will split time as Don Jose and Alvin Tovstogray will dance as Escamillo.

“‘Carmen’s’ really exciting, the drama of it all … and I really enjoy the music. I think everybody knows that music one way or another. And creating a new work with Jacob is really fun. And I kind of play the bad guy a little bit, which is kind of fun, too,” Underwood said.

“I’m real excited to be back.”

Ronnie Underwood dances in Oklahoma City Ballet's 2010 performance of Helen Pickett's "Zephyrus." Underwood, who grew up in Tulsa, is returning to the OKC Ballet as a principal dancer. Photo provided.
Ronnie Underwood dances in Oklahoma City Ballet's 2010 performance of Helen Pickett's "Zephyrus." Underwood, who grew up in Tulsa, is returning to the OKC Ballet as a principal dancer. Photo provided.

Returning favorite

Originally from California, Underwood, 32, grew up in Tulsa and received his training with Tulsa School of Ballet, Ballet Hispanico in New York City, and American Ballet Theatre. He started taking classes because his sister, Sherron, aspired to be, and became, a professional dancer.

“I was just sitting all the time as a little baby boy hanging out in the studio out here with my mom … playing with my Hot Wheels,” he said. “I started racing cars at 7 – quarter midgets, circle track cars – and Moscelyne Larkin was like ‘Why don’t throw him into the boys’ physical training class? It will help his hand-eye coordination.’”

He began his career as an apprentice with Tulsa Ballet, but said he never set out to become a professional dancer. He was racing cars in Texas and decided to take a class for the same reason Larkin suggested when he was a boy.

“I was like ‘I’m just wanting to work out.’ And boom, I had a job all of the sudden. Twelve years later, I’m still jumping around in spandex and lifting chicks,” he said with a laugh.

He joined Texas Ballet Theater at 19 and later danced as a principal dancer with Oregon Ballet Theatre. He performed with OKC Ballet from 2009-2011 before moving to Ballet West, the company featured for two seasons on the CW series “Breaking Pointe.” The reality show cast him as a sort of bad boy, playing up his tattooed, car-collecting ladies man side.

“It was fun. It was interesting to see how all that works. You’ll never watch TV in the same light again. Like when you sit down and watch the TV, I’m like ‘Huh. That’s probably not how that really happened.’ You know, it was real. I mean, everything I said on it was true to form and stuff. It was definitely work. It was work. It wasn’t easy. It was good for ballet. That was the main reason I did it because I felt like it was good for the arts, it was good for dance.”

ON STAGE

Oklahoma City Ballet’s Triple Bill

Featuring: Jacob Sparso’s “Carmen,” George Balanchine’s “Rubies” and Matthew Neenan’s “EXURGENCY.”

When: 7 p.m. Friday, 8 p.m. Saturday and 2 p.m. Feb. 9

Where: Civic Center Music Hall, 201 N Walker

Information: 848-8637 or http://okcballet.com.

-BAM


by Brandy McDonnell
Entertainment Reporter
Brandy McDonnell, also known by her initials BAM, writes stories and reviews on movies, music, the arts and other aspects of entertainment. She is NewsOK’s top blogger: Her 4-year-old entertainment news blog, BAM’s Blog, has notched more...
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