Reno company performs rock ballet

Vortex | Cordelia

When you think of ballet, do you imagine dancers in erotic costumes pirouetting to the sounds of Lady Gaga, Rihanna, Metallica or the soundtrack of HBO’s “Six Feet Under”?

July 14-15 | 8:30 p.m.
Robert Z. Hawkins Amphitheatre | Reno, Nev.

“It’s not your ordinary ballet, that’s for sure,” says A.V.A. Ballet Theatre founder and artistic director Alexander Van Alstyne of his long-running rock ballet “Vortex.”

It’s also rated PG-13.

“It’s pretty sexy, I will admit,” he says.

Van Alstyne was born in Belfast, Ireland, but moved to Salt Lake City when he was a small child. He performed for San Francisco Ballet, Boston Ballet and Ballet West before moving to Reno to found his namesake company in 1994.

He choreographed Vortex 15 years ago as a way to create something innovative in the world of dance.

“Originally, I wanted to do something with no ballet music at all,” he says. “I intended it to be more of an extravagant production rather than just pink tutus. Something like a Broadway show. It’s very spaceship oriented with really fun, beautiful costumes and sets and amazing lighting.”

Van Alstyne chose the name Vortex as a way to represent his primary goal for the piece: to engage the audience and draw them into another world.

“When I first came up with the name, I was thinking of something that would basically pull you in and I just thought, ‘What does vortex mean?’ It’s from the comets and the universe and a vortex pulls you in.”

Although Van Alstyne’s work is influenced by the mysterious energies of alien spheres, the themes of his choreography are inspired from real life events here on Earth.

“You’re certainly not going to see anything like it in the world of ballet. It’s like going to a rock concert. You’ll be blown away.”
– Alexander Van Alstyne

“Each piece I choreographed tells a story that has happened in someone’s life at some point,” he says. “It’s based on people I know or something everyone can to relate to. Most of the time I draw my inspiration from things that have personally happened in my life. I can be driving down the street and see a tree move a certain way — I’ll work that in.”

The aesthetic of storytelling through movement is vital to Van Alstyne’s aim of magnetizing the spectators into the current.

“When I tell the story, there has to be a beginning, middle and end,” he says. “If there’s not that flow, people won’t realize what’s going on. They’ll see the dance, but they won’t feel or perceive anything beyond it. In every movement that I do, there is a certain feeling about it so that the audience will understand what I’m trying to convey. I’ve had people moved to tears by seeing the choreography and connecting to it.”

From there, the director selects contemporary pop music to bring the movements to life in an engaging and unexpected way.

“Metallica’s ‘The Call of Ktulu,” is about power and energy and being strong as a group,” he says. “Lady Gaga’s ‘Born This Way’ is about versatility and diversity.”

For Rihanna’s “Russian Roulette,” Van Alstyne has constructed a shark cage in which the dancer performs the piece.

“The shark cage represents the dancer being trapped,” he says. “She is trying to release her soul. There is an angel on stage with her and the angel is following her, encouraging her to free her soul of all the problems.”

This challenging performance requires the director to work with only the fiercest of ballerinas.

“It’s very unexpected for ballet,” he says of the choreography. “The moves are very strong and together and they have to be very precise. It’s one hour and 20 minutes and there are 13 different numbers. Once the shows starts, you’re going. Each number has costumes changes, too, so it’s all quite fast. You have to be really strong en pointe to do this ballet.”

Van Alstyne hopes to see faces old and new in the audience when his cast performs the rock ballet this weekend at Bartley Ranch as part of Reno’s 22nd annual Artown celebration.

“It’s such an unusual production that it’s worth coming to see,” he says. “You’re certainly not going to see anything like it in the world of ballet. It’s like going to a rock concert. You’ll be blown away by what you just saw.” | avaballet.com

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Sean McAlindin
Sean McAlindin is a writer, musician and educator based in Truckee. When he's not drafting new story ideas, he can be found jamming with his Celtic bluegrass band, Lost Whiskey Engine, hiking for a local back-country powder stash or hanging out with his daughter, Penelope.