Choreographer Lucas Jervies returns this week to the Louisville Ballet with “Human Abstract,” an evening-length piece for seven dancers that explores love and loss. Using the works of Cocteau, Blake and Shakespeare as a springboard, he creates an unconventional, multidisciplinary narrative ballet that seeks to challenge audiences who come expecting the same old thing.
Insider spoke with Jervies and Robert Curran, artistic executive director of the ballet. “Human Abstract” continues Curran’s experiments with challenging contemporary ballet, as well as his partnership with Louisville’s visual arts community.
Curran and Jervies worked together extensively as members of project-based dance company Jack Productions before Curran joined the Louisville Ballet in 2014.
“I’m a big fan of Lucas’ work. I always wanted to bring him here to do a full evening. The conversation was more about ‘what’ we were gonna do for the full evening,” says Curran, who adds we’ll continue to see Jervies in the coming years. “He’s going be back regularly.”
“Human Abstract” is a piece that was first performed by Jack Productions, and while it’s had a life prior to the Louisville Ballet, it is “completely different” in its current iteration, according to Curran. That comes in part from the process Jervies uses in choreography, which involves large amounts of improv in the studio and input from the dancers.
“I’ll give them a direction, they’ll work within that parameter, and I’ll extract what is interesting and we’ll mold something together,” explains Jervies.
Jervies and Curran both talked about how this production pushed the dancers, but Jervies says they’ve been fearless.
“Sometimes you go somewhere and the dancers aren’t that invested, but … from day one, the dancers have committed themselves to this process and it’s been beautiful to see them slug it out, intellectually and physically,” he says.
The work revolves around love and loss and has a narrative, but Jervies shakes up that familiar narrative for the audience. The choreographer has used a variety of tools and styles to explore what heartbreak really feels like.
“So it’s about taking linear points from a story and blowing it up,” says Jervies. “Exploring with the body… and there not being any limitations.”
That exploration sounds like it’s taken the Louisville Ballet to some strange places.
“We explored fighting techniques, and how to krump,” continues Jervies. “Krumping is a beautiful way to demonstrate aggression without hurting the other. So we ended up with the 20-minute section that looks like a beautiful ballet fight, but it’s actually about love and loss.”
Curran wants the work to challenge both the audience as well as the dancers.
“I’m so proud of the work, it’s so confronting — there’s no nudity and no overt violence — it’s just not conventional,” he says. “It’s going to be challenging.”
He notes that challenging the audience can be a gamble.
“I just hope a lot of people come to see it — it’s so important for Louisville Ballet to be doing new work, and I just hope the community doesn’t shy away from it because it’s something they don’t know,” says Curran.
In addition to challenging the dancers with movement, Jervies also brings multiple disciplines to “Human Abstract.” Dancers will speak, sing and even play piano.
“Theatrical devices are theatrical devices,” says Jervies. “Regardless of form, you are still in a big black box and you have to educate and entertain and stimulate your audiences.”
The original production of “Human Abstract” also had multidisciplinary elements, but since it was first set, Jervies went back to school for directing, graduating from Australia’s National Institute in Dramatic Arts.
“He’s so much more accomplished than he was,” says Curran. “So there’s much more — it’s going to smack everybody in the face for sure — but it’s more refined.”
But it’s all in service of the audience experiencing the story in a visceral way.
“The device needs to come from what you’re trying to say, and Lucas is trying to say something about loss and love,” adds Curran. “Every decision (Lucas makes) is meant to create that feeling that someone has pulled the rug out from under you.”
But don’t expect the story to be served on a silver platter.
“He’s messing with the way our traditional dance storytelling has happened, and I love that,” says Curran. “But there is a still a story there. It’s all there, it’s just not laid out like ‘Romeo and Juliet.’”
It’s fine if the audience has trouble with the abstraction in the narrative, Jervies says, so long as the emotional heart of the piece comes through.
“If they can see a dancer on stage, dancing and pushing themselves, and if that reminds them of a lost love they had, if it conjures a memory, then that’s the story,” he says. “That’s the narrative of the piece. If 500 people walk away with 500 different stories, that’s totally awesome.”
In addition to a challenging contemporary work of dance, the Louisville Ballet also is working with contemporary artists Tiffany Carbonneau, Andrew Cozzens and Ezra Kellerman, who bring their own work to the stage, and that stage is the Kentucky Center’s Bomhard Theater, another new adventure for the ballet.
“Human Abstract” runs Feb. 22-26 at the Kentucky Center, 501 W. Main St. Tickets start at $35.