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2-program Balanchine Celebration next weekend

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If anyone is in the Phoenix area June 3-6, Ballet Arizona is having a two-program Balanchine Festival:

Program A



Theme and Variations

Program B

Allegro Brillante

Prodigal Son

Slaughter on 10th Avenue

Here's a link to the program page, with dates and place details, and a slideshow of dancers in these ballets:


Andersen has a high reputation among dancers for being an inspirational ballet master. I'd be curious how the company's Balanchine repertory looks -- so if anyone goes, please post! At least 20 people have registered on this board from the Phoenix area. So talk already!!!! :thumbsup:

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I went to Phoenix this past weekend. Due to an airport security snafu -- 2 security lines for 400-500 people early Saturday morning -- I missed my 8am flight, which was a blessing in disguise: the ticket agent took pity on me changed my return flight from Sunday morning to Sunday evening, so instead of seeing one performance each of Ballet Arizona's two Balanchine programs, I got to see a second (complete) performance of Program A and Yen-Li Chen-Zhang's farewell performance. It turned out that the airport was only 15 minutes from Symphony Hall, and by landing at 1:57 pm, I only missed Serenade.

Sitting in the lobby waiting for first intermission, I noticed clapping during parts of the ballet I've never heard before. This was true all weekend long in every ballet. For example in the performance of Serenade that I did see, in the first movement when the corps makes a circle and does a series of fast pique turns got a spontaneous ovation, as did the moment toward the beginning of the third movement, where the five women hold hands with their arms overhead in Y shape and stand in soussus. Also in the section in Theme and Variations when the ballerina does developes supported by the corps, there was a round of applause as the corps boureed off. Lot's of ooing and ahing and sighing all around, but I must say that when the older gentleman next to me grabbed his wife's knee during the pas de deux in Prodigal Son, I was very relieved when it was over :) I cracked up when the woman behind me exclaimed about Astrit Zejnati after he finished a variation, "Did you seeeee those thighs?" And another woman, after seeing Serenade for the first time, told her friend with a clear New York accent, "I have nevah, nevah seen anything that bewteeful! I've seen the Royal Ballet of England, ABT, I saw the premiere of Mayerling, but nevah..." I'd say that the programs went over very, very well with the audiences.

Andersen did a number of Q&A's before and after performances over the weekend, and I'll add his comments in this report. Program A was Serenade, Prodigal Son, and Theme and Variations. Andersen said that he originally planned Apollo for this program instead of Program B (Allegro Brilliante, Apollo, and Slaughter on Tenth Avenue, but when he did the logistics, he didn't have the dancers. According to the program bios, there are only eleven men in the Company, although there were names in the corps not on the roster, and I assumed they were from the school. (There was no company roster in the program, nor any notes listing apprentices or thanks to the union for letting the school kids perform.) Two men, Phoenix native and School of Arizona Ballet-trained Michael Cook and former PNB soloist Astrit Zejnati, performed all of the principal male roles except for Serenade in the Balanchine programs, and Apollo followed immediately by Theme would have been a killer. Andersen noted that while Zejnati had an understudy for Apollo, he was so busy rehearsing other ballets that Andersen just shook his head at the thought of the understudy having to dance the ballet. (Andersen couldn't remember if they rehearsed for 4.5 or 5.5 weeks for all six ballets, and most of the non-principals were in four or five of them.)

In retrospect, Saturday afternoon's performance of Prodigal Son was a strange place to start; I had a much better sense of the Company from every other ballet. Michael Cook as the Prodigal Son and Vitaly Breusenko and Nikolai Moroz as his servants were outstanding in both performances, but I thought the males corps and Siren Giselle Doepker gave different performances than on Sunday. The difference in the male corps was less marked; on Saturday they were looser and less disciplined. The signature back-to-back scuttering across the stage in plie is like a three-legged race, and they were just that bit off on Saturday to look awkward, and spot on on Sunday to skim across the stage like they were in a video game. What an exuberant bunch, though. They may have been tired by the end of the run, but they were there to dance; this didn't feel like "it's Thursday so it must be Prodigal corps duty. They weren't an anonymous bunch, but vivid, differentiated, and very attentive to their surroundings.

If I had to pick only one reason I am ecstatic that I went to Phoenix, it was to see Cook and Zejnati cast in roles in which they shone, but in which they never would have been cast in a large company. (Not what I went for in the first place; I had fallen in love with Natalia Magnicaballi when I saw her dance with Suzanne Farrell Ballet and assumed --correctly as it turns out -- that she'd be featured in these programs.) Cook's Prodigal was superb. It was the journey of a young man, and unlike most Prodigals, a wealthy, sheltered young man, whose yearning to go out in the world was palpable. He was rebellious, it didn't seem like it was out of some Oedipal competition; his character would have been happy enough to have been sent out on the Grand Tour, if his father and sisters would only let him, instead of insisting that "there's no place like home." (Jessica Kusak portrayed quite the goody-goody sister, while Carolyn Reardon was more disapproving. They would have been an interesting pair as Younger and Older sister in Pillar of Fire).

Cook is a lean dancer with long, slim legs, with a propensity towards elegance, but also with the uncanny ability to show a dramatic situation physically, not by acting. His signature poses were very strong and "full-voiced." When the Siren rejects him towards the end of the pas de deux, and he sits center stage, the way he wrapped his hands around his legs and contracted, you could see the child who was way out of his depth. After his Prodigal is stripped and abandoned, as he crawls toward the water to drink, his long limbs turn spider-like and almost inhuman. I'm not a great fan of the story -- the xenophobic idea that going out in the world means encountering evil -- and usually the Prodigal is enough of a brat that I'm not absorbed in his story either. But I found Cook's characterization very affecting, and he drew me in. Breusenko and Moroz also showed the devolution of their characters, and their betrayal stung. Andersen said in a Q&A that this year's performances of Prodigal Son were much better than when the Company performed the ballet two years before.

Cook was a standout, too, in Slaughter on Tenth Avenue, an elegant Hoofer with wonderful energy and comedic talent. In this ballet he had a ballerina to match him in Natalia Magnicaballi as the Strip Tease Girl. She's a gorgeous woman with legs that never end, and she made the most of the lithe choreography, without every taking herself too seriously. (Did she dance this role with Suzanne Farrell Ballet?) Nikolai Moroz was a fun, over-the-top Morrosine before doing double-duty as a cop, Sergei Perkovskii was a tough, imposing Big Boss, and Larry Grubbs was a Gangster from the movies. (The latter two looked great in their suits.) It was a very spirited performance.

On the same program Cook partnered Magnicaballi in Allegro Brilliante, and it was in this dance that Magnicaballi showed her Balanchine chops, with clear, precise footwork, voluptuous phrasing, sweep, and until someone comes up with a better word to describe it, amplitude. She was so live!!! Cook was again elegant. Leading the men I wouldn't say he got lost amidst the energetic, big moving, big jumping demi-soloists, but it was possible for the eye to be seduced by the flash, only to return to his beautiful extension and soft landings. The women were outstanding as well: Kendra Mitchell and Ellen Rath, as in everything they danced all weekend, with Lisbet Companioni and Carolyn Reardon giving their best performances in this ballet. The ballet is so fast with so many direction changes and such tricky partnering, and they made it all look smooth as they rose to the level given by the principals. The entire cast gave a "wow!" performance; this is a terrific ballet for the Company.

Andersen staged the full version of Apollo, which made me happy. He said that he learned the role from Balanchine. I really like this version so much better than the full-length one. In the other full-lengths I saw, the dancers walk a bit until they do the starburst image; in this staging they are already there, so it made a bit more of an impression.

I was sad when Astrit Zejnati left PNB -- both times -- because he was the type of dancer who always caught my eye, even when he was dressed as a Dervish in The Nutcracker and dancing next to Seth Belliston. He has a European-style elegance and pliancy. (Cook's is a plainer, more American elegance.) I was looking forward to seeing his Apollo, and he lived up to my expectations. In the opening, he wasn't as playful or undeveloped as Rasta Thomas -- Clement Crisp described his "puppyish vivacity," but not in a good way -- or Gonzalo Garcia, which isn't surprising, because playful isn't a word I'd used to describe Andersen's dancing, and I doubt he'd have emphasized this aspect. By contrast, Zejnati's variations were topped by wonder. Andersen said that Apollo was one of the rare ballets where Balanchine described many specific images -- flashing walk sign (hands opening and closing in Apollo's final solo), hunting, soccer kicks -- and that the solo represented Apollo's observations of the world around him. Andersen said that Balanchine wanted to dancers to "be themselves," and Zejnati's interpretation was very much like his dance self: strong, clean, pliant, and elegant. (I wouldn't have guessed from watching him dance that riding motorcycles and horses is his non-dance self!)

Zejnati was flanked by three complementary muses, who were among the shorter dancers in the company. (Zejnati is medium tall.) As terrific as Kendra Mitchell was as Calliope -- great energy, presence, and big movement -- I would have been interested in seeing her switched with Lisbet Companioni as Polyhymnia. Companioni danced Polyhymnia small, and the technical demands were a little beyond her. (For example, she didn't do the turns into arabesque plie, but rather a variation in which she landed, switched feet?, and then went into arabesque plie.) I got the impression that she would have been an effective Calliope, and that Mitchell would have dove headlong into Polyhymnia.

The second reason I am glad I traveled to Phoenix was for the privilege of seeing Paola Hartley dance. She's a shortish, more compact dancer, a bit like Nichol Hlinka both physically and technically, and while she doesn't have luxurious extension a la Kistler, she's a dynamic, musical dancer who rides the music. Hartley performed the happiest Terpsichore I've ever seen, and she was a delight, both in the dynamics of her solo and in the way she led Apollo on a journey during the pas de deux, in which she was beautifully matched with Zejnati. Companioni really picked it up in the dances after the pas de deux, and the energy of the three women was more closely in synch through the end of the ballet.

Zejnati and Hartley were paired very successfully again in Theme and Variations. Again Zejnati displayed his elegance in a more traditionally classical role. Hartley's feet are so fast, yet her adagio work is also beautiful. She also is a balance queen: not someone who holds them to show off, but a dancer who you know is rock solid when the guy lets go of her hand while she's in arabesque a la seconde or switches hands to kneel when she's in arabesque penchee. Zejnati must be a good partner, because I didn't see a single bobble, and Hartley dances full-out, as if she assumes that the guy is going to be there. She was strong and fleet as the Waltz Girl in Serenade, where she danced with abandon, swirling and soaring in her exits, and leaping into Joseph Cavanaugh's arms in the fourth movement. Magnicaballi's Waltz Girl was lovely, but because it's my least favorite part in Serenade, I think she was wasted in it. She danced a wonderful Dark Angel for Farrell; I would have preferred to see her in this role, and Doepker as Waltz Girl. (It's a partnered role, but not a lifting role.)

Yen-Li Chen-Zhang's farewell program consisted of a excerpts until the ending Theme and Variations. Chen-Zhang opened with the Act I solo from Giselle, and it was clear why she'll be missed: her dancing was clear, playful, and joyous. A costume change excerpt from Serenade followed -- the first half of the first movement. Since the audience almost always claps there anyway, for a change, it was appropriate :) Chen-Zhang returned with Vitaly Breusenko to dance the White Swan pas de deux. As beautiful as she danced it, it felt like a sketch without the rest of the swans onstage. An excerpt from Andersen's Amoroso followed, a pas de deux danced by Magnicaballi and Ilir Shtylla. It struck me as generic (modern) ballet: fine generic ballet, but I didn't sense anything particularly striking about it.

To end the first part, Chen-Zhang danced Oscar Araiz' Adagietto to a movement of Mahler's Fifth Symphony with her husband, Qisheng Zhang, who retired from the company several years before, but who is obviously in wonderful shape. (They run a ballet school together.) The ballet has four parts to it: the longer first part consists of slow motion partnering where she doesn't touch ground. They showed superb control as she moved into beautiful extended positions -- no quite poses, because she didn't really stop moving -- which were applauded one by one. Unfortunately, the ballet then went to the ground, where they performed rather bad generic choreography. In the third part, they went back to the controlled, slow motion, and in contrast, mostly on the ground; it was as fascinating as the first part. It ended with some more generic movement in parallel. This ballet got the most sustained applause of all.

The second part opened with the main pas de deux from The Leaves Are Fading, which Chen-Zhang performed with Michael Cook. The dancing was lovely, but there wasn't much Tudor in it. After a brief pause, the program ended with Chen-Zhang and David Hallberg performing Theme and Variations. I liked Chen-Zhang's performance very much, but I think it was a mistake to have enlisted Hallberg for the role. He was scheduled to dance the role on Saturday afternoon in New York, and while it was poignant to have a dancer trained at the school to partner the reigning and retiring Company ballerina, the partnering was not smooth and didn't show her off to her best advantage. think she would have been better off with a partner who was not in mid-season on the East Coast. In his solos he had more height in his beats and leaps than Zejnati, but he struck me as a below-the-waist dancer; his upper body seemed a bit disjointed. Chen-Zhang was lovely in her solos, but couldn't dance the pas de deux by herself.

In a Q&A one of the audience members asked Andersen if he missed dancing. He said that he started young -- training full time at seven -- and that by 17 he was dancing only principal roles. He said that when he retired at 35 -- just a year younger than Chen-Zhang -- he was fulfilled. He said he had no interest in ever going onstage again. He laughed and said he still moves around, "in my decrepit way," and at her curtain call, he jogged onstage to give her flowers and a hug, and then jogged off asap. The audience was going wild, and after the full-cast Theme curtain call, no one else would join her onstage, not even her husband, until her six-year-old daughter brought her a last bouquet of flowers. It was very sweet.

Andersen is running the Company on a shoestring. The costumes and scenery for Theme were borrowed from the Boston Ballet, for Slaughter from the Cincinnati Ballet, and for Prodigal Son from the Atlanta Ballet. When someone asked how much the Company had to pay to have stagers come, he said that Susan Hendl helped him stage Serenade, Theme, Slaughter, and Allegro Brilliante for a pittance, out of friendship. An artist he did the sets and costumes for his original ballet, Mosaik, because there was little money for a new production. Because he was a stager for the Balanchine Trust for a number of years, he was able to stage Apollo and to help with Prodigal Son, for which Paul Boos was credited for the staging. (Zippora Karz co-staged Serenade.)

One person asked if he was ever going to stage any of the ballets that Balanchine made for him. He said he didn't have the dancers. I could understand that about Davidsbundlertanze, but from what I saw this weekend, I think he has two casts, at least for the women, for Mozartiana. Arizona Ballet has five very strong women who performed the demi-soloist roles in Serenade,Theme, and Allegro Brilliante, and a few women in the corps of the first two ballets who looked like they could join them. I didn't see a weak one among the demi-solo men. While the corps women were stronger in Serenade, where they shared a common energy, than in Theme, where the tutus are non-forgiving, especially for breaks at the waist, it's clear that dancing ballets like Theme will make the dancers stronger. Having been spoiled on NYCB and ABT and PNB and SFB, and even New York Theater Ballet's predecessor, Balletfore, I've never seen a Company in transition, brought, if not from scratch, to a new level. Even though it would be a dream to have Andersen become Artistic Director of PNB, I look forward to seeing this Company again and where he takes them.

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Thank you, hockey fan! Would you please fly around the country and report on other companies we never get to see? :)

This is the most thorough piece I've read on Ballet Arizona, a company I've been curious about, so I'm especially grateful to you. From the few photos on the web site, it seems as though Andersen HAS taken a company that was, well, not one to write home about and, in a very short period of time, worked wonders. And, as you noted, on a very tight shoestring.

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Review from the Arizona Republic:

Ballet Arizona reaches new heights in Balanchine bash

George Balanchine, whose 100th birthday year this is, was celebrated by Ballet Arizona on Thursday night at Phoenix's Symphony Hall. One of two programs saluting the 20th century's most important classical choreographer, the performance was as much a confirmation of the company's progress as it was an affirmation of Balanchine's place in the history of dance.

It was a triumphant night for Ballet Arizona, for the direction it has been taken by artistic director Ib Andersen, for the dancers in general and for one - Paola Hartley - in particular. Only a ballet troupe of enormous range and skill can perform a program like this: Serenade, a lyrical ballet about love under the moon; Prodigal Son, a story ballet on the biblical tale; and Theme and Variations, a classical ballet demanding the utmost virtuosity and endurance. You need dancers not only of technical mastery but of charisma to dance these three. Ballet Arizona has them.

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Wonderful review, HF, thanks!

Andersen staged the full version of Apollo, which made me happy.  He said that he learned the role from Balanchine.  I really like this version so much better than the full-length one.  In the other full-lengths I saw, the dancers walk a bit until they do the starburst image; in this staging they are already there, so it made a bit more of an impression.

I'm confused here -- did BA do the complete Apollo or the later scaled-down version?

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I'm sorry I wasn't clear: BA did the full-length version. In the SFB and DTH full-lengths I saw this season, there was some walking and moving before the starburst image. In this production, the dancers were already pretty much in place at center stage, so they got to emphasize the position a little more.

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