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Innovations, 4 June 2005

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This past weekend, Ballet Arizona closed its season with its Innovations program: 2B, a 2003 one-movement ballet by Ib Andersen extended by two movements, Agon, and Theme and Variations. I saw the Saturday matinee and evening performances.

I was rather frightened when I read last week that 2B was set to a Polenc piece for two pianos, but it was choreographed to a concerto, not the solo piano work against which Christopher Stowell's recent piece for PNB fought gallantly. The ballet opened with two couples and the first movement alternated between them dancing in parallel and the sets of two men and two women performing contrasting movements. The most striking parts of this older movement were the quirky humor that Andersen injects into the piece, like the use of sudden heel turns, but even more so, the extensive way he uses the floor, making the ballet work on multiple physical planes.

The second movement begins with a single dancer onstage in an orange leotard, to a short piano solo that sounds like ballet class music -- a contrast to the rest of the concerto except for the reprieve -- and the choreography resembles a class exercise. As the music expands, so does the choreography, and about 2/3 through, she is joined by two men in royal blue tights and blousy shirts, who dance around her and eventually partner her. While the individual moves looked "easy" -- single pirouettes, for example -- the requirement to phrase them together for such a duration without a break in form, a bobble on a stop on both pointes in fourth, or a loss of energy or concentration -- all done with few visible preparations -- made it look impossibly difficult to me. Kenna Draxton, a tall amazon with long legs but also a proportionally long torso, danced the role, and was riveting in her command of the stage and her two cohorts.

The last movement was for four couples, beginning with the four men. One moment they were flying across the stage in big jumps to all corners, and an instant later they formed a line across the stage, and I still can't figure out how that change happened; it came out of nowhere. The women's entrance was clever: as the men stood in a line across the back of the stage, the women entered one at a time and circled each man along the row. The only thing that looked forced was the very end, where the entire cast re-assembled, but for such a short time, it looked like there might not have been enough rehearsal time to fuse the cast for a more extended passage. But the final stage picture was gorgeous: the costume design is attributed to Andersen, and the colors -- teal, orange, royal blue, mint green -- not only looked fantastic together onstage, they represented a southwest regional pallette.

The demands of this ballet, in contrast to the lightness and wit of many passages, seemed rather draconian: for example, the dancers were asked to go from full throttle to a quieter passage of quick rondes de jambe (on the floor), which, to do cleanly, need perfect placement, turnout, and control. The contrasts in the ballet were dictated by the music, and, unlike many choreographers, Andersen does not falter when a grand sweeping musical passage retracts and turns to development. That ability, to me, is a litmus test; it's when the choreographer responds to the change without "Then a Miracle Happens" before continuing on the original path. It looked even better from the Balcony than from the Orchestra; from higher up, the patterns and particularly the placement of the couples in the first movement were quite a bit clearer.

It is impossible not to note the resemblance in the second movement trio to the second pas de trois in Agon, but with the exception of a couple of partnering phrases, the similarity is more in the DNA than the actual steps. Even if Agon had not been on the program, Draxton's performance in 2B screamed for her to be cast in the role. (She danced it in the evening cast.) Three of the four men in the ballet were cast as the demisoloists in Theme and Variations, and while their parts in T&V don't require quite the number of quick juxtapositions of weight and direction they performed in 2B, the bar is set for the main male role in Theme, and 2B is going to get them there if they're not already and will keep their skills honed.

The two main couples in the first movement were Natalia Magnicaballi, paired with Ilir Shtylla in the matinee and Michael Cook in the evening, and Lizbet Companioni and Joseph Cavanaugh in both performances. In the matinee, I wasn't sure if the main couples were supposed to be in unison -- they were in the evening -- or they were supposed to follow the first. Shtylla looked underrehearsed in the role, and he and Magnicaballi seemed to be just a beat behind Companioni and Cavanaugh. Companioni had more energy and strength than I've ever seen from her, and more than held her own with Magnicaballi onstage. (Was she always a redhead?) Cavanaugh was magnificent in a role that showcases his flexible back, enlivened torso, and grounded plie. (He reminds me a bit of Soto.) And Cavanaugh and the elegant Cook together were a stunning combination, particularly when the men danced in unison. Draxton was a cool, modern goddess in the second movement.

Among the Principals and demis, only Sergei Perkovskii, replacing Elye Olson in the evening, danced both casts in Agon. The afternoon's performance was like nothing I'd ever seen before in phrasing, emphasis, and energy, particularly among the women. It was as if I was listening to a performance in Dutch -- some of the words sounded somewhat familiar. It was truly a contest, starting with the sense that the stage was split in half, with Nancy Crowley leading the blue team and Giselle Doepker leading the white team -- over water rights in Arizona. Ginger Smith and Lisbet Camponioni threw themselves into the Gaillarde, each trying to outdo the other. James Russell Toth's direct interpretation of the Sarabande was rather alien from the rest of the performance -- a West Coast visitor teleported into the NYC subway at rush hour. Again Companioni danced strongly, and Ginger Smith is a wonderful addition to the Company. In the second pas de trois, Sergei Perkovskii and Ilir Shtylla were comrades, joined by Giselle Doepker, who looked uncontrolled, rushing about the stage without every having her legs quite under her. I may not just "get" Doepker as a dancer, at least in the black and white rep. (She was the corps dancer in Theme who had beautiful expression in her arms and shoulders during the adagio intro to the section where the ballerina performs balances supported by the women.)

Nancy Crowley and Joseph Cavanaugh led the most aggressive pas de deux I have ever seen. That Crowley's approach would be balanced differently was clear from the start, in the height of her knee in the frappes at the beginning of the movement. The standard interpretation that I've seen of the central woman's role is that the man mainly manipulates the woman's limbs into a position, and in response she springs back or pretzels out of it, like a cyber being. Crowley fought back each time with red-blooded intensity, and when the man was prostrate on the floor as a result, it was almost as if she had flipped him. At one such point when Cavanaugh was on the ground, and Crowley raised her arms in modified high fifth, she flicked her wrists and looked like she was about to gore her bullfighter. (Ole!) Because she was so powerful, Cavanaugh's role was more vivid by contrast, not just the puppetmeister role to which leading men in the role are often delegated except for the solo passages.

The dancers threw themselves into their roles in both ballets, and there were a notable number of slips and slides. I wasn't sure if there were intermittent slicks on the surface, or if it truly resembled the skating competitions where the first fall spooks the other skaters and causes a domino effect.

I really wondered whether Richard Tanner, who did the staging, had a completely different take on the ballet, but the evening's performance was much more familiar. The opening was competitive, but I didn't get a sense that there was a wall separating the two halves of the stage. I haven't seen any other Company that cast Gaillarde to such strength: Paola Hartley and Kendra Mitchell radiated warmth and power along with technical prowess. I had to look twice to see that it was Astrit Zejnati in the Sarabande, switching styles from Theme to Agon seamlesslessly. (James Russell Toth would have been equally at home in this cast.) In the Second Pas de Trois, Perkovskii was joined by Robert Dekkers, in another rendition of friendly competition in the Bransle Simple. In the Bransle Gay and Bransle Double, Kenna Draxton fulfilled the expectations that her performance in 2B promised. If I have one criticism, it is that in both casts, the final lift and "toss" into arabesque was a bit tentative. Natalia Magnicaballi and Michael Cook are a wonderful pairing, with matching lines and elegant style. Their interpretation was dynamic, but understated, spinning a web until the final pose.

The last ballet on the program was Theme and Variations, with the same cast for all five performances (in four days, and with Agon duty :smilie_mondieu: ) The Company performed this ballet with the same Principals in last year's Balanchine Program, and I believe it's also part of next June's as well. (The Company site is under construction, so I can't confirm right now.) I love both dancers, Paola Hartley and Astrit Zejnati, in general, and in these roles in particular. Hartley moves between allegro and adagio with ease. She is not tall, and she was flanked by the tallest of the tall women in the Company. When she first took the hands of the two women on either side, it looked for a moment as they raised their arms that they would lift her from the floor. That she was able to command the stage from there was remarkable, and the ravishing supported adagio with the corps women made me see that this passage in Theme is a crystallization of the White Swan pas de deux. Her Odette must be something. Zejnati is the personification of "Old World Charm" -- elegant and attentive, with a streak of humility. His attention to detail, particularly the way his arms shadow the woman's, in timing and shape, and how they balance her gestures, is a welcome reminder of an almost lost art. The four demis were even stronger than last year, with the welcome addition of Ginger Smith joining Kendra Mitchell, Lisbet Companioni, and Kanako Imayoshi as a beautifully matched quartet.

I'm looking forward to seeing three performances in next year's season. Although the move to the smaller Orpheum Theater was a financial burden for the Company, I'm going to miss it with the move back to Symphony Hall (four of five programs). It is no converted hockey rink!

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What a wonderful review, Helene. I would love the possibility of seeing Agon as a really viseral struggle. The last performances I saw were rather overly pure, for my taste at least -- almost pretty.

I'm not amazed that one cast did Theme and Variations 5 times over 4 nights. That's not uncommon in smaller regional companies, especially for such ambitions programs as this one. These dancers are truly heroes.

You made the Ib Andersen ballet quite visible to me. (To be honest, it's the kind of review I like to see before I attend an actual performance, helping my rather slow eye to keep up with the onward movement of the dancing. No "pause" and "reverse" buttons in real life, alas.)

I've just been reading more about Andersen's work after retiring from dancing -- including a fascinating, highly articulate 1996 interview with Alexandra in the Bournonville Archives on the Danceview Magazine site. You can see some of the values and ideas he has had the chance to develop in Arizona. It's thrilling to hear about what he has managed to achieve with his dancers.

Danceview Magazine

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