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Balanchine Festival, June 2006

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Ballet Arizona's season-ending Balanchine Festival consists of two programs:

A: Divertimento No. 15, Apollo, and Serenade.

B: Agon, La Sonnambula, and Theme and Variations, which was this afternoon's program.

In the matinee pre-performance Q&A, Andersen spoke a bit about dancing in Agon. He said it was necessary to count -- and that he hated to count -- but some of the cues were little pings and plunks, and you couldn't count on hearing the orchestra. He also mentioned a brain-twisting progression of sequences - 4's, 6's, 3's, 7's, etc. The first time I saw the Company perform Agon was in the Orpheum Theatre, to a tape. Now that the Company has moved back into Symphony Hall for the majority of its season, they were accompanied by the Phoenix Symphony. I could be wrong, but I don't think the orchestra was up to it, at least the entire piece. The beginning sounded rough, and I was lost in the first pas de trois. (But the dancers weren't, so they must have been counting.) As it progressed, it seemed to get better, or at least more familiar.

There was a single cast this time, a bit of a merger, with Kendra Mitchell pairing with Ginger Smith and James Russell Toth in the first pas de trois, Kenna Draxton flanked by Robert Dekkers and Ilir Shtylla in the second, and Natalia Magniacaballi partnered by Elye Olson for the first time, at least in the regular season. Although Mitchell is a little taller than Smith, they make a very fine pair; they both share an energy in addition to clear, clean positions and transitions. It was great to see Toth again in the Sarabande; his timing and phrasing are very natural for this role.

Dekkers and Shtylla had great energy as well, and they played off each other beautifully in the the Bransle Simple. Although Draxton hit the big balances in the intro, she did not look like she was dancing full out or at full extension. She was a glory in it last year; she didn't look 100% this time. The few times I watched Olson, he looked like he was approaching the choreography a bit squarely. He was trained at Houston Ballet Academy and danced with the Houston Ballet and Ballet West before joining Ballet Arizona; he's not stylistically Balanchine, at least yet. Magnicaballi was gripping in the role, so I'm not sure how much I would have watched him had he morphed into Arthur Mitchell. It always astonishes me to see dancers inhabit this role in particular as if there's nothing to it, and she does, as if it's as natural as breathing.

About 45 minutes later, Magnicaballi reappeared as The Sleepwalker in La Sonnambula, but only after the rest of the cast had set the stage. Kanako Imayoshi was a dangerous Coquette from the outset, her spine registering the entrance of the Poet, and sending a forboding chill. Sergei Perkovskii embodied the faux hostly graciousness turned steely murderer when his property was threatened. In the scene were the Guests pair off to their own liaisons, each couple established a different dynamic before exiting the stage, leaving the Poet alone. after he was rebuffed by the Baron.

There was nothing ethereal or otherworldly about Magniacaballi's Sleepwalker on her first entrance. She was "live", as if locked in a coma and trying to send a beacon to the outside world to which she was attuned, but to which she couldn't communicate. She was so physically present, yet unreachable. As for Cook, I kept thinking of Romeo; he was convincing as a lover, but he didn't convince me he was a poet. That should come with time and experience.

There was an annoucement before the ballet started that Robert Dekkers would dance Harlequin. Since he was also listed in the cast for the first Divertissement dance, Pastorale, I'm not sure who danced in that piece. (Toth, who was listed for today's Harlequin, was in the other cast of Pastorale the last two nights.) The women in Pastorale -- Heather Haar and Karen Wojtowicz -- were delightful, light and effortless. Kendra Mitchell and Vitaly Breusenko were beautifully matched in the Pas de Deux. Although the roles suggest Commedia, Breusenko had an energy and a twist that made me think he’d make a great Bluebird. Dekkers was fantastic as Harlequin: a big, muscular, virile, and not remotely jester-like reading.

Paola Hartley and Astrit Zejnati followed with another superb performance in Theme and Variations. Both Hartley and Zejnati take an elegant and straightforward approach to the ballet, letting pristine placement, turnout, and understated musicality speak for itself. It's always remarkable to see the "bones" of a work, without ornamentation or unneeded drama. The corps and demis looked very fine. This company does this ballet at the highest level, in my opinion.

I think conductor Timothy Russell was trying to kill the Company, particularly Hartley, with quicksilver tempos in allegro, but she and they didn't miss a beat, even though this is the third day in a row she's performed the role, and she had Sixth Variation in Divertimento No. 15 and Russian in Serenade last Thursday and yesterday afternoon. In a post-performance Q&A after Jewels, Boal noted the very difficult fast tempo taken in Rubies, and said that it keeps the dancers on their toes, and they appreciate it. Given the applause by the dancers to the conductor and orchestra at final bows, they must have been especially appreciate of the especially fast tempi. The playing was lush, though.

I liked Hübbe so much better in this full version of Apollo than I did when I saw him in the truncated one at NYCB. The evolution of Apollo was so much clearer. On the whole, and I really loved this, he is not a completely polished uber-god, even at the very end; in the final solo and the apotheosis, there was still untamed energy and roughness. There’s still growth left, which makes mythical sense, because it’s not as if the grown Apollo was perfect, and in the historical sense, because it was Lifar who was the original. Describing the dancing is almost irrelevant, because it was the physical characterization that was so impressive.

I have mixed feelings about the muses. Kanako Imayoshi’s Polyhymnia and Tzu-Chia Huang’s Calliope were terrific when they danced together, before the variations, and with explosive energy after the pas de deux, tempering to a dead-on perfect starburst with Magnicaballi and the final climb. I thought Huang danced well in Calliope’s solo, but her shoes were so, so loud as to be distracting. I always feel that Calliope gets the short end of the stick variation-wise; regardless of who dances it, I never get the impression she ever had a fighting chance, unlike Polyhymnia, who only loses it at the end. I doesn’t make sense to me to note occasional and fleeting bobbles, but there were a few too many in Imayoshi’s Polyhymnia, which surprised me, because she whipped off the mirrored en dedans pirouettes after the pas de deux with great energy, speed, and amplitude. I never found Natalia Magnicaballi’s Terpsichore convincing. There was something fussy and overwrought about it, particularly during the solo and in her hands, and I wasn’t sure what she was trying to teach Apollo. She and Hübbe seemed to be on different pages, as if there was something she was trying to articulate to him that wasn’t getting across.

Then, 30 minutes later, Magnicaballi began what was a ravishing performance of Waltz Girl in Serenade, with sweep, unmannered phrasing, and dramatic arc. She also did a great barrette toss. [insert Randy Johnson joke here.] Magnicaballi was matched by two great performances by Paola Hartley as Russian, and Giselle Doepker as Dark Angel. Hartley capped a remarkable six-performance run, and seemed to get stronger as the day turned to night. Doepker is very tall –- I wouldn’t be surprised if she is 6’ – and she has enormous span: when she was turned in arabesque in the last movement, the space she covered was huge. But her uniqueness lies in the way she uses her arms. There are lots of swirling arm motions, in both the opening movement and in the Dark Angel scenes in the fourth. Doepker moves her arms rhythmically, like rhythmically satisfying pirouettes. The movements have breath, sometimes a slight delay, and then a twirl. She doesn’t make a gratuitous arm or hand movement, and her musicality extends to her fingertips. I was glad to see Joseph Cavanaugh get a featured role as Fate Man; he has a very strong dramatic presence, even standing still he is compelling. He’s the Guest in La Sonnambula that draws the eye. One remarkable moment was at the end: before his eyes are covered, and he leaves Waltz Girl, they look at each other. There was no melodrama. His gaze was direct and riveting; it said, as Andersen described Agon earlier in the day, “It is what it is.”

So, what about Divertimento No. 15? I now have a huge lump on my forehead from banging my head against the table for being such an idiot and getting the start time wrong; it was 6pm instead of the usual 8pm. I saw the end on the monitors. (I need a do-over.)

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