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Ballet Chicago at Athenaeum Theater 13-15 May 2011

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In the Athenaeum Theater last night, Ballet Chicago may have opened their "Balanchine Celebration" program consisting of Serenade, "Rubies," from Jewels, and 12 numbers from Who Cares? in circumstances that were less than the best - and so, less than they deserved, in my opinion - but the audience, which filled the main floor (I neglected to look in the balcony), was enthusiastic all evening, applauding frequently as the performances went along.

Although "Ballet is woman" are Balanchine's own words, two of the men, both associated with the Suzanne Farrell Ballet, were especially effective: Ted Seymour, in the last movement of Serenade and the series of pas de deux from Who Cares?, and Matthew Renko, the "Rubies Man," the dancer who takes the Villella role.

Villella brought considerable power to this role, which I never thought I would see even suggested again until Ballet Chicago, in its early days, had the ballet staged by Victoria Simon, who evidently got some of Villella's swagger into Jeff Herbig (and another surprise, some of Patricia McBride's sparkle into Petra Adelfang). Renko brings the role considerable power, not to say violence; he's always in control of the shape of what he does, and indeed controlled shape helps to make his movement effective. But Renko's power isn't Villella's; it's his own: He doesn't look like anyone else. He does look a bit hemmed in by the small stage, though. (Later Renko blends in as one of the five boys in Who Cares?.)

Alongside Renko, Rachel Jambois seemed mild in the McBride role, but Jane Morgan was (mostly) effective in the demi-solo role.

"Rubies" was least compromised by odd lighting changes, but Serenade had been the most compromised, mainly in the poignant, concluding "Elegy." For instance, at the beginning of this part, Ellen Green (a BC alumna and now a corps member of the RDB) lies in a pool of light on a stage darkened so that we scarcely notice the entrance upstage of the boy (Seymour) and his dark angel (Rachel Seeholzer), and after the three have their "Canova" moment in the light, the angel nearly disappears again as she steps out from behind the boy into the relative darkness and comes around in front; and moments later, as the three form a compact group upstage audience left, they are seen already dancing together as the general scene gradually becomes illuminated again. And so it went: At the end, we do see Green's lovely performance of her little dance upstage audience left before she responds to her summons to come downstage right and face her fate and be elevated to her apotheosis, but downstage right is dark, and so we do not get much of that little drama. That's unfortunate, and a little anti-climactic, because by this time, we have got so much of Serenade's beautifully sweeping patterns and massed formations, the ballet needs to come to something, a "point," and that point is a little blunted.

The finale, Who Cares?, began with subdued music, odd for its Broadway-musical tone, and as it went along, the faster ensembles were well and brightly lit, but the slower ones were dimmer; nevertheless we could see how smooth and suave Seymour's very effective duets with Green, Morgan, and Seeholzer were, and the four solo variations on an otherwise empty stage were visible enough to be much appreciated even so.

There will be two more performances, tonight at 7:30 and tomorrow at 3:00.

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You're welcome, Helene, although I'm not clear which of Renko's companies you mean, BC or TSFB.

Tonight's performance brought in a few improvements: Except maybe for the opening moments, Serenade was more visibly lit throughout, so we could see it more continuously and get a more cumulative effect; and in "Rubies," either Rachel Jambois was more into her role or I was more into the way she does it, but it was rather more effective than last night, I thought.

The big change in "Rubies," though, was Rachel Seeholzer's taking on the demi role, which she made large, clear, and vivid, and even restored a favorite surrealistic detail in the second part of the first pas de cinq where, once again now, we saw the girl's face upside down for an instant. So often in recent years we see the back of her head instead - a blank spot in the dance where something startling flashed by originally. That's just one detail; Seeholzer's whole rendition of this role and of her roles in Who Cares? ("Embraceable You" and especially "My One and Only") was large, clear, flowing, and shapely, giving a rewarding sense of completeness.

And the volume of the music in Who Cares? was about on target tonight, too.

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I was thinking Ballet Chicago, but Suzanne Farrell Ballet is more likely to come out West before I can travel to Chicago.

ETA: Just got word (with a link) that Renko will dance with Pacific Northwest Ballet next season:


Matthew Renko, however, was born to dance Edward Villella’s role, and is growing nicely into his stage persona. Academic and a little stiff last year, he’s loosened up, and should fit in well at Pacific Northwest Ballet, where he begins a contract in July. (He’s been in D.C. with the Suzanne Farrell Ballet, after a start at NYCB.) Men twice his height don’t cover ground like he can, and he turns like a top. The only thing missing is a sense of play.

So I'll only have to travel to Seattle, yay!

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Thanks, Helene. I was wondering, as the little season - three performances - wound up, where Matthew Renko and some of the other principals I've named already (and some I haven't) would dance next - would he go to Sofia, where some of TSFB will appear next month? So it's Seattle, and for a longer term. That's good news.

As it happened, Sunday afternoon brought back Friday evening's cast, but strivers that they seem to be, it was not Friday evening's performance, good as that was (or what we could see of it).

In particular, Jane Morgan's "Rubies" demi-solo role was more accomplished, including such things as that surreal little glimpse of her face upside down and, more obviously, that series of tricky balances with which she exits, audience right, at the end of the first movement, although I still remember with pleasure the effective way Rachel Seeholzer dispatched this role Saturday evening. In the afternoon, we still got to enjoy her reprise of her roles in Serenade and in Who Cares?, though, and this time even she seemed more to enjoy "My One and Only" in the Gershwin ballet.

Rachel Jambois, the "Rubies woman" in this production, seemed to me more vivid, more clearly articulated, and Renko was his impressive self again. (I've noticed by now he alters some tiny details from time to time, but I'm not complaining!)

Lighting and sound were also in a better state of adjustment through the program as well, and the relatively complex goings-on in the last movement of Serenade had more cumulative effect for being more continuously visible. But there was still too much of a tendency for the light level to go up and down with the tempo or the number of dancers on view.

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Ballet Chicago Studio Company

Serenade/Rubies/Who Cares?

15 May 2011, 3 PM

Athenaeum Theater

Orchestra Row K Seat 9

I think I like watching Serenade with students, or at least young dancers, best of all. When the curtain first opens, one can spot the little gestures of nervousness, small disagreements about where to arrive in the beat, heads in disharmony, etc etc. What I love about this work is that in the most satisfying performances, we can observe the dancers lose their self-consciousness and their nervousness in the escalating music and choreography until they are wholly absorbed in movement.

The "Russian" couple (an always impressive Hamilton Nieh and Ellen Green, BC alumna) partnered well, but it wasn't always clear whether Ellen Green was dancing for her partner or for the audience. That outward projection of self was jarring after the mesmeric rush of corp bodies before it. I couldn't take my eyes off of Rachel Seeholzer's beautifully expansive dancing but was struck by her determinedly neutral (and sometimes almost pained) expression. She has a delightful smile in Who Cares?, performed later, and I wonder if there could be some acceptable medium between the two, particularly as expression (even in a Balanchine work) is an integral part of one's performance.

I think there was too much artifice in the lighting design in Serenade (and really throughout the performance). At times it was uncomfortably murky and at others it deflated the theatrical tension by calling our attention to particular dancers. Who matters? Why not let the audience determine that through the dancing on stage? This was unnecessarily heavy-handed stagecraft.

Rubies started off rather slowly, and I was actually concerned that the corp had run out of energy since Serenade. Jane Morgan is a coltish demi-soloist and shows promise in the role, but dances small without encouragement. Fortunately everyone got a shot of adrenaline from Matthew Renko in the Villella role. Unlike Villella, who rules with charisma and attack, this guy rules because his kung fu reigns supreme. Woe betide the man who tries to challenge him in a dance-off, because he'll never keep up. Rachel Jambois in the soloist role danced with wit and humor, does not quite hold her own when standing still. I've always read McBride's pose as compelling the audience to pay attention to _her_ even when Villella is dancing, Jambois tells us to look at Renko.

After seeing Who Cares?, I can honestly say that I've now met the nicest bunch of New Yorker corp girls. This was a gentle performance, but one danced with dedication and humor. Ellen Green was more effective here than in Serenade, though she does not yet smoulder in stillness as the role has potential for. Seeholzer was delighted in the jumping girl solo and Morgan danced clearly but has room to project more effectively. Ballet Chicago wisely united the cavalier roles for one danseuse (an ardent Ted Seymour, in the role as was originally performed at NYCB), and in the process magnified the Apollon imagery for at least this one observer.

[Cleaned up my post and named Seymour as the danseuse in Who Cares?]

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