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Jack Reed

2019 Spring Repertory May 11 in the Harris Theater: choreography by Duell, Seymour, Balanchine

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What we hear here of Engelbert Humperdinck's music for Hansel and Gretel turns out to have pretty good substance - he seems to have picked up from his teacher Richard Wagner some of Wagner's prodigious musical powers while leaving behind Wagner's habit of unendurable bombastic proclamation - so that this score is quite listenable.  

Dan Duell, Ballet Chicago's AD, told us from the stage that we were not only going to hear a shortened version, about 35 minutes, of the 85-minute orchestration of Humperdinck's opera commissioned by Ballet Chicago in 1993, we would hear it played by an orchestra of members of the Chicago Symphony and the Lyric Opera orchestras hired and recorded by Ballet Chicago.  Ballet Chicago's standards of musical performance have always been high; I gather Duell is a musician himself.

In Duell's choreography, Humperdinck's music sometimes advances the plot line but more often expands on the mood or tone of a situation, whether lighter or lyrical, as when the two siblings give up their work of making brooms and play - or dance, this being ballet - or heavy and threatening, as when Hansel confronts the Wolf in defense of his sister, or when Gretel picks up the Witch's broom, which we have seen is the instrument of the Witch's power, and turns it on the Witch herself, triumphing over the evil woman and altering the mood and character of the whole forest population, celebrated in dances by creatures large and small.     

Something happened between the matinee and evening performances which made more vivid and clear the menacing role of the Witch at the later performance  - it's part balletic and part dramatic:  With her upper body Katherine Alvarado was sinister or exultant meanwhile stepping boldly about on her pointes with great clarity and maintaining strong line, making her bizarre role more formidable and hair-raising than she had in the earlier one, and with that, the whole scene, including the other roles surrounding and following hers, had more point.

With Vivaldi and Bach both represented on the program, you might think this company was leaning Baroque-Classical oriented.  Think again.  

Partly to a Vivaldi oboe concerto, the second dance, Ted Seymour's LongLivingLine, tells you it's another world far from Balanchine's famous Concerto Barocco - itself concluding the program - when it begins, allegro, with the female cast extending across the stage in a double line, you know where you are, not just because the girls are all facing upstage, some supporting themselves a little casually on their right leg with their left foot to the side, but because a few also have their right forearms draped over the tops of their heads.  

Some "found" casual elements, like those arms, recur; at one point, two girls bend out of formation to look into each others' grinning faces as though to share some secret amusement.

In the second movement, to Vivaldi's adagio, the line - or most of it - moves upstage into dimmer light to form a corps backing downstage solo dancing.  In the third movement, to Aphex Twin, the double line dissolves and reforms into groups and reforms again across the stage.  

Originally, there were half as many in the cast, when the ballet premiered on the smaller stage of the Athenaeum Theater, which I saw in a publicity-video montage, and I'd say it benefits by the greater numbers and space and new costumes.

Seymour's Danzon! opens with the small cast - three girls and two boys - spread across the stage space, seen in profile against a sunset backdrop.  The lights come up, and we see some social interaction as though in the street or a plaza, in rapidly changing groups or solos; a girl may dance with two boys for a few moments, then put both of them away from her and dance alone.  Credit to Dana Coons, Nina Montalbano, Emma Wittig, Paris Stigger and Elliott Nunez populating the large stage with movement. 

With Seymour's perceptive choreography, Arturo Marquez's "Danzon No. 2," plainly intended for dancing, or at least inspired by it, seems to intend these passing developments, these associations and separations, with its many passages for solo instruments.  Very listenable, this music is said in Wikipedia to be among the most popular contemporary classical compositions in Mexico.  I wasn't surprised by that. 

In Concerto Barocco, what made guest artist Simone Messmer's performance powerful and gave it great effect is not any showy exaggeration but on the contrary its greater fullness within phrase shape; Nina Montalbano's phrasing is only a little simpler, and only a little diminished by that, but of the same essentially modest kind; a close pair, these two, as suits this ballet.  (Messmer is credited in the program as Principal with Miami City Ballet as well as summer faculty with Ballet Chicago.) 

In the great adagio, guest and Ballet Chicago alum Jordan Nelson, Messmer's partner, continued to provide everything she needed, as he had in the preview.  (Nelson is credited with St. Louis Ballet.)  And the eight girls were as lively, sharp and luminous as required.  Staged by Patricia Blair, Dan Duell's wife, an alumna of SAB and of the Eglevsky Ballet when the AD was Edward Villella, among other distinctions.  Superb performances:  After the evening show, a man behind me asked, "Is this intermission?"  "Do you want more?" I asked.  He nodded, smiling, saying, "I want more!"  

Edited by Jack Reed
correcting the name of the theater

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