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The first foray into Ballet Across America by the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts two years ago was such a success that this marvelous examination of the state of the art throughout the country was revived this year with a fresh set of nine companies performing three programs over six days in the Center’s beautiful Opera House. All but one of these companies are based in cities within the top 50 by population (2008 census figures) The first program included Charlotte’s (18th largest US city) North Carolina Dance Theatre frolicking through a dance by company artistic director Jean-Pierre Bonnefoux, and presented a chance to evaluate the North Carolina company in relation to its professional peers.
The evening opened with the Houston (4th largest city) Ballet performing an exquisite pure dance work by its artistic director, Stanton Welch. Falling begins with a couple downstage, standing carefully composed and placed in a large square of light on the stage floor. With a rélevé, they launch; as they leave the floor, the buoyant strains of Mozart rise from the pit (Ermanno Florio conducts the Kennedy Center Opera House Orchestra). Welch has combined movements from the “Salzburg Symphonies,” K.136 and K.138, for the five-section dance performed by five couples. Each pair wears sleek simple costuming in the same delicate color; when they change partners, there’s a feeling of a prism splitting light. The choreography does contain images of falling, but never in the sense that modern dancers would make them. Leaves would fall like this, or feathers, if they had the will and discipline. The rising, the leaping, the lifts, are all nearly as effortless, frothing like the music. The dancers’ elegant lines in the classic combinations are matched by their playful witty ways with the choreographer’s sweet unlikely inventions and variations on classical form. Falling is a lovely melding of music and motion.
All this delicate harmonious concord was followed by the Suzanne Farrell Ballet performing two short Balanchine works set to Stravinsky (conducted here by Scott Speck, with Glenn Sales as piano soloist). Monumentum pro Gesualdo (“Three Madrigals by Gesualdo, Recomposed for Instruments”) and Movements for Piano and Orchestra (music of the same title) were not created together, but have been consistently performed together since the mid-1960s. They now form a staple of the Suzanne Farrell Ballet, which is the house company of Washington’s (27th largest city) Kennedy Center, and which is dedicated to preserving and reconstructing the work of George Balanchine (Farrell was perhaps the dance master’s greatest muse). These are among Balanchine’s celebrated “black and white” ballets, so named for the plain rehearsal clothes worn by the dancers. Those have been gussied up just a little here, and the ballerinas’ satin pointe shoes were glisteningly new and white, so the sense of the dance as a job of work — no matter how beautiful or elegant, still work — is somewhat diminished. Monumentum pro Gesualdo was astonishingly rough in execution, with the worst, most ragged, ensemble lines I’ve ever seen in a professional ballet. Movements for Piano and Orchestra was far smoother in its presentation of the choreographer’s angular exploration of Stravinsky’s modern sounds, and far more successful in compelling audience attention.
After that somewhat dry centerpiece, the North Carolina Dance Theatre took the stage with a welcome gusto. Accompanied on stage by The Greasy Beans, an Asheville, NC, based bluegrass band, the 15 dancers flew toe-and-heel through Jean-Pierre Bonnefoux’s Shindig. Although not precisely a story ballet, Shindig is a series of seven vignettes, set to fiddle tunes and rousing songs like “Get Up John” and “Nine Pound Hammer.” The pleasant themes of boys and girls showing off for each other; of teasing and flirtation, chase and catch, fill the circles, squares and lines of these dances that draw both on the local idiom and on the classical steps of the French ballet tradition in which Bonnefoux matured before becoming a principal dancer in George Balanchine’s New York City Ballet. He’s been artistic director of the NCDT for 15 years now; this dance was composed in 2003, only after he’d been there long enough to absorb the glories of this Southern culture and do it justice.
The company performed this work in Charlotte last year, and they frequently perform it on tour, but there was nothing blasé in this performance. I’ve rarely seen them dance with such high spirits as they exhibited on opening night, and those spirits gave a little extra sizzle to the fast turns and fancy footwork (Alessandra Ball whipping out her fouettés in her sassy little square dance dress was a sight to see, and elicited a spontaneous ovation), and to the bodacious leaps by the local boys in straw hats, intent on showing us what they’ve got. From the sounds of the women in the audience, they were all the best. The versatile Traci Gilchrest (filling in for injured Sarah Hayes Watson), charmed every time she appeared, snapping through her turns, tossing her ponytail, and laughing with pleasure. In some ways, though, this show belongs to the mischievous Justin VanWeest, from Mebane, and the explosive David Ingram, from east Tennessee, who both seem to have a special affinity with the music. By the end, the entire audience was clapping along, having succumbed entirely to the sport of the thing, and the ovations, cheering and whistling went on and on until finally the stage manager ran the curtain down on the first stage of our dance around the country.