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January 18, 2008

UBallet battles winter blues with jazzed-up classic

Today, the dancers of the University Ballet of Chicago are dressed for the blustery weather, bundled up in wide-knit sweaters, leg warmers, and sweatpants. As temperatures continue to plummet this weekend, they’ll strip down to tutus, tights, and elf hats, bringing the winter wonderland indoors.

This weekend, UBallet will present a witty and whimsical winter performance, featuring two short ballets: Sur la Glace and Duke Ellington’s Nutcracker Suite. Stylistically, the two works are very different, but UBallet artistic director Robyn Gee affirmed that “the two halves are united by a festive theme.” Third-year dancer Rachel Knight agreed: “This performance has more of a unifying theme than some of our other shows have. Props and movements are referred to again and again throughout the course of this show. It all fits together.”

Initially, it doesn’t seem like it would. Sur la Glace, first staged by the Berkeley Ballet Theater and choreographer Corinne Jonas, depicts goofy and clumsy ice-rink antics, but is also a highly stylized classical ballet that incorporates the elegant lines of a skater. Though it is an anomaly in a realm of tearjerker pieces like Giselle, the humorous Sur la Glace is unquestionably a classical work. On the other hand, there is nothing classical about Ellington’s interpretation of the beloved holiday ballet. Full of Fosse-esque shoulder rolls and saxophones galore, “this is not the way you’ve seen the Nutcracker before,” says fourth-year Hannah Chazin.

That’s because The Nutcracker has never been performed like this before. As rehearsal director Natalie Jerkins explained, “We adapted the piece to fit our style.” The music might sound familiar, but the tunes are not the old favorites. Ellington reinterpreted Tchaikovsky’s compositions, and his score will be played live by the Jazz X-Tet. The feisty choreography is also a far cry from the original by Marius Petipa. While

there is no Sugar Plum Fairy to be found, there are some Sugar Rum Cherries. This version is sweeter, saucier, and simply more exciting. Ellington’s jazzy score is as cool as the Chicago winter, but the student choreography is hot enough to melt the ice.

Student choreographers such as third-year Kat Lieder infused their pieces with sassy burlesque movements that resemble nothing in the traditional vocabulary of contemporary ballet. Still, even ballerinas like first-years Meredith Spoto and Alana Podolsky don’t seem out of their element pouting and throwing punches over Michael Scalzo in Lieder’s “Arabian II.” The playful power struggle doesn’t look like classical ballet, but it sure looks like fun, and the dancers pull it off.

“Doing our own choreography allows us to use dancers’ unique traits and talents,” said Arsineh Ananian, a law student making her UBallet debut. “We added the piece ‘The Competition’ in Sur la Glace, because it enabled us to feature more dancers at a variety of skill levels, and to include more character acting,” added Jerkins. When student choreography is infused with movements from jazz or modern vocabulary, every dancer can shine in her element. Enthusiastic newcomers with less knowledge of classical ballet can excel in more expressive, less stylized numbers like “Peanut Brittle Brigade,” choreographed by third-year Sara Smithback. “Some of the dances sprung from or were based on the cast and what each dancer does best,” added first-time choreographer Amelia Baxter-Stolzfus.

The collaboration with the Jazz X-tet, directed by Mwata Bowden, is a first for UBallet. Most UBallet performances have been danced to a recording, so the live music took some getting used to. “Ellington’s music just says things like ‘trombone solo,’ and then the musicians improvise, so the music we practiced to is not just like the music we’re performing to,” said Gee.

Though dancing to live music certainly poses some challenges, it’s exciting for both the performers and the audience. “It’s cool, because the musicians are right in front of the stage, not hidden in a pit,” said Ananian. The musicians are just as much a part of the show—and the visual spectacle—as the dancers are, and together, they’ll bring down the house. The holiday season might be over, but ’tis the season to be dancing!

Tickets for the show are $10, $5 with UCID.