February 13, 2004

University Ballet: no dirty dancing, but you'll have the time of your life

Glimmering girls and boys with bits of rhinestones over their satiny fabric will all spin in Mandel Hall this weekend to the clockwork provided by George Balanchine. Balanchine, born in St. Petersburg in 1904, brought ballet to America in 1933 at the behest of the visionary Lincoln Kirstein. Balanchine had choreographed for impresario Diaghilev's Ballets Russes in Paris. His derring-do, in a good season, made him the toast of the town; in alternate seasons, he was too infuriatingly modern. He decided to put his chips on Kirstein's sketchy dream to inaugurate a tradition of ballet in the States. When he arrived in New York, he was confronted with the truth: hardly any money, certainly no ready audience, and worst of all, pear-shaped dancers in one-piece bathing costumes. From these humble beginnings, Balanchine went on to found a school and a company, the New York City Ballet, which was to be his home for the next fifty years.

The University Ballet's A Tribute to Balanchine presents selections for those as weary of classical ballet as Balanchine was. This program features Walpurgisnacht, as well as selections from Who Cares?, Wrens, Apollo, and Stars and Stripes. This is an ambitious program for a group of student dancers, but the company's 30 members tackle them with verve and high style. The reprieve the Balanchine program offers the brainy Hyde Park community is the turn away from text. Don't look for stories here; these are pieces of purely visual delight—and this sampler is an appealing amuse bouche for their full-length fares. Just enjoy the stage pictures: the bouncy, stacked-plate skirts of Stars and Stripes and the writhing purple caterpillar formations of Walpurgisnacht.

Stars and Stripes thumbs its nose at classical ballet, coupling irreverent shimmies and coarse stretches at the barre with the salutes expected of Sousa marches. The jazzy pieces are well represented here—we see a bit of Balanchine's Broadway choreography in Who Cares?, a medley set to Gershwin standards. Patrick Monhan's ballet steps slide into jazzy, soft-shoe footwork playfully, if not a bit demonically. The other soloists in this segment (Lincoln Ferguson, Anna Brady, and Anne Pretz) are all skilled in this difficult technique, able to release their elbows and shift the X of the body into the asymmetrical, bent-chromosome shapes of signature Balanchine. Some demure dancing in Allison Atteberry and Albert Plenty's duet hardly undercuts their chemistry, traced by the reedy oboe and punctuated by some daring lifts. Wrens, though pure fluff, is Mr. B at his yummiest—you won't believe he hauled out the naval regalia for this bit of eye-candy!

The meat and potatoes of the evening was Apollo. Originally staged by the Ballets Russes in 1928, Apollo was Igor Stravinsky and Balanchine's first true collaboration. Balanchine identified it as the piece that launched his career. Perhaps not insignificantly, the piece is a metaphor for dance itself and the muse Balanchine found in Stravinsky. The muses here (danced by Antoinette Klimek, Irene Hsiao and Samantha LaPeter) animate Apollo, and he awakens as if pulled by a single strand of hair. Conjoined by interlocking arms (imagine a graceful round of Twister), Apollo and the muses scuttle across the stage as a complex chariot. They unravel and form a more perfect union, hitching themselves to each other as Apollo sonambulently points the way to Olympus. Apollo is beautifully danced throughout, but this final tableau which welds god and muse actually raised goosebumps.

The company also deserves praise for their efforts in preparing these pieces. Balanchine choreography is passed down from his disciples to younger students as oral tradition. Some of the company members were themselves trained by Balanchine-trained dancers. But this doesn't make the task of transcribing his choreography from films of his productions any easier. This type of arrangement is painstaking work, especially when you can't cue movements to exact measures (as in Apollo). The one shame of the evening is their use of taped music which brings with it all the infelicities and expectorations of previous crowds. With any luck, the Mandel audiences won't hear those over their own applause. Treat yourself to a rare opportunity to see Balanchine in this city performed by a group of nervy dancers in close-ups hard to catch elsewhere, and give them the ovation they so well deserve.

A Tribute to Balanchine runs February 13-14 at 8:00 p.m. in Mandel Hall.