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Spreckels Theatre
Sunday, May 13, 2007


That City Ballet of San Diego would have an investment in the works of George Balanchine seems to be a given. After all, the company’s name is a mere appropriation and rearrangement of the renowned New York City Ballet that Balanchine co-founded and on whom he created his many masterpieces, three of which were presented this past weekend at the Spreckels Theatre downtown by the local City Ballet company.

In addition to name similarities, connections to Balanchine at City Ballet run deeper. Artistic director Steven Wistrich was personally coached by the late Balanchine, who died nearly 25 years ago, leaving a legacy as the most prolific and influential ballet choreographer of the 20th century. Unfortunately for San Diegans, his works are rarely seen in this corner of the country. Thus, City Ballet’s program was not just an entertaining evening of solid dancing, but a bit of a nice history lesson for dance fans as well.

In a city where a large majority of dance performances – of any genre – are original choreographic creations by local artists, the presentation of classic repertory works (the three ballets presented all premiered between 1934 and 1957) is ambitious. After all, undertaking works by Balanchine inevitably invite comparisons to New York City Ballet, and other highly regarded companies. Yet City Ballet faced the challenge admirably. While the performances lacked some polish and at times the dancers seemed a bit overwhelmed by the material, ultimately the company did justice to the careful architecture that defined Balanchine’s neoclassical style.

The performance opened with “Serenade”, an enchanting work set to the music of Tchaikovsky. The curtain rose on a stage full of women in white leotards and flowing white skirts, framed by a brilliant blue backdrop. The woman stood still, looking off in the distance, one arm outstretched as the simple yet effective image sank in. Slowly, the women brought their arms down to rest gently on their foreheads. The gesture was elegant yet the resulting image foreshadowed heartache and woe, lending a dark overtone to the brightness on stage.

The ensemble performed the precise symmetry of the choreography well. The layers of Balanchine’s work provided a rich visual experience that forced the audience to constantly shift focus and follow the dancers around the entire stage. One particularly satisfying section involved a linked quintet that weaved in and out to create various shapes and designs. The transparent skirts became almost characters on their own as they floated through the space, contrasting sharply with the backdrop, manipulated by each step of the choreography. At times, it seemed the costumes created a fog across the stage that engulfed the women as if they were dancing through clouds.

Yet the light and airy romantic feeling of the work soon dissolved into darkness when the ensemble abruptly exited the stage leaving Ariana Samuelsson thrown to the ground, her hair out of its tight bun and splayed across the floor. Richard Bowman was led in, blinded by the hand of Janica Smith, as he slowly approached the body on the ground. Smith then piqued to arabesque where she was spun around slowly giving the illusion that she was rotating without assistance, though Bowman’s hidden hands supported her leg. The graceful rotations were steady and the classic image was well executed.

The work departed further from its more playful beginning with a series of duets and quartets in which several women vied for the affection of the sole man. Samuelsson and Smith were joined by Megan Coatney as the three women, their loose hair whipping around them, took turns partnering with Bowman. After being accustomed to the sleek buns that are typically seen in ballets, the long hair used in this section was an effective prop that, like the flowing skirts, became an additional visual tool that heightened the drama and helped convey the desperation of the women. Once again on the floor, Samuelsson looked on as Bowman was led away, blinded by the hand of another woman; oblivious to the suffering of the one he left behind. In mourning over her loss, Samuelsson was consoled by other women and, in an image as striking as the opening one, is carried through two rows of women, arms outstretched, as she moves toward the fading light.

The romance of “Serenade” was then contrasted by the sharp, angular style of “Agon”, another famous Balanchine ballet that premiered in 1957. Set to the music of Stravinsky, a frequent collaborator of Balanchine’s, “Agon” is a non-narrative ballet consisting of twelve dancers who interact in various combinations of duos, trios, and quartets.

The work began with a male quartet in which Taurean Green, who will be officially joining City Ballet next season, stepped in for the injured Gerardo Gil. Though Green proved to be a rich and expressive dancer, his late addition to the group was apparent in the lack of cohesion among the quartet. The series of female quartets and combinations of duets and trios that followed all featured the intriguing fragmented choreography but failed to compare to the highlight of the piece which was the stunning duet between Samuelsson and Ivan Bielik. Glaring at the audience as if in defiance or challenge, Samuelsson’s detached expression was alluring. But it was her impossible extensions that really drew the eye, supported with strength and stability by Bielik who impressively manipulated her body in the intricate and controlled pas de deux.

The confidence displayed by Samuelsson and Bielik would have been well served on several of the other members of the cast. The pas de trois at the beginning of the work felt rushed and unfocused and often times the heavy concentration of the dancers all too clearly showed on their faces. Balanchine’s choreography can look deceptively simple when performed well, but here the complexity and physical demand of the technique was evident, thus demystifying the illusion of ease.

The show concluded with “Divertimento No. 15”, paired with the lush music of Mozart. Compared to the simple white skirts of “Serenade” and the understated black and white costumes of “Agon”, the ornate tutus of “Divertimento” for the women and the elaborate jackets for the men were a bit unexpected.

The structure of the work felt very similar to “Serenade” with its favoring of nice shapes and clear symmetry. Yet unlike “Serenade”, which introduced a poignant story, “Divertimento” maintained a consistency of speed and dynamics that never went beyond being merely pleasant. After the drama of “Serenade” and the intrigue of “Agon”, the last piece didn’t feel quite as provocative or compelling. Nevertheless, there were some nice moments such as Bowman’s solid double tours, and Bielik’s strong yet elegant phrases.

Overall, City Ballet offered up a strong program from an iconic choreographer. There is a reason Balanchine is so celebrated and his works have survived for nearly three quarters of a century. He created impeccably crafted works and introduced an entirely new movement vocabulary to ballet, bringing it safely into the modern era. While his works are in the repertory of nearly every major ballet company in the world, San Diegans remain relatively unexposed to them, save for the efforts of City Ballet. For producing his works, and for competently executing them, the company ought to be commended.