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The DanceView Times, Washington, D.C. edition

From Miami, Spunky Balanchine and Villella's The Neighborhood Ballroom

The Neighborhood Ballroom and Balanchine
Miami City Ballet
Center for the Arts, George Mason University
Fairfax, Virginia
April 24 at 8 PM and April 25, 2004 at 2 PM

by George Jackson
copyright 2004 by George Jackson
published 26 April 2004

Edward Villella's Miami Balanchine is fun, and not quite like Balanchine by anyone else— not Peter Martins' at New York City Ballet, Francia Russell's at Pacific Northwest Ballet, Helgi Tomasson's at San Francisco Ballet, Arthur Mitchell's at Dance Theatre of Harlem, Suzanne Farrell's at Kennedy Center, or even like Balanchine's own used to be. Differences are inevitable due to each director's individuality and the natural divergence of evolving traditions.

That doesn't mean that it doesn't matter how Balanchine ballets are danced and how Balanchine technique is used. Performances must be interesting enough so that audiences want to come back for further looks. Also, a good portion of each ballet's original purpose, something of its essence, ought to be apparent. Arguable, of course, is what constitutes essence and what accident. Balanchine made the ballerina role in Ballo della Regina for a particular dancer, Merrill Ashley. She had specific attributes. One was height; Ashley looked tall, or at least long legged. Miami City Ballet cast short Mary Carmen Catoya as the ballerina. How necessary is height in this instance? Can a short dancer convey the requisite regality? Are technical challenges different enough for short and tall dancers so that the entire ballet acquires a different appearance? If so, might not some short dancers have attributes that will counteract their handicap?

Miami's Balanchine looks young, younger than Balanchine's own did from the late 1940s into the early 1980s. It isn't as sophisticated and subtle, nor as diversified. It is, however, not just fun but also sharp, smart and honest. First on Sunday afternoon was Ballo della Regina, a divertissement in the manner of Giuseppe Verdi's day and set to his music. Miami didn't bring Ballo off as well as the Balanchine ballets that followed—Stravinsky Violin Concerto and Rubies (also to a Stravinsky score).

Ballo displays virtuosity in order to exhilarate the audience and challenge the dancers. Technical bravura is epitomized in the ballerina role, yet the leading male role has both fireworks and yearning. Textures such as the mystery of the sea's depths and the pomp of royal ceremonial surface briefly in the Verdi music and are captured in the choreography. Catoya's shorter stature didn't register the ballerina's odd, fresh angularity of body positions optimally. More critical, though, was that she appeared to be tense, was muscularly tight in the legs and didn't really seem to be enjoying herself. Mikhail Ilyin, as the danseur, had a high jump and good turns but should have tried for more snap and edge. As partner to Catoya, though courtly, he failed to suggest that this man was in search of an ideal. Nor did the four female soloists and the sprightly, all female corps hint at enough of the music's imagery. One could see the steps clearly, but seldom the 19th Century reasons behind them.

The other two Balanchine ballets on the program were modernist works and Miami City Ballet looked at home in them. In Violin Concerto, the two lead women, Deanna Seay (smart phrasing, muscularly a bit stringy) and Jennifer Kronenberg (lush plastique, much passion), and the two lead mean, Isanusi Garcia-Rodriguez and Carlos Guerra, did justice to the ballet's tensions and sexual innuendos. Miami opted for a lighter reading of choreography that can be given darker shadings.

Rubies has to be performed lightly. It is commedia del' arte updated. Kronenberg danced and acted the ballerina role as if bent on mischiefover the top, but brilliantly. Renato Penteado's danseur matched her technically, yet went the opposite way as a character. He was timid when he needed to be bold. Andrea Spiridonakos had the necessary length of leg and allegro ability for the part of the "singles" girl, but wasn't yet fully secure in unsupported adagio nor sufficiently emphatic in the deep plies. The men and women of the corps showed spunk.

Saturday evening's Neighborhood Ballroom was a hit with the audience. It has 4 acts plus an epilogue and comes with three intermissions. At 2 hours and 40 minutes, it seemed long to me and not fully realized. At heart, Ballroom is a collection of social dances from different eras, "numbers" that are based on the late 19th Century waltz and three 20th Century modelsthe jazzy quick step, the smooth fox trot and the pulsing mambo. To tie all those samples together, there is a "backstory" (by Pamela Gardiner) reminiscent of The Tales of Hoffmann, except that the poet who seeks true love seems more like F. Scott Fitzgerald than E.T.A. Hoffmann. We meet him first at age 17 in a Belle Epoque cafe, again in a jazz age joint when he is in his 20s, then in chic Hollywood when he and the 20th Century are in their 40s, and finally as an old roue in a Latin nightclub not so long ago. He is eternally attracted to femmes fatales that come in different flavors. Predictably, they reject him, each in turn, so he remains perpetually aloneexcept for the slightly sinister chauffeur he has hired away from one of them. The poet also has a muse, but she is elusive.

Villella, Ballroom's principal choreographer, and Frank Regan, who helped with matters of period authenticity and style, have incorporated clever things in almost every scene. There is cross-dressing in the jazz joint, display of male bravura in Hollywood, and stunt partnering in the Latin club. The dance material is varied from act to act, yet the overall dynamic turns out to be much the same no matter which era. There are numbers that tease but don't really satisfy, especially the waltzes which begin and end without really climaxing. Nevertheless, the cast relished the many good roles. Yann Trividic's poet danced big and aged subtlely, using movement and not just makeup. His old poet with the stiffly angled but aggressive epaulement was particularly apt. Three of the femmes fatales made strong impressionsCatoya as a jazz age flapper, Kronenberg as a movie star and Iliana Lopez as the Latin nightclub queen. Smaller parts, too were juicy, such as Evan Unks' chauffeur and Franklin Gamero's Latin nightclub king, The one ungrateful assignment was Deanna Seay's as the muse. It is the ballet's only pointe role, yet she is given practically nothing to do.

Originally published:
Volume 2, Number 15
April 26, 2004

© 2004 George Jackson




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