Monday, February 22, 2021

Diablo Ballet - "Balanchine & Beyond"

Amanda Farris and Raymond Tilton in
Who Cares?
Choreography by George Balanchine © The George Balanchine Trust 
Photo Aris Bernales
Diablo Ballet
Balanchine & Beyond
Streamed online Feb 19th-21st, 26th-28th

This past weekend, Diablo Ballet presented a new program as part of their twenty-seventh season, a lovely quadruple mixed bill of contemporary and classical dance. The four works of Balanchine & Beyond really spoke to the power of variety: portions from George Balanchine’s neo-classical Who Cares?; Penny Saunders’ contemporary duet Berceuse; a dramatic world premiere by company artist Michael Wells and Derion Loman; and excerpts from a historic ballet icon, The Sleeping Beauty. It was a charming program that only had one minor hiccup for me.

Created by Balanchine in 1970, Who Cares? is a delightful revue-style ballet, each short chapter set to a different George Gershwin musical selection. Staged for Diablo Ballet by Sandra Jennings, the work pairs sweeping romance with fun flirtation all while highlighting the tenets and characteristics of neo-classical movement. Unexpected step progressions; an innovative take on ballet vocabulary; and most of all, choreographic musicality. Amanda Farris’ jazz slide, pas de chat, entrechat quatre sequence in Stairway to Paradise married perfectly with the music, as did Olivia Powell’s relevé series and shoulder shimmies in Fascinating Rhythm. Farris, Theresa Knudson and Powell’s timing, which subtly toggled between unison and canon, and spacing in a small black box theater, impressed in I’ve Got Rhythm, which eventually grew to a quartet when the trio were joined by Donghoon Lee. The internal bows between each song were the only tricky spot, as they gave way to a bit of a stop-start feel. At the same time, each dance was scored by a different piece, so there had to be some degree of pause. Maybe it just could have been shorter.

Next up was Saunders’ Berceuse, a 2011 pas de deux that I first saw six years back on the DanceFAR benefit program. Danced at this performance by Jackie McConnell and Michael Wells, the contemporary duet is all about breath, suspension and directional intent. And definitely egalitarianism. McConnell begins with a solo phrase, which leads into partnering and unison (again, impressive synchronization) with Wells. Then, midway through the work, Wells takes his turn embodying that same phrase. Berceuse doesn’t feel particularly story-based or like it was relaying any linear narrative, but it does have an emotional charge. There’s an unmistakable tenderness between the couple and yet their hands seem to be continually reaching out for something else.

Then came the hiccup – the premiere of Wells and Loman’s Two One Self. I can’t stress strongly enough that the issue was not the choreography nor the dancing. My complication was that I wasn’t able to watch the piece because it was filmed with a shaky camera effect. Not all the time, but enough that it activated my motion sickness. And of course, that’s just my own personal thing; I’m sure most viewers had no problems whatsoever. 

Excerpts from Marius Petipa’s The Sleeping Beauty (1890) closed the Balanchine & Beyond program, staged for Diablo by Joanna Berman. Farris and Lee took on the principal roles of this Act III wedding with elegance and grace, joined by the rest of the company in the coda section. The entire scene was as grandly classical as could be. Pillowy port de bras, subtle epaulement and textbook positions of the body – arabesque, attitude and passé. And Roberto Vega-Ortiz’s fouetté combination was sheer majesty. 

Balanchine & Beyond continues next weekend!   

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