NCDT gives festival twist to staid classics

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Photos by Adam Birkan.

Jane Vranish | Guest Reviewer

Ballet is a decidedly aristocratic art form, born in the courts of Europe and still, even today, laced with proper positions and bows. Major European ballet groups in Paris, London and Moscow each have precise stylistic proportions and repertoires that are embedded in the history of the art form.

So it is fun to watch how American companies have taken a formal and often staid dance format and given it their own twist, which local audiences can see in an open air, festival-like setting such as Chautauqua’s Amphitheater. However, they thankfully have not often had to deal with cool temperatures such as those seen at the surprisingly terrific — given the circumstances — final performance of North Carolina Dance Theatre and Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra, expertly conducted by Grant Cooper.

As it so happened, most of the music ironically provided European classical underpinnings for the choreography — Beethoven, Tchaikovsky, Haydn — each of which the CSO handled with a rich interpretation.

Tchaikovsky was presented in the most historical context, with Lev Ivanov’s original choreography for “White Swan,” as staged by Sasha Janes. Anna Gerberich showed tremendous growth since her initial performance of the piece in July.

Ardently partnered by Addul Manzano, Gerberich demonstrated from the start a new vulnerability as she softly fluttered to the floor. That is the hallmark of this pas de deux — to appear almost boneless during the wing-like porte bras. It translated into slower, more luxurious phrasing as well and, oddly enough, more authority, although the portion following the split lifts still seemed to be rushed.

Janes also created a world premiere, “Playground Teasers,” set to movements from assorted Haydn symphonies. He apparently engaged a group of 5-year-olds to come up with the title.

After all, with the sprightly nature of the Austrian composer’s compositions, it was almost natural for Janes to capitalize on their playful accents. And the stage often serves as a virtual playground for dancers to engage with audiences and one another.

Janes might have channeled the frisky and energetic interplay of his own children and their friends as well. The piece began with seven couples, the women hidden behind the men. There was an easy peekaboo drop, but then the women suddenly tickled the men, who turned to the audience. It was obviously “game on.”

That could be interpreted as an odd little allusion to Haydn’s “Surprise” symphony, where the second movement, so soft and dainty, is interrupted by a robust chord, ostensibly to wake up any mental drifters in the audience.

No such problem here. There was more — a lot more — to come from Janes’ overactive imagination. A kittenish supported arabesque. Some flirting. Then, the dancers grabbed hands and whirled around, at which point the men were flung into the wings.

The women bobbed around by themselves for a while. But soon there were brief relationships, a kiss, then some jealousy and competition. The whirligig returned, and the women flew off.

And that was just the first movement.

The second section toned things down, using three couples where the partnering was, at first, deliciously off-kilter. Then, all of a sudden, things got crowded, with a jungle gym of lifts, muddying the choreographic waters.

That seemed to be the theme — an over-proliferation of ideas. By the third movement, there were rollicking rolls on the floor, followed by some cowboys and Indians. Interactions and reactions abounded. In the finale, the stagehands got involved, with some unorthodox lifts and unorthodox duets in the spotlight. Gerberich played it to the hilt as she chased and tried to “capture” the elusive beam around the stage.

Fun is fun, within certain limits. A little too cute for itself, this “Playground” ultimately turned into a trip to the candy store, where both dancers and audience gorged themselves.

On the other hand, Mark Diamond took a clearly adult approach to “Maestoso,” set to the first movement of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9. The instructions indicate Allegro ma non troppo, un poco maestoso, literally translated as “At a brisk lively tempo, a little majestic.”

Diamond chose to explore the idea of majesty, “to disguise or enhance our true selves, to create a sense of exaggerated importance or discrete attraction.” He also liberally used red and black cloaks to latch on to that regal sensibility.

The piece began with David Morse leaping to the fore. Each of three women would appear, pulsing in place, gathering force. They would pair off with men, sometimes cleverly manipulating a partner’s cape. The men, in turn, stomped and pawed the ground like stallions.

The dancers all revolved around a sense of self-importance, induced by the billowing capes — sometimes connected, sometimes cascading like waves. They also seemed to symbolize passion and ambition, coming to a head when Gerberich was lifted aloft at a dramatic conclusion.

It was only fitting that NCDT and CSO closed out the season with an encore of their obviously all-American piece, “An American in Paris,” one of Diamond’s and composer George Gershwin’s most successful works. In Gene Kelly’s iconic movie, this served as the centerpiece ballet, a condensation of the movie itself.

Here it stood alone, with both the dance and the music projecting a Parisian landscape — although it would have been great to have a scrim behind them with projections. Nonetheless, it was filled with a bevy of characters inhabiting the bustling City of Lights. A policeman and poodles. A shopper and showgirls.

On a second viewing, the lead characters really popped out of this colorful choreographic book. The American, Frederick Leo Walker II, was hungry to absorb the new world around him, yet put his own mark on it with a series of brilliant jumps. His love affair with a French Girl, Jamie Dee, seemed more passionate, she more alluring. And Jordan Leeper’s bounding Maître d’ added a twizzle to it all, like a modern day Lèonide Massine.

Yes, the NCDT dancers showcased their own individuality, but they have applied that to everything they have performed this season. And audiences have learned to respond to the ideas of diversity, personality and energy and simply join in the celebration.

Jane Vranish is a former dance critic for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and continues there as a contibuting writer. Her stories can be read on the dance blog “Cross Currents” at

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  1. On Stage: A Spirited Conclusion to the Chautauqua Season. « CrossCurrents

    […] There’s always a powerhouse end to the Chautauqua dance season as Chautauqua’s School of Dance produces a student-driven Choreographic Workshop, often with live music from Chautauqua program participants, on Friday afternoon. Then North Carolina Dance Theatre joins with the Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra on Saturday night and Chautauqua’s School of Dance students strut their stuff on Sunday afternoon. It’s a win-win situation as parents not only get to see their own children, but the quality of the program and, with a weekend stay, the professional resources of NCDT. (You can read the NCDT review and see the accompanying photo slideshow by clicking on The Chautauquan Daily.) […]

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