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Gala of International Ballet Stars 2003

'The Sleeping Beauty' Pas De Deux
'Twist'
'Dracula'
'Who Dressed You Like a Foreigner?'
'Pisces'
'Black Swan' Pas De Deux
'Tides of Mind'
'Le Corsaire' Pas De Deux
'Dying Swan'
'Dialogues'
'Onegin' Act III Pas de Deux
'Stealing Light'
'Don Quixote' Pas de Deux

by Marisa Hayes

August 9, 2003 -- Arnoff Center, Cincinnati, Ohio

The state of Ohio knows how to welcome world-class dancers. If I had been blindfolded at the second annual Gala of International Ballet Stars on August 9 in Cincinnati's Arnoff Center, which followed the successful Columbus premiere at the Ohio Theatre, I would've guessed that I was in a sports arena. Replace the shouts of "go team go" with "bravo," and you just might capture the kind of enthusiasm that radiated from Ohio theaters last weekend.

Featuring fourteen works by imminent choreographers and dancers representing ten prestigious companies worldwide, the gala program offered a geographical overview of ballet, past and present as well as an unforgettable evening of classic standards and contemporary innovations.

Houston Ballet principals Mireille Hassenboehler and Simon Ball opened the performances with Ben Stevenson's third act "Sleeping Beauty" pas de deux, and immediately established a standard of excellence. The technically superb couple displayed a confident partnership as Ball, a new transplant from Boston Ballet, guided Hassenboehler through a series of intricate, supported turns. Stevenson's choreography calls for unique phrasing and precision timing. Soft sustained arabesques were often followed by surprising accents, or sharp changes in direction, showing Hassenboehler at her best: fluid, articulate, and self-assured.

Kellye Saunders and Donald Williams (Dance Theatre of Harlem) took the stage in Dwight Rhoden's abstract, emotional odyssey "Twist." Set to music by Antonio Carlos Scott, the partnering is violent and combative, punctuated by recurring 90-degree extensions and confrontational lifts, followed by brief moments of quiet surrender. Saunders and Williams wove in and out of each other's arms via innovative shifts in weight, creating an exciting dynamic between use of the floor and airborne lifts. More than a few hearts were pounding as Saunders' compact body brushed against the floor in a generous forward bend, then recovered in an ever-shifting overhead lift. But the most successful moments of "Twist" were not only found in daring lifts and incredible extensions, but also in the simple beauty of Saunders and Williams walking behind one another in unison, with heads lifted, slanted towards a narrow path of light. These brief windows of respite allowed audiences to see Saunders and Williams' emotional range. Saunders' performance was a true success. Her regal air commanded attention, while Williams, a solid partner, projects a calm but firm dignity that is not as forceful as Saunders' presence, but nonetheless memorable.

Saunders and Williams later returned in "Dialogues," a contemporary work choreographed by Ohio native Glen Tetley. Set to Alberto Ginestera's Piano Concerto #1, "Dialogues" provides a glimpse into the world of our everyday interactions, the possibilities as they unfold, and the ways in which small nuances create tides of change. Unfortunately the piece suffered from John McFarlane's distracting costumes, whose unattractive cut and color combination gave Williams an unfair disadvantage. Costumes aside, Saunders and Williams displayed crystalline technique and audience members were more than happy to welcome the pair back to the stage in their second appearance. Full of subtle changes and shifts, the work's intensity stems from the continued interplay that unfolded throughout. Like the curves on a road map, "Dialogues" left no room for predictability. New shapes and patterns emerge in surprising directions, as the dancers continued to move in very close proximity, never parting more than a few feet.

The night of August 8, Ballet Met Columbus performed "Group Therapy," a jazzy jive that takes a humorous look at the ups and downs of therapy. Harrison McEldowney's piece opens with metal folding chairs arranged in a semi circle. Four couples take turns expressing their current plight. Issues related to addiction, chronic fatigue syndrome, and romance are examined during a series of vintage blues tunes sung by various artists. Derek Sakakura was a true crowd pleaser during his energetic performance as the boyfriend of a nicotine addict. Showcasing acrobatic flips and leaps, the boyfriend rejects a young woman unable to give up her love of smoking. Sakakura wowed the crowd with his gymnastic talent but proved himself a great actor as well, displaying an unmistakable sassy attitude.

On August 9, Cincinnati audiences saw dancers from Ballet Met Columbus in a pas de deux from David Nixon's "Dracula." Nixon's choreography borrows largely from various modern dance genres including contact improvisation, as demonstrated during the opening sequence, which began with dancers Elizabeth Zengara and Jimmy Orante climbing over each another, inches from the floor, shifting and sharing weight to support the other.

Nixon's interpretation of "Dracula" is refreshingly quiet. There are no melodramatic elements to remind audiences of B-grade horror flicks. Instead Nixon relies on emotional subtext. The "Dracula" pas de deux is a romantic interlude, characterized by feelings of tenderness, fear and desire. Zengara and Orante were thoughtful actors, possessing the ideal degree of subtlety and Arvo Part's music enhanced the piece's quiet yet potent feel. As "Dracula" progressed, Zengara's fluid technique and finely arched feet remained impressive.

"Who Dressed You Like a Foreigner?" featured four dancers from Alonzo King's LINES Contemporary Ballet Company. King is a great risk-taker, and the bold choreography of "Who Dressed You Like a Foreigner?" holds true to his successful blend of ballet and contemporary dance styles. LINES Contemporary Ballet dancers are perfectly sculpted, sleek and articulate movers. Outstretched arms, swiveled hips and aggressive jumps characterized their gutsy movements. Tabla master Zakir Hussain's score set the tone for a perfect blend of athleticism and artistry. Audiences were visibly impressed by Xavier Ferla's brief solo, which he executed with amazing speed and precision in time to the rapidly increasing beats of tabla drumming. Prince Credell and Brett Conway gave equally impressive performances in a duet following Ferla and Laurel Keen's brief but outstanding moment on stage, leaving audiences hoping for more.

Fortunately, Keen returned later alongside Conway in King's duet "Stealing Light." Although it projects a softer feel than "Who Dressed You Like a Foreigner?" this memorable piece was no less bold or evocative. King is a master of dynamic pattern-making and "Stealing Light" is a never-ending stream of alluring images. A melancholy feeling washed over the stage as Keen and Conway began hand-in-hand yet distanced from one another. Facing opposite directions, Keen's opening stance was tall while Conway remained on the floor. Samuel Barber's mournful music followed the pair as they danced together and apart, sometimes yielding to the other and at times drifting onward alone. At first hesitant and then with growing confidence, Keen's expressive exit was memorable, her intensity real.

Stuttgart Ballet dancers Ivan Cavallari and Bridget Breiner appeared twice on the program, first in the intriguing "Pisces"(with choreography and costumes by Cavallari) and then in the third act pas de deux from John Cranko's "Onegin."  "Pisces," a dark contemporary fantasy, in which a
fisherman briefly interacts with a mermaid caught in his net, provided the perfect showcase for Breiner, who held nothing back during tricky falls and recoveries on pointe. Both Cavallari and Breiner are versatile dancers who succeeded in creating a mysterious mood for "Pisces" followed by impeccable acting in "Onegin." Breiner is a perfect technician and appeared flawless both Friday and Saturday nights. Although slightly idiosyncratic, Cavallari is interesting to watch with a unique and captivating personality on stage.

The Black Swan pas de deux was the showcase for the much-anticipated partnership of the Bolshoi's Anastasya Meskova and the Kirov's Ilya Kuznetsov, and it did not disappoint. Meskova's turns were pure brilliance; seasoned ballet-goers knew when the infamous thirty-two fouettes were approaching and watched with bated breath. Meskova's clean, quick, turns surpassed expectations. Tchaikovsky's score was barely audible over the thundering applause that accompanied each virtuoso moment of Meskova and Kuznetsov's performance. Ballet enthusiasts may recall that during Swan Lake's Act Three, a desperate Odette flaps her wings at the palace window. For a moment the prince is confused, but Odile successfully convinces him (for a time) that she is his true love. Although visually Odette's brief appearance was missing from the excerpt seen on Friday and Saturday nights, Kuznetsov created the moment for audiences beautifully. Despite the lack of sets, cast, and other elements that a full staging entails, Meskova and Kuznetsov successfully constructed the story. With such artistry comes great impact, and their performances elicited a standing ovation from the audience.

In a departure from the technical, seductive showmanship of the Black Swan, Meskova displayed more artistry in Michel Fokine's "The Dying Swan," a short, dream-like piece that demonstrated the power of quiet beauty. Illuminated by a single spotlight, Meskova traveled white and ghost-like across the dimly lit stage with quick bourrees and transcendent arms. "The Dying Swan" is a showcase for the soft expressive arms of a true ballerina and without their sculptural grace, there is no "Dying Swan." Meskova was in her element.

National Ballet of Canada's Chan Hon Goh and Geon Van der Wyst appeared in "Tides of Mind," a haunting work by Dominique Dumais (the only female choreographer on the program). The second movement of Henryk Gorecki's Symphony No.3 provided an appropriate, soulful accompaniment to this fragile and resilient work. Goh is a beautiful dancer whose emotive performance seemed to reverberate everywhere, from her outstretched fingertips to her wonderfully elongated neck. Van der Wyst has an expressive, strong presence and together Goh and Van der Wyst brought a special dramatic intensity to the piece. Sequences of frenzied arms gave way to delicate postures, and partnering with a closing image that was particularly powerful. As the lights grew dim, Goh and Van der Wyst walked upstage, away from the audience. When the lights were almost black, Goh abruptly turned her head for one final glimpse back. During that brief moment the lights grew bright for one split second, as if a flash camera had been released, then Goh turned her head back away from the audience. The final flash and her moment of exposure happened so quickly that audiences might have wondered if they really saw her face or not.

Kristin Long and Joan Boada (San Francisco Ballet) were crowd pleasers in "Le Corsaire" pas de deux. Audiences loved Boada's traveling leaps in the showy male choreography for which "Le Corsaire" is famous. And Kristin Long's clean performance, enhanced by a sweet demeanor and beautiful line, did not go unappreciated.

The evening's finale was reserved for American Ballet Theatre dancers Paloma Herrera and Gennadi Saveliev, who brought the house down in the grand pas de deux from "Don Quixote." Herrera's feet and rock-solid technique were amazing to watch as she easily flew through an incredibly articulate series of hops on pointe and multiple, traveling fouettes. The consummate partner, Saveliev was equally impressive, his valiant leaps earning non-stop applause. Saveliev and Herrera have that special something that isn't easy to put into words. More than just technique, it's chemistry.

Ballet Tech Ohio Performing Arts Association sponsors the Gala of International Ballet Stars as part of its annual season. The date of next year's one-night-only performance has already been set. Run, do not walk, to the box office.

Edited by Mary Ellen Hunt and Lori Ibay

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