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Ballet West

'Lark Ascending,' 'Concerto Barocco,' 'Tschaikovsky Pas de Deux,' 'The Rite of Spring,'

by Karen Webb

April 17, 2004 -- Capitol Theatre, Salt Lake City, Utah

When I entered the Capitol Theatre on the last night the company would perform its Fascination program, I knew I would be seeing the final performances of principal Jeff Rodgers and soloist Tonia Stefiuk. I learned later it turned out to be the final performance (at least, with Ballet West) of principal Tong Wang, soloists Viktorija Jansone and René Daveluy, demi-soloist Elye Olson and wife Katrina. Also departing is soloist Leslie Ann Larson (although you can catch her onstage at Imagine Ballet Theatre's performance on May 6 and 7).

It seems the end of an era.

But what a way to close out a season, a career, or a phase of one's life! The quadruple bill featured the return of Balanchine's "Concerto Barocco" and "Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux" and Bruce Marks' "The Lark Ascending" as well as the company's first Glen Tetley acquisition, his powerful "Rite of Spring." All pieces were either double or triple cast.

Tetley's "Rite of Spring" combines a beautiful dance aesthetic with the primal force that had the Parisian arbiters of taste rioting in the aisles of the Théâtre des Champs-Elysses in 1913. The piece throbs with vitality, and Tetley arranges his dancers on the stage with the eye of a great cinematographer.

Is there a story here beyond the obvious theme of sacrifice and rebirth? I saw one, although I had to see both casts and three performances before I was able to pick out all the elements, and I saw it somewhat more strongly in the cast headed by Wang, Maggie Wright, and Christopher Ruud.

It may have been choreologist/répetiteur Bronwen Curry's reference to The Chosen One role as a "spring god" that motivated me to find something other than the portrayal of a scapegoat. It may have been the way Wang as Chosen One and Wright and Ruud as Earth Mother and Father so clearly shared A Moment shortly before the stylized sacrifice occurs. Something about The Chosen One at that moment harks clearly back to Christ in the garden of Gethsemane praying that this cup will pass him by. And something about the Earth Parents at that moment speaks eloquently of the tragic conviction that one must die so that others may live. Is that one their child? I thought so. I thought at that moment they might also be saying, "Yes, son, you must make this sacrifice-but it's OK because we'll bring you back." Hence the somewhat generative nature of their pas de deux.

Seeing as how the ballet was given right around Easter, I might go a step farther and say the Earth Parents are spirit-there were times with Wright and Ruud that I was absolutely sure the human celebrants couldn't see them-which might make The Chosen One part spirit and part flesh, as are many culture heroes.

Whatever one makes of a sub-text to the story, Tetley's "Rite of Spring" is a very cool piece of dance. The Chosen One, danced with unbridled vigor by Olson and with beautifully crafted shaping by Wang, is a definite hazardous duty role. I found it of note that what Stravinsky meant to be the sacrificial dance is The Chosen One's dance of rebirth. That was before realizing that the man dancing this role would likely have keeled over from the strain had there been any less time between his sacrifice and his rebirth. In that respect, the piece reminds me a little of Peter Brook's staging of Marat/Sade: actors tended to retire from the play after about four months because the roles were so taxing physically and emotionally.

The casting of Chosen and Earth Parents was interesting. Olson, whose attack was more percussive and whose stylings were more angular, was flanked by Seth (can I call them the Olson Twins?) Olson and Jansone, whose sense of attack was far more sinuous. Attack may be too poor a choice of words in Jansone's case: what she projected was a sense of wearing the choreography, the role, and the music like second skin.

Tong, the more lyrical of the two soloists, was paired with Wright and Ruud, whose attack was definitely more angular. I have to admit that, while I could barely take my eyes off Jansone, it was with Wang's cast that I more clearly saw the dramatic sub-text.

The entire corps did a brilliant job with the forceful, percussive, and often primal movement, but that steps-as-second-skin sense came across particularly well with "Celebrants" Du Hai and Sophia Priolo and with corps member Katrina Olson, who looked so terrific in "Artifact II." (And I guess this means the company has Olson Triplets rather than the mere twins of Elye E. and Seth.)

I was thrilled to see the return of Bruce Marks' "The Lark Ascending." With this sumptuous Vaughan Williams 1011 piece (really, with all of the music on this outstanding bill), the audience wouldn't have to do much more than sit back and listen to have a transcendent experience, and the choreographer wouldn't have to do much more than have his dancers do pliés.

But, of course, Marks does a whole lot more.

Like "Rite," "Lark" seems to work on two levels. There's the obvious story: a rite of propitiation, a songbird taking flight. But seeing "Lark" for the dozenth time, I realized there was more, and it was Kristin Hakala's cast that drove the point home vividly.

At a presentation by Tracy Aviary I took my son to last year, the presenter trotted out a small turkey vulture. His story? He had been taken from his nest in the wild by a couple who thought he would make an adorable pet. They did try to care for him but fed him only hamburger (Fun Fact: vultures scavenge the whole of a carcass, not just the "meat," and get valuable minerals from structures like bones). As a result, his wings developed improperly, and he would never fly. I can think of little more tragic in the natural world than a creature designed for flight who can never take to the air.

And I think that's the sub-text of this piece (and, from Marks' explanatory note, he may be making this comment about humanity). I just didn't see this part of it-that the Lark, for whatever reason, is bound to the earth. It makes her struggle all the more poignant, and the fact of achieving flight at the very end of the piece all the more exultant.

This is not to detract from the cast headed by Christiana Bennett, which was also lovely. My one comment is that where Hakala seemed comfortable with her partners from the beginning of the piece (and these included Rodgers and Daveluy), Bennett seemed to hold back a little until she reached partners 2 and 3 (the Big Guys, in this case Jason Linsley and Christopher Anderson), at which point she just seemed to blossom. And kudos to violinist Kelly Parkinson for taking Vaughan Williams music from the rapturous to the sublime.

Hakala, Bennett, and Stefiuk (paired with Wang, Seth Olson, and Christopher Ruud, respectively) alternated in the show-stopper "Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux" and, predictably, stopped the show. The text for this piece is believed to have been the original "Black Swan Pas de Deux" music that got lost in the shuffle when Petipa and Ivanov changed venues and staged the full Swan Lake after the composer's death. And, indeed, since it was discovered in the Bolshoi Theatre archives in 1953, some companies have used parts of it for the variations and coda (although the music seems a little perky for the character of Odîle).

The choreographic demands of this piece are legion, from the lyric romance of the adagio (culminating in one of the prettiest and most original lifts Balanchine ever conceived) to the explosive force of the variations (Deborah Dobson, who staged the piece, once referred to dancing the woman's variation as feeling one has been shot out of a cannon) to the peppy, lengthy, oh-good-there's-more coda with its flying fish dives.
Hakala and Wang tackled the choreography with grace and precision; Marissa Mullen, who caught Stefiuk and Ruud on opening night, had this to say:

"Tonia Stefiuk and Christopher Ruud excelled in `Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux,' an exciting display of ballet bravura and technique. These two dancers make a good team-they maintained good contact with each other and danced together with joy and charm. This is a company well-suited for Balanchine's works, with the dancers' long lines, fast footwork, musicality and classic elegance.'

Hakala and Stefiuk are two of my favorite examples in the company of the SWWDB (Smaller Woman Who Dances Big). But the Balanchine Fix Award still goes to Bennett, my favorite example in the company of the TWWDF (Taller Woman Who Dances Fast). Her attack and the shape of her ports de bras still set the bar here. With Olson nailing the intricacies of the man's solo work and exuding the charm and vigor of a child at play, their work, especially at the closing performance, was perfection itself.

Also triple-cast was the other Balanchine work on the program, "Concerto Barocco." Bennett and SAB-trained Amy Foster stood out in the soloist roles, but the nicest consonance of movement between the two women soloists came from Maggie Wright and moving-up-fast-along-the-inside-rail corps member Annie Brenneman. With Wright and Brenneman, one still saw the contrast between the more lyrical and the more percussive soloist but the pair projected a pleasing sense of harmony.

This review first appeared in Dance West Magazine.

Edited by Jeff.

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