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The Joffrey Ballet

'Pas des Déesses,' 'Monotones,' 'Confetti,' 'Light Rain'

The Joffrey's gamble pays off

by Dean Speer

July 22, 2004 -- Reno Hilton Theatre, Reno, Nevada

While the Reno Hilton Theatre might seem at first blush an odd place to have high-art ballet, it is the best stage venue in town and after seeing two shows by the Joffrey Ballet, I am most pleased to report that it works!

I flew down from sunny Seattle to sunny and hot Reno to enjoy the Thursday evening performance of a company that I had long followed and admired but had not seen since its last foray to Seattle in about 1981. Invited to also see the family matinée, I was reminded during this show why I love dance and ballet and why I've missed seeing this important, major American ballet company.

Presenting excerpts from its current touring repertory, including the complete Alwin Nikolais masterwork from 1951, "Tensile Involvement," plus lively and brief commentary on partnering, which showed the Romantic as opposed to more “bravura” styles, types of tutus, and pointe work. Questions from young audience members concluded the bill. Kinetically exciting, Tensile’s principal male, Michael Smith, made a very impressive debut in this part. Great attack and passion.

This young matinee audience impressed me as a mix of local ballet students, teachers, and their friends and families. My further impression is that the dance audience of Washoe County is hungry for professional dance. For both shows, the line to get into the theatre wended its way through the casino.

Thoroughly attentive, this enraptured group appropriately "ooo'd" and "ahh'd" at all the right places. In fact a young girl near me, audibly gasped when the ballerina (Valerie Robin) was lifted up off of the floor in "Monotones II." And this really moved me, bringing a clutch to my throat and a tear to my eye.

With Mr. Joffrey's "Pas des Déesses," I was quickly reminded what a masterful choreographer he was. (I'm a little sad, of course, that his overall choreographic output was not far greater.) His inventive use of steps and patterns immediately set the stage for this tribute or pseudo reconstruction of a pas de quatre from the Romantic period in ballet for three famously rivalrous ballerinas and their attentive partner, Arthur St. Leon, famous for choreographing "Coppélia." Mr. St. Leon at this matinee was well played and danced by Samuel Pergande.

I had seen this company do its full production of Leonide Massine's historic "Parade" (from the Diaghilev era, 1917) and their excerpt showing of the solo “The Horse,” is brilliant. No music. Only the rhythmic hoofing of the two guys who are this nag's body. It's a visual riot, with the rear sometimes not doing what the front thinks it out to be doing (front end was David Gombert, with a 50-pound costume head, and the errant rear was Michael Smith – who had to lift Mr. Gombert, horse head and all!). Pablo Picasso had tried his hand at theatrical design in this work, adding to its allure.

“Tea from China” and especially “Nougats from Russia” (Nutcracker excerpts) echoed for me Mr. Joffrey's roots with his old, Russian and long-time Seattle teacher Ivan Novikoff. It was authentic, lively and totally fun.

At the Thursday evening performance, how wonderful it was to get to then see the full and complete "Pas des Déesses" (dance of the goddesses) to the lovely and often floating music of Irish composer John Field. Victoria Jaiani, Julianne Kepley, Valerie Robin, and Peter Kozak were perfectly cast as Lucile Grahn, Fanny Cerrito, Marie Taglioni, and Arthur St. Leon, respectively. Mr. Joffrey fills each solo and mini-grouping with steps that seemed lifted right from the Romantic era of ballet. I also enjoyed the tutti turning contest of the finale, using hop turns with the right leg making fouetté rond de jambes; perfect, as the "fouetté" as we think of it today had not yet been invented. Kozak was a strong partner and a solid soloist in his own right in the bravura work Mr. Joffrey made to evoke the spirit of St. Leon.

It was great to again see Ashton's "Monotones II" after having just seen it during the Ashton program at San Francisco Ballet. This short masterwork by one of England's greatest choreographers is nothing short of remarkable. Inspired by the space age's "race to the moon," the movement, costumes, and music all come together seamlessly to make a ballet that's (pardon the phrase) out of this world. A friend and colleague who was with us, commented that she first loved it seeing it in New York many years ago and recalls that it impressed her as being the first ballet she saw that used unitards. From Taglioni to "Space-Age," Valerie Robin was awesome as the woman who gets lifted up straight from the floor, where she was reposing in the vertical splits. Michael Levine (a native of nearby Grass Valley, California) and Samuel Pergande turned and manipulated Robin in ways that make the ballet look as if we were really observing a living Calder mobile sculpture. Their collective line, timing and unified sense of purpose were clear and visually satisfying. Truly a gem.

The Joffrey Ballet is one of the largest, if not the largest, repository of Ashton works in North America, and it is most pleasing to know that these works are being cared for and performed in a loving, respectful, and relevant way. Joffrey Ballet Master Mark Goldweber deserves the credit for the staging and the loving care given to the performances of "Pas des Déesses," "Monotones," and "Confetti."

Gerald Arpino's two works on the bill were also great audience hits -- his 1970 "Confetti" and his 1981 "Light Rain."  "Confetti" is a light and energetic morceau that builds nicely and follows the Rossini score of the overture from "Semiramide." If you are familiar with the Balanchine "Tarantella" pas de deux, this comes from the same color palette. Buoyant, boisterous and a great way to show off the company's technique and ability to adapt to this style, tambourines flying streamers and all. I like how Arpino deftly moves dancers in and out and mixes the groupings, giving each a chance to shine, to excite us and build his choreographic statement.

While "light" is in the title of "Light Rain," I'd have to say this is more of a serious work. Conceived to show off the young dancers of the company, it remains engaging and most interesting 23 years later. Visually arresting, it opens with a group tableaux and impresses one of being in a hot, rainy jungle. A forest filled with wild and sleek dancers.

Reno area native Maia Wilkins (from Truckee, California) was shown off in both the last two pieces. With her strong technique, open face, and expressive dancing, it's easy to see why she has been a Joffrey treasure for over 13 years.

What a thrill it was to see this great American dance company again. They are a beautiful and good-natured ensemble of artists that are a joy to see. I hope that many more segments of our population get to enjoy them too, as they tour and give home seasons in Chicago.  Their appearance in Reno, sponsored in part by "Artown" was a gamble that paid off handsomely.

Edited by Jeff.

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