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Ballet West

'The Leaves Are Fading', 'Lilac Garden,' 'Offenbach in the Underworld'

Tudor Triple Feature

by Kate Snedeker

August 27, 28, 30, 2004 -- Edinburgh Playhouse, Edinburgh

This year, the focus of the dance programming in the Edinburgh International Festival is centered on the choreography of London-born Antony Tudor. As Tudor is perhaps best known for the works he created while living in the United States, it is appropriate that Ballet West from Salt Lake City, Utah, was chosen to present a trio of Tudor's ballets, "Leaves Are Fading", "Lilac Garden" and "Offenbach in the Underworld".

Following in the Festival footsteps of such renowned American companies as San Francisco Ballet and New York City Ballet, and performing less than three days after a day-long travel marathon including two bus trips and three flights, the Ballet West dancers faced a great challenge. However the passion and spark, if not technical perfection, in the their dancing demonstrated that the company was a wonderful choice for the Festival.

The first ballet on the program, "Leaves are Fading", was one of Tudor's final creations, and is nearly unique amongst his works as it is essentially abstract. Set to Antonin Dvorak's lyrical music, the pas de deuxs and ensemble sections are a series of loosely linked vignettes illustrating the many facets of love, as remembered by a lone woman whose appearance begins and ends the ballet. Ming Cho Lee's elegantly simple backdrop and Patricia Zipprodt's hand-painted costumes help to create the romantic atmosphere.

Led by Maggie Wright and Seth Olson in the central pas de deux, the company was a bit stiff on opening night, but were more relaxed in the later performances. For the most part, the youthful corps seemed to grasp the emotional essence of the piece, and were perfectly suited to the first section of the ballet where the light and playful choreography evokes the joyful, flirtatious nature of young love. The women seem to skim across the stage, their partners lifting them into soaring lifts. The ensemble sections, however, would benefit from more attention to timing, which was lacking in all the performances, and more work on technique in the lifts, which were sometimes very awkward.

The transition to adult love is illustrated beautiful by Olson and Wright in the main pas de deux. Starting off with energetic, lively dancing, the pas de deux slowly shifts to deep, sensual movements. It is a masterful illustration of mature love -- deep, knowing and trusting. Olson was excellent in his solo, which is full of tricky off-center steps that can look clumsy if not performed with precision, and was a solid partner for Wright. Both were at their peak on Saturday, the Friday performance being a little hesitant. Christiana Bennett and Hua Zhuang stood out in another pas deux, and Michael Bearden's dancing seemed to improve with each night.

In the last moments of the ballet, we are witness to one of Tudor's most lovely choreographic moments. The dancers, with the women held in low, twisting lifts, seem to be tumbling across the stage like so many autumn leaves blowing in the wind. What initially appears to be a series of chaotic, unrelated steps reveals itself to have an innate order, each dancer a part of a cohesive whole. As this autumnal image fades, the lone woman re-emerges to watch the couples leave the stage, seemingly at peace with her memories.

Original lighting by Jennifer Tipton was recreated by M. Kay Barrell, with the costumes painted by Lisa Waering Sacaris. Amanda McKerrow and John Gardner, and also Jonas Kåge, staged the ballet.

The oldest of the three ballets, "Lilac Garden", is a haunting story about a marriage of convenience, set in England of the late 19th century. Peter Cazalet's set turns the stage into a moonlit garden filled with lilacs, but it is dark and foreboding, clearly not a place of happiness. And there are no happy endings in this story - during this final engagement party, Caroline, the young bride, must bid farewell to her lover, and while the fiancé she does not love must part with his mistress.

The piece is set in the Victorian era, as reflected in the restrained nature of Tudor's choreography, in which emotion is conveyed in small, subtle movements. For instance, when Caroline's fiancé first reaches for her, he folds his fingers over hers, his hand crushing hers. She is his possession, her other love crushed. Christiana Bennett was a delicate and fragile Caroline, her dancing bringing out the emotion of Ernest Chausson's music without wavering from the restrained choreography. Her face may have barely registered emotion, but her body told a very different story. As the lover, Michael Bearden, who is visually very reminiscent of Hugh Laing, who was the original lover, managed the tricky blind jump to lift without incident, and displayed a nice stretch in his dancing. Seth Olson was appropriately cold and aloof as The Man She Must Marry.

Since the choreography is so dependent on small, understated movements to tell a richly emotional story, it is incredibly difficult to perform, and was perhaps the weakest of the three ballets in these performances. Though the cast did a fine job of bringing the characters to life, especially in the later performances, several brief sections seemed slightly hurried, and the resulting minute speeding up the dancing drained some of the power from the choreography. Violinist Kelly Parkinson, who accompanied Ballet West to Edinburgh, playing superbly.

In a dramatic change of pace and setting, the final ballet, "Offenbach in the Underworld", took the audience from a dark Victorian garden to a bright, festive Parisian saloon. In the cozy confines of Madame La Patronne's saloon, a cast of local ladies, waiters, debutantes, young men, and special guests party the night away. The choreography here is neither restrained nor delicate, but deliciously saucy and witty. The dancers, both in corps and solo roles, seemed to relish in the choreography, which often bordered on the outrageous, and in many cases made their characters delightfully unique.

Seth Olson returning in his third principal role of the night brought a touching humanity to the role of the eternally frustrated painter. Each night, he added new little details to his role, never sliding out of character even when the "spotlight" was on someone else. The frolicsome and tenderly romantic pas de deux with Kristin Hakala as the Operetta Star was perhaps the finest display of Olson's talents.

Also outstanding was Christopher Ruud's gleefully egotistical Imperial Excellency. With a wickedly evil look in his eyes and spot on comic timing, Ruud was a perfect as a playboy aristocrat, never without a lady on his lap or his arm. An athletic dancer, Ruud's double tours improved each performance, the final tour on the final night ending in an absolutely perfect fifth position. He was matched in wit by Annie Brenneman as the feisty, bright orange clad Queen of the Carriage Trade.

The female corps were fantastic as the sassy and saucy local ladies, vamping it up and kicking high in the can can. What was occasionally lacking in speed of footwork was compensated for by great comic characterizations and timing. There were a few shaky lifts, likely compounded by size mismatches between men and women, and some unevenness in the quality of the turns in seconde among the men.

Offenbach's sizzling music, along with the scores of the other two ballets, was played by the outstanding Scottish Chamber Orchestra under the baton of Ballet West conductor Terrence Kern. Donald Mahler staged the last two pieces, with scenery in "Offenbach in the Underworld" by Kenichi Yamaguchi and costumes recreated from Kay Ambrose's originals by Ray Diffen.


Edited by Jeff.

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