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Ballet West

'The Leaves Are Fading,' 'Jardin aux Lilas,' 'Offenbach in the Underworld'

Triumph of Triune Tudor Tribute

by Dean Speer

October 2, 2004 -- Capitol Theatre, Salt Lake City, Utah

Having gotten this program under their feet with their much-praised foray to the prestigious Edinburgh Festival earlier this Summer, it was with a keen sense of anticipation that I went to Ballet West’s showing of their all-Tudor program in their home theatre. Ballet Mistress Pamela Robinson-Harris during a pre-show “Warm-Up” delighted us with her reports of their travels abroad.

Always a treat to see this respected, well-trained, and artistically-rich “Crossroads-of-the-West” company, I was pleased that Artistic Director, Jonas Käge, undertook the challenge of mounting three of Tudor’s most known works and ones that also show his range as a choreographer. Two were cleanly staged with depth and understanding by Donald Mahler, and it’s also clear that Mr. Mahler has enormous respect for these ballets and has worked to convey their meaning and importance to the dancers. The dancers certainly were ready and gave us readings of each work that fit and took us deep into the heart of the soul of each one.

I’d have to say the same standard and quality of staging by American Ballet Theatre principals Amanda McKerrow and her husband, John Gardner, went into "The Leaves are Fading." (It should be noted that Käge and Gelsey Kirkland were in the original cast of this work.)

Of the three pieces, the only one that I had seen “live” before was "Jardin aux Lilas" (Lilac Garden), so it was especially a treat to be witness to his mid-70s creation, "The Leaves are Fading" and to get to know the lighter of side of his oeuvre with "Offenbach in the Underworld."

Tudor is the master of using spatial placement to create relationships. All three ballets show and use this tool. Particularly with "Jardin" and "Leaves."

Tudor sets the tone for us immediately. Using a woman garbed in green who walks across the stage, we’re left with the feeling that she’s remembering youth’s spring. Perhaps these memories are a metaphor for autumnal leaves, which are fading and fading due to the filter of time. When the women dancers and later, the men, enter in "Leaves" we know we’re in for a rich experience. Tudor uses spatial relations to show us relationships dramatically. Friendships and inter-personal interactions are show by the turn of a head or a simple port de bras. Some dancers are paired as couples, while others are free agents, populating this meadow-like place. Perhaps some from a local village. There is an overwhelming feeling of shared affection and love.

It was great to see Maggie Wright in the role of the woman of the central (second) pas de deux. I last saw dance her glorious Aurora, so it was a treat seeing her in a different sort of part -- one that asked her to act and interact and to deploy her technique and boundless resources in a different mode and style. Her sympathetic partner, Seth Olson (looking amazing like the originator of this male part – mane-like hair and all, Mr. Käge!), was perfectly cast and complimented Wright’s approach to this role. I particularly liked the moment when she élevés to full pointe and bourées back around her partner, reaching with her eyes and body.

I was also pleased to see that Tudor did not neglect the men and had them do more than just the “Three L’s of Male Dancing” (Lift, Lean, and Lunge). Happily, they not only got to partner in some very interesting, group patterns and also got to have some special moments just for them. The men also looked very relaxed and comfortable with the acting aspect of their roles. Something which shows the depth and maturity of these talented danseurs.

It was also clear that the dancers took this ballet to their hearts and really enjoyed a kind of disciplined lyricism that catches the hearts of both the performers and of audiences. Although it has the atmosphere of nostalgia, this is a happy ballet and the characters are essentially sunny folk in happy relations. All is well with the world.

It’s probably carrying coals to Newcastle and say yet again in cyber-print, that Tudor’s "Jardin" is a masterwork. (So sue me!) Every, single moment counts. There is not one wasted gesture, look, step, or spatial relationship that does not carry meaning and carries on the mini-drama of this bride who is wrestling with her impending and arranged marriage to someone she does not love. Watching the drama unfold, I was thinking to myself, “Who needs soap operas?” Not that this ever lowers itself to the daytime drama of heaving chests and breathy, low-voice whispers, but I did find heartbreak, secrets, nobility enacted, hope crushed, and a reconciliation to one’s fate -- all the drama one needs in an evening at the theatre. Tudor does an amazing job of changing the story and showing complex layers merely by having dancers turn and face another direction, or by standing side-by-side, holding hands (as at the end) but actually being required to “belong” to someone else, and having to let go. Cruelty, fate, loss of bright future, almost fatal attractions. There is little love and no hope in this ballet. Sad, but a deservedly popular ballet.

The cast had every glance, timing, and nuance down, and it was a chance for Ballet West members to show what good dancing actors they can be in highly dramatically charged works. These include Christiana Bennett as Caroline, Her Lover played by Michael Bearden, Seth Olson as The Man She Must Marry, and Kate Crews as An Episode in His Past.

Lest we think we know Tudor, along comes a work from his comedic side. A brilliant one too. Like Martha Graham whose primary and most famous works are of the dramatic nature, he, too, has a flair for humor and makes me think he could have been a great comedian.

From the title, "Offenbach in the Underworld," we expected the “demi-mondaine” world of Henri Toulouse-Lautrec and got it. This ballet takes place in a Parisian nightclub with marvelous characters sketched out from the 1870s. We get the shopkeeper, a debutante, a starving artist, an opera star diva, a roué, and lots of “dancing girls.”

I swear Ballet West could not have found a better cast (yes, I know it’s double cast, so this is really doubly wonderful) and where did they get the goofy boy cadet? I could almost have sworn he had braces on his teeth. ‘Twas great as he swooned and mooned over his newly found girlfriend. Congratulations to demi-soloist Jeff F. Herbig. Christopher Ruud’s glances as His Imperial Excellency (who acted the roué) were worth the price of admission.

Oh, and this is a ballet that gives us THE Can-Can. The Can-Can is a true, French dance/art form and was actually taught at one of the ballet schools I studied at in Paris (which was run by a Paris Opera Ballet étoile, so we know it was a serious place; they take their Can-Can seriously).

The only thing that could make it better for me is the addition of a reprise of the Can-Can after the bows. The audience was primed for this, and it would be nice if stager Donald Mahler felt it was within his purview to allow this.

Ballet West continues to be one of the best products of the Intermountain West.

Edited by Jeff.

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