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Ballet British Columbia

Legends of the 20th Century Dance

by Leland Windreich

April 12-14, 2007 -- Queen Elizabeth Theatre, Vancouver, CA

John Alleyne, who has been artistic director of Ballet British Columbia for 15 years, took a sharp right turn from his past artistic policies by offering for the company’s spring program a trio of restored American dance masterpieces.  Since his early days in Vancouver he has concentrated largely on his own choreographic inventions, commissioning as well new pieces by young Canadian and European colleagues.  His first ballets for the troupe were amorphous creations with odd titles such as “Go Slow Walter” and “The New Blondes.” These were set to new music composed by local collaborators and tended to be short on content and structure.  Later he extended his works in this genre to offer evening-length pieces with equally enigmatic intention and titles.  Somewhere along the way he decided, possibly coaxed by his Board, to start using established concert music, and he devised a two-act ballet to selections from the works of Henry Purcell called “The Faerie Queen [sic]”.  The piece had nothing to do with Spenser’s epic poem, but instead offered a revisionist conception of Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.”  Since then, he has gone hog wild in his resetting of established musical classics such as “Scheherazade,” “The Rite of Spring,” and “Carmina Burana.”  In these, his chamber ensemble of 14 or 15 dancers—one subject to continuous annual turnover—attempted to validate the blockbuster musical scores.

Now in its 21st year, Ballet B.C. has not grown in size or artistic stature, and it still presents only two programs per year in Vancouver, spending most of its time touring in the B.C. boondocks. It survives by offering the Dance Alive subscription series, which complements its own rep with appearances by four dance companies from outside the province.  The Royal Winnipeg Ballet is a frequent attraction, presenting a full-length crowd pleaser, such as “Dracula.”  No mainstream companies from the U.S.A. or Europe have been seen here for decades.

If the remarkable works of George Balanchine, Martha Graham, and Twyla Tharp that comprised the Legends program were intended to show local audiences what they have been missing over the years, they may have had the effect of serving rich pastries to a community nourished on gruel.

Balanchine’s “Allegro Brillante” (1956) is an energy-packed 13-minute demonstration of the technical feats accomplished by dancers trained in the Russian-American choreographer’s style.  Repetiteur Elyse Borne dutifully taught the ten Vancouver dancers the steps according to the high standards of the Balanchine Trust, and the ensemble learned them to the best of their abilities.  But almost immediately, the absence of affinity to the Balanchine style was apparent.  The performance became a test rather than a display of confidence and joy.  The company’s training does not promote the kind of discipline required to convey a uniform rhythmic participation, and this is something that cannot be acquired in a rehearsal period for a specific ballet, one that will surely not be worked on and perfected after the season ends.  Ballet B.C.’s dancers present a miscellany in physical appearance, most of the men being hunky and solidly grounded.  Only Fei Guo, who danced the female lead, was able to suggest the lithe and fluid attack of a Balanchine ballerina.  And the use of a muffled recording of Tchaikovsky’s 3rd Piano Concerto, confined the ebullience of the score and made the performance appear to be taking place behind a glass barrier.

Twyla Tharp’s “Baker’s Dozen” (1979), set on the company by Shelley Washington, was far more successful, offering in its fluid, casual transactions the kind of organized miscellany that the choreographer celebrates. Clothed in Santo Loquasto’s loose white garments, the 12 dancers gyrate and swivel, bounce and cavort in a continual flow to the piano music of Willie “The Lion” Smith, breaking into groups of six, trios, duets and the odd solo.   Vancouver pianist Terence Dawson provided a scintillating accompaniment.  Tharp compares the work to a game of jacks, one in which you pick up an increasing number of pieces with one hand while bouncing a ball in the other.  In this ballet the Vancouver dancers could respond naturally to the light-hearted tone of the work, aware as well of its structural elegance.

Martha Graham’s “Appalachian Spring” was the centerpiece of the program, and the celebrated set by Isamu Noguchi is an integral part of the action, its simple, nearly abstract structure containing the action and interaction of the bride, the husbandman, a pioneering woman, and a revivalist with his four devoted female followers.  Beyond the stark milieu lies the vast wilderness. The piece was set on Ballet B.C. by Diane Gray, who restored this vital and compelling dance drama with faithful concern for details.  The original chamber version of the ravishing Aaron Copland score was played on tape.  The Vancouver dancers conveyed a clear sense of identity with the characters, capturing the duality of a small God-fearing society obsessed with responsibility and obedience, yet excited by their natural sexual impulses.  Piety and Eros are the ingredients of the work.  As the ebullient bride who realizes her responsibilities as a wife who will soon become a mother, Tara Lee gives a winsome performance, assisted by Leon Feizo-Gas as the sober, contained, but occasionally tender and protective husband, destined to work the land on an American frontier.  Alexis Fletcher was fine as the long-limbed pioneer woman who serves as role model for the new bride, and Donald Sales was an impressive evangelist, who conveys the portent of fire and brimstone to the couple and to his adoring acolytes. The Vancouver dancers comfortably responded to Graham’s vaulting extensions, contractions and falls and generally weighted dance mode, with its moments of profound stillness.

Hardly worth mentioning was a wholly inappropriate pas de deux by Slovak choreographer Mario Radacovsky, recently a dancer with Les Grands Ballets Canadiens, called “Inspiration” which opened the program.  In it, veteran dancers Simone Orlando and Edmond Kilpatrick were obliged to convey every balletic and theatrical cliché that could be crammed into the time it takes to play the second movement of Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 23, including two showers of gold sequins from the rafters.

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