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Miami City Ballet

'Nine Sinatra Songs', 'Agon', 'In the Upper Room'

by Katie Rosenfeld

October 28, 2007 -- Zellerbach Hall, Berkeley, CA

On one of the last sunny, warm days of autumn in the Bay Area, Miami City Ballet closed its three-day run at Zellerbach Hall on the UC Berkeley campus with a program that sandwiched George Balanchine between two Twyla Tharp pieces. It made for an interesting combination of styles, and demonstrated that MCB is a true descendant of the Balanchine/New York City Ballet heritage. The company was comfortable with everything from the gliding, romantic jazziness of “Nine Sinatra Songs” to the extreme angles and intense control of “Agon” and the high-octane adrenaline of “In the Upper Room.” 

The seven couples in “Nine Sinatra Songs” conveyed a range of emotions and situations established by Sinatra’s lyrics, including standard ballroom dance and elements of ballet. In ’One For My Baby (and One For The Road)’ Jennifer Kronenberg and Carlos Guerra were perfectly convincing as a couple who’ve been drinking all night and have reached the slightly swaying, fuzzy stage that resembles contact improvisation, clinging onto each other while attempting to keep up the appearance of being sober. Tricia Albertson and Daniel Sarabia’s ’Somethin’ Stupid’ was sweet and awkward, like a couple of teenagers at their first grown-up party. The fast footwork and zingy flirtation between Patricia Delgado and Alexandre Dufaur in ’Forget Domani’ was contagiously energetic, and Katia Carranza and Renato Penteado were downright sexy in ’That’s Life’ nearly stealing the show with the excitement of huge press lifts and explosive jumps.

Balanchine’s “Agon” combines pure classical ballet and the predatory behavior of highly evolved insects to create an intense, abstract opportunity for sustained, angular movements. Igor Stravinsky’s twelve-tone score was an astonishingly new thing for ballet audiences at its premiere in 1957, and Balanchine’s remarkable choreography perches on the notes, working with the atonal, discordant music to complete the stark, threatening energy of the piece. That feeling remains vivid even though fifty years worth of new and similarly surprising choreography limits the impact of “Agon” to simple enjoyment instead of shock. Most notable in this performance were Deanna Seay’s suspended balances, Jeremy Cox’s elegant, controlled extensions and landings, and the tense push-and-pull of the pas de deux, ably performed by Kronenberg and Guerra.

Tharp’s 1986 masterpiece “In the Upper Room” closed the show, and its placement in the program is deliberate: there is no way dancers could perform anything else after the non-stop 40-minute intensity of the piece. Costumed in bright red spandex covered with shirts, pants or skirts of black and white stripes, the dancers interact in duos and trios that Tharp herself titled the “china dogs,” “stompers” and “bomb squad.” The “stompers” run pell-mell through the space, which seems at once compressed and massive due to the dense fog and multidimensional lighting that draw the eye skyward, evoking a grand cathedral, while also allowing the dancers to disappear and reappear from three sides.

The “stompers” are the bass line, the rhythm section, and their movements have a weight and street-smartness to them that suggests calisthenics or a precursor to hip hop.  Two women, who establish and guard the space from the first notes, blend in with the “stompers” at times but also maintain a sense of authority, “china dogs” watching over the group. The only dancers in traditional ballet accoutrements are the “bomb squad,” fierce females in vivid red pointe shoes and ankle socks, accompanied by their partners, whose speed and explosive quality changes their vocabulary of arabesques, piqués and chaînés into something visceral, terrifying and yet spiritually uplifting. 

There are times when the task of reviewing a dance performance becomes an exercise in restraint, especially when music, choreography or costume inhibits the dancers in their ability to create moving art. It is easy to spend the time waiting for someone to miss a step, flub a landing or otherwise break the illusion that dancers are infallible. This was certainly not the case for this piece. Every detail, from costume to lighting to choreography to performance was perfectly done; the 40-minute piece included enough steps to fill an hour but seemed to zip by in a quarter of that time. A second after the piece ended, the audience was on its feet, hollering and whistling and making a glorious racket to show their appreciation to dancers whose inevitable exhaustion was masked by generous smiles through four rounds of bows. Miami City Ballet certainly made a strong case for their seniority in the American dance scene, and judging by the Berkeley audience reaction, they have earned their due respect.

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