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Miami City Ballet

'Viscera', 'In the Night', 'Ballet Imperial'

by Jerry Hochman

January 28-29, 2012-- Kravis Center, West Palm Beach, FL

No introduction: cut to the chase. Miami City Ballet's program for January 28 (eve) and 29 (the same each performance; different casts), was remarkable for its intelligent selection and execution. “Viscera,” Liam Scarlett's new piece (its MCB world premiere was a couple of weeks earlier in Miami), is a powerful and memorable work. The company includes talented dancers who are highly competent as well as compelling to watch. And my only regret is that I can't bottle some of the MCB dancers and take them back to New York.

I was not familiar with Mr. Scarlett's previous work, but there's no reason why I should be -- he's only 25. He grew with the Royal Ballet school, performed with that company (and I understand that he continues to do so), and is the youngest person to have been commissioned by the Royal to choreograph a piece for them. Reportedly, Artistic Director Edward Villella saw his work in London and immediately signed him up to choreograph for MCB. What a coup! I suspect other companies are already swarming.

"Viscera" is a plotless ballet, with some emotional gloss, that pulses and pounds and never lets go from the first minute. But before one assumes by that description that "Viscera" is another example of angular, angry, mechanical, post-modern angst, the assumption should be dispelled immediately. For all its energy and power and unusual-looking steps and body attitude, "Viscera" is an accessible and strangely beautiful contemporary piece, grounded in standard ballet vocabulary, that is as recognizable as a heartbeat, and it left this viewer breathless and exhilarated. MCB will perform the work again this coming weekend in Fort Lauderdale, and it is worth a special trip.

"Viscera" doesn't so much begin, as it explodes. The dancers twist and turn and never stop moving. But it's not a hodgepodge. Mr. Scarlett has created beautifully intricate patterning, dancers breaking off from groups and joining others, as if they were cells thrust through arteries that connect and reconnect not haphazardly, but in forms dictated by some natural force. The sense is of somewhat controlled hysteria, but it also looks, on a global level, like a kaleidoscope of changing colors and shapes (the costumes - shimmering, muted iridescent colors of burgundy, deep blue, and purple on the women; brownish purple on the men, were created by Mr. Scarlett). And the piece is perfect for MCB. Its energy brings to mind Twyla Tharp's "The Golden Section," which MCB dances so extraordinarily well.

One can see whatever one wants to see in the piece, since there's no description of what the stage action is supposed to represent, but seeing the dancers as if they were parts of a body (to me, blood cells) responding to some outside stimulus fits with the title of the piece, the movement quality, and the music ("Concerto No. 1 for Piano and Orchestra, opus 12" by Lowell Liebermann). The stimulus, whatever it is (to this viewer, it is the perception of a potentially destructive relationship) causes the heart to pound furiously, unleashing a phalanx of blood cells moving feverishly and on guard against this emotional intruder. And for all its intensity, Mr. Scarlett has created a flowing movement quality, particularly by making the arms more liquid: at times, the dancers appear as if they are being propelled, or are propelling themselves, through some aqueous space.

The piece is divided into three sections: the corps, led by one dominant woman, a slower paced pas de deux that, perhaps, represents the emotional stimulus, and then back again to the pulsing, throbbing corps (corpus?).

Jeanette Delgado danced the lead woman in the Saturday evening performance, and she executed the non-stop movement superbly. But Sara Esty's performance in the same role at Sunday's performance was a stunning tour de force. I must confess that I singled out Ms. Esty at an MCB performance of "The Golden Section" in New York a couple of years ago, remarking that Ms. Esty was a fearless little firecracker of a dancer. I was wrong. She's a firecracker, and she may be fearless, but she's not so little - either that, or she added so much dominating strength and power to her role in "Viscera" that she looked larger than life. Regardless, it's clear to this viewer from her feral performance in "Viscera" that she would make a natural Myrtha in "Giselle" [And, if she can dance vulnerability as well as strength and speed, and master Romantic style (big 'ifs,' but I wouldn't bet against her), she could be one of those rare dancers who can portray both Myrtha and Giselle.]

Jennifer Carlynn Kronenberg and Carlos Miguel Guerra, and Ms. Delgado and Yann Trividic, danced the pas de deux in Saturday and Sunday's performances. All danced the intense, but unsettled and perhaps painful relationship choreographed by Mr. Scarlett with appropriate intensity, passion, and resignation.

If "Viscera" had been the only memorable piece on the program, that would have been enough. But with the unfortunate luxury of dancing only four Programs a year (plus the Nutcracker), and only four performances of each Program at each of MCB's three performing venues (Miami, Ft. Lauderdale, and West Palm Beach), MCB can select quality over quantity, and the MCB presentation for this Program included two gems by Jerome Robbins and George Balanchine: "In the Night," and "Ballet Imperial."

"In the Night" is a quiet masterpiece that touches the heart and tickles the ribs. Following his success with "Dances at a Gathering," Robbins revisited Chopin, but this time limited the 'gathering' to three couples whose relationships are portrayed privately, hidden in the night. The choreography examines and illuminates these three relationships: the first couple is innocent, youthful love - a couple in love with the idea of love as much as in love with each other; the second is mature, secure love; and the third is passionate, tempestuous, and somewhat irrational love, a couple that fights and forgives in order to fight and forgive and love each other another day. And in the end, the three couples cross paths, exchange pleasantries, and leave, not knowing the 'real' nature of the relationships they think they see in the couples beside them.

Tricia Albertson and Didier Bramaz on Saturday evening, and Jennifer Lauren and Renan Cerdeiro on Sunday afternoon, danced the young innocents. Callie Manning and Isanusi Garcia-Rodriguez and Mary Carmen Catoya and Reyneris Reyes danced the mature lovers on Saturday and Sunday, and Katia Carranza and Yann Trividic and Jeanette Delgado and Renato Penteado were the tempestuous couple on Saturday and Sunday. All danced their roles commendably.

"Ballet Imperial" was created in 1941 for American Ballet Caravan, an indirect antecedent of the New York City Ballet. Although clearly intended to be a reflection of the spirit of St. Petersburg as Balanchine knew it from his youth, and a tribute to Petipa and Tchaikovsky (the father of classical ballet and classical ballet's greatest composer), "Ballet Imperial" is more than that. It is a bridge between Russian classical Romantic ballet and the contemporary Balanchine ballets that distill the choreographic stage presentation to its essence. [As he often did, Balanchine continued to tinker with the piece, eliminating the palatial setting, replacing tutus with flowing gossamer skirts, and renaming the piece "Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto No. 2". I agree with eliminating the tutus, but would restore the original set and maintain the original title: in this viewer's opinion, the set illuminated but did not distract from the majestic choreography.]

The piece includes many references to "Swan Lake," but to this viewer "Ballet Imperial" is more significant for what it omits (plot, characterization, pyrotechnical displays surrounded by dead spots), and for the Balanchine choreographic trademarks laced through it (intricate patterning, instant transitions and unforgiving timing requirements, men leading a chain of women, lines of dancers passing through other lines of dancers, pyrotechnical displays seamlessly woven through the fabric of the piece rather than set off separately), all danced at a wickedly fast pace. It is also a fabulous piece that is rarely performed by NYCB, which is an unfortunate, and hopefully temporary, loss. [However, NYCB will revive "Tchaikovsky Suite No. 3" this season, which includes "Theme and Variations," in many ways a spiritual and choreographic successor to "Ballet Imperial."]

Led by Ms. Delgado and Mr. Reyes, Saturday evening's performance was superb. The Sunday performance seemed a little rougher (or perhaps I just saw the dancers differently because I was much closer to the stage). At the latter performance I could see little imperfections -- e.g., forced and obvious transitions (particularly in timing-specific partnering), wobbly arms when positions should have been frozen. But these are minor observations. What mattered considerably more was the absence of what comes across as frigidity and emotional distance in other performances of “Ballet Imperial” that I've seen. While not exactly warm and fuzzy, this was a "Ballet Imperial" that was impressively non-imperious; regality for the 21st century.

That the MCB dancers succeeded as well as they did is a triumph for them, a treasure for their audiences, and a tribute to the training they have received under Mr. Villella's supervision. And I expect, barring any abrupt change in artistic direction or diminution of funding following Mr. Villella's retirement at the end of the 2012-2013 season, that MCB's international stature will continue to grow. With dancers like Ms. Delgado, Ms. Kronenberg, Ms. Carranza, Ms. Esty, Mr. Reyes, Mr. Cerdeiro, and others, as well as promising corps dancers that I was unable to clearly identify, it's a safe bet. I have only two requests for the future -- announce casting in advance (even NYCB lists its casting two or three weeks in advance; that I was able to see two different casts was the result of a lucky guess), and never pair the Esty identical twins (Sara and Leigh-Ann) as bookends in the same piece unless their costumes are clearly initialed to distinguish one from the other [I think I figured it out…maybe.]


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