Here are my impressions of the opening program and the scene at Grand Rapids:
Grand Rapids Ballet
2010-11 Season Opener
October 24 & 25 – DeVos Performance Hall, Grand Rapids, Michigan
Those who have had the privilege of engaging Patricia Barker and her husband, Michael Auer, in deep discourse late into the night after another stellar performance by Barker and over a five-star meal home-cooked by Auer understand the passion, intellect and thought that this couple brings to any endeavor. It is not surprising therefore that the artistic hires, programming and casting for the opening program of Grand Rapids Ballet's 2010-11 season look calculated to set the tone for what looks like a well-planned performance year.
To say that Interim Artistic Director Barker's artistic choices led to success is an understatement. With the 2,400-seat DeVos theater impressively filled (preliminary reports indicate attendance figures among the top five of all shows, including “The Nutcracker”), walk-up sales numbering in the hundreds and multiple standing ovations at each performance, the Ballet has in its hands what those on Broadway would term a runaway hit.
And Broadway could indeed have been the medium in which Barker used to effectively entice Grand Rapidians. The extended concert version of “Who Cares?” which was set by Barker herself with oversight by Elyse Borne, the eyes and ears of the Balanchine Trust, is an artful crowd pleaser, set to popular songs composed by George Gershwin with orchestration by Hershey Kay, both Broadway greats (they don't make them like these two anymore). When George Balanchine choreographed this work in 1970 for New York City Ballet, his intent was to capture the exuberance of America. Therefore what better work there is to appeal to the Grand Rapids population, a symbol of the can-do American nature that has seen the region become a crucible for the furniture and light steel industry.
The sassy male lead role in “Who Cares?” was danced Friday night by Stephen Sanford and on Saturday by Leonid Flegmatov, each with his own interpretation, with Sanford a little more reserved and Flegmatov pushing the limits of his technique. Both were reliable partners for the women, the most impressive of which was 19-year old apprentice Sadie Brown for looking the part without having had any prior professional experience. Chelsea Clow turned in a technically strong albeit somewhat tentative performance in the First Variation on opening night while Rachael Riley exuded American brashness in the same variation the following evening. This “Who Cares?” was well-performed for a company that is not used to the Balanchine idiom, eliciting a hugely favorable reaction from the house. Continued coaching by Barker – and Auer, himself an accomplished dancer in his time – can improve the subtle nuances, rhythm and timing that make this work a gem.
The Balanchine work ended a memorable evening for each night's show but it was the middle section of the program – comprised of two modern works, “Sense of Doubt” and “Compulsive,” and a firecracker of a classic, the pas de trois from “Le Corsaire” – that first got the audience to their feet.
The Philip Glass-scored “Sense of Doubt,” choreographed by Paul Gibson, projects a surreal animalistic sensuality, especially as performed by guest dancers Lindsi Dec and Karel Cruz from Pacific Northwest Ballet. In coming together, intertwining their long limbs, pulling apart and coming back together again, Dec and Cruz are like one spirit split into two spiraling in and out of each other's orbits.
Newcomer Kyohei Giovanni Yoshida literally burst into the Grand Rapids scene in the adorably cute solo called “Compulsive,” created by Mário Radačovský to a whimsical tune by French musician Yann Tiersen. With a solitary chair on stage as an anchor point initially, Yoshida whipped about in a combination of modern pseudo jazz steps and turbo-boosted classical grand jetés, to the ooh and aahs from the house. The chair loses its symbol as an anchor when it is kicked over in a final gesture, as if an act of juvenile liberation. The combination of steps are uncomplicated but yet so effective.
As if one round of Yoshida was not enough, he took to the stage again – this time with ripped torso on display – in a dynamite of a performance as Ali in the excerpt from “Le Corsaire.” His even grander grand jetés and tours en l'air on steroids made the stage seem small. Not to be outdone, longtime company member Dawnell Dryja, herself exhibiting a tight athletic torso, matched Yoshida in speed if not in volume. If bringing the house down was what Barker had in mind, that she achieved with these two dancers whipping the crowd into a near frenzy.
Broadway show tunes and pyrotechnics aside, any ballet company wanting respect in the arts community ultimately needs to showcase its ability to perform a classical work. This makes the pas de dix from “Raymonda” (after Marius Petipa) an important inclusion in the program, and the company's execution of it very critical. If this performance were to be graded in comparison to others this perhaps jaded observer has seen, a very subjective “B-” would be appropriate. Good enough to do the ballet justice but not the most stellar either. The steps were danced well but as if in stoic classicism. Missing were the courtly flamboyance and romantic flair. And alas there was no live music to accompany the dancers. There were nonetheless moments of brilliance, with Laura Schultz exuding charm in her variation on opening night and Nicholas Schultz providing a gentle and debonair counterpoint to Riley's boundless energy the following evening. Expert work is needed to bring the best out of this company, which has the talent to make its mark on the American ballet scene.
It is not just the artistic talent that impresses. With 38 years of history behind it, the Ballet must be doing something right, starting with the board of directors one has to presume. It's not easy to tell if serendipity or meticulous research led to their choice of Interim AD but recruiting an artistic genius from a town that is not a mega metropolis and from a company known for performing in a variety of styles brings a compassionate understanding appropriate and compatible to the task at hand.
Then there is the administrative staff. Given the hard work in combination with less-than-corporate pay and almost none of the recognition, the turnover rate among non-artistic personnel is typically very high in performing arts organizations. Yet this company boasts at least one staffer, Misty Hendricks, who has been with the company for nine years, as long as dancer Dryja. Led by an enthusiastic Glenn Del Vecchio, the Interim Executive Director who is eager to entertain any manner of patron to promote the Ballet, the staff's marketing effort is now set in tone and perhaps made marginally easier by a brilliant opening night program that showcased the talent of the company while promising the level of both high art and exuberant entertainment that ballet-goers can expect. This veteran international arts observer (and contributor and volunteer) is looking forward to an enjoyable season in Grand Rapids to dispel his jadedness.