Fort Worth Dallas Ballet

'Donizetti Variations,' 'Four Last Songs,' 'Who Cares?'

by Jennifer Cody

February 14, 2003 -- Bass Performance Hall, Ft. Worth, TX

The Fort Worth Dallas Ballet and its audience got its first true taste of the future this weekend at the Bass Performance Hall in Fort Worth, Texas, and the addition of Ben Stevenson to the ballet’s artistic staff makes the company’s future seem bright indeed.

The company presented two works typical to its repertoire: Balanchine’s "Donizetti Variation"s and "Who Cares?".

The FWD Ballet has long made its mission to focus on Balanchine ballets, but after this production I wonder if the company has finally found its calling elsewhere: in Ben Stevenson’s vision and choreography. This production, which ran from February 14-16, marked the first Stevenson ballet to enter the company’s repertoire: the provocative and beautiful "Four Last Songs," which left the Balanchine pieces small and in the shadows.

The first ballet of the night was Balanchine’s "Donizetti Variations." Though its colorful pastoral costumes and eternal happiness were indeed charming, the ballet succeeded in leaving the audience cold and unimpressed. The dancers seemed to lack the balance and security necessary to bring the joy out of the ballet, which in this case seemed to be more fluff than anything else.

The third ballet of the night, "Who Cares?", seemed to suffer from a similar affliction. Though excellently danced by the entire company, it was deficient in the charm that the ballet should have exuded. It seemed that each individual section of "Who Cares?" contained only a little piece of the ballet’s carefree intentions, but ultimately the pieces ended up making more than a mediocre whole. The highlights of the ballet were the ensemble numbers: only then did the spirit and drive truly transmit to the audience.

The second selection in the performance truly stole the show from the Balanchine romps. Ben Stevenson’s "Four Last Songs", a study of the journey from life to death, brought out the absolute best the FWD Ballet has to offer, and deserves a more in depth description than the other ballets on the program. The ballet is set in four movements to four songs composed by Strauss with vocals sung by Melissa Givens.

As soon as the curtain opened I knew we were in for something special. We were presented with a bare black box for a set, decorated only with a huge, gauzy white sheet suspended from above. Between each movement of the ballet, the gauze shifted above the dancers to form a new shape and a new atmosphere for each dance.

The dancers first entered the stage in a tightly entwined, protective group, moving and interacting with each other across the stage. Each was stripped down in costume to a bare, revealing flesh colored unitard. There was nothing to separate us from the exposed emotions of the dancers. Soon, the mass breaks, and we are left with an understated but ecstatic pas de deux (danced by Christy Corbett Miller and David Scott Thompson) of young love. It embodies the hopefulness and the idealistic nature of youth, and feels as if happiness could never end.

The second movement, a pas de trois featuring Marcella Ducsay (a gorgeous dancer whose combination of innocence and womanly maturity seemed meant for this ballet), Grant Dettling, and Ronnie Underwood, was a dance of contented security that, in the end, somehow went wrong. Ducsay began enclosed in strong circles formed by the arms of her two male partners, and each of the three seemed to be praising one another as they danced. Somehow, though, their contentment turned sour and their expressions of happiness disappeared. They lost hold of their feeling of safety, which was replaced by disillusionment and regret. They unsuccessfully tried to disconnect themselves from a hurtful destiny they knew they would have to face anyway.

The third movement was another pas de deux, but not of love and happiness but instead of pain and loss. As they danced together, the two (Enrica Guana Tseng and Michael Clark) strove for contact that they never achieved. Each time the woman tried to enter the safety of the man’s arms, suddenly he was no longer there to hold her. They both needed intimacy, but were afraid of getting too close because they knew that they would eventually be separated.

During the final movement, Michelle Gifford is featured in a dance of death and loneliness. Her solo, filled with the fluidity of lament and the sudden jerks of sobs, perfectly captured her despair. Slowly, the rest of the dancers enter the stage like ghosts, and she pleads for comfort from those who are no longer there. She finally lost hope as she watched everyone around her lay down and die. She then submitted to her fate as the white shroud fell from the ceiling to cover them all in death.

When the curtain fell on this ballet, the audience was instantly on their feet. I have never seen this company so fully grasp a ballet, and I have certainly never seen its audience respond with such an ovation. If the Balanchine works presented at this performance represent the FWD Ballet’s past and Stevenson’s influence represents the future, I anxiously await what’s undoubtedly in store for this company.

Edited by Mary Ellen Hunt.

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