Ballet Theatre of Maryland's program last weekend ranged from a too-long recital-like showcasing of dancers to new choreography that stretched our horizons and created a visually stunning performance.
Leonide Masine's whimsical one-act ballet La Boutique Fantasque (The Fantastic Toyshop), newly choreographed by BTM artistic director Edward Stewart, opened the program.
In the ballet, the toy-maker (Jeffrey Watson) and his wife (Charlotte McNutt) display an assortment of toy animals and dolls for a customer (Dmitri Malikov) and his daughter (Sarah Ruppel). A young woman hiding in the shop pretending to be one of the dolls (Ninel Cherevko )wins the heart of the customer.
Dancers portrayed animals, from a white rabbit to a frog to a ferocious lion, while others delivered lively international dances. A dozen children were cast as Native American dolls.
The toyshop segment ended with a romantic pas de deux danced by the customer and pretend doll, real-life husband and wife Malikov and Cherevko.
The ballet featured imaginative choreography, skilled dancing and Juliet Shore's gorgeous costumes, but was too long and lacked structure. The Malikov-Cherevko pas de deux seemed tacked on, with little relevance. At times it seemed that nobody was minding the store at this toyshop.
The second ballet, Diana and Acteon, telling the story of the Roman goddess of the hunt and a human hunter, was beautifully danced by Zhirui Zou and Bat-Erdine Udval. In her solo, principal ballerina Zou offered her incomparable fouettes in rapid succession, and Udval produced amazing barrel turns, reaching great elevation.
But together, Zou and Udval lacked the magic Zou shared in earlier partnerships with Dimitry Tuboltsev and, more recently, with Sergei Vladimirov.
The high point of the evening was Stewart's new three-movement neoclassical ballet Spirit of the Sun, danced to the serene music of contemporary composer Tim Janis. Although it introduces a new cool, detached element, this work clearly has Stewart's imprint in its overall beauty, disciplined movement and graceful lyricism.
The second movement, a tribute to Native Americans, has a strong, life-affirming quality that was powerfully expressed in the dancing of Udval and Vladimirov with Cherevko and Malikov.
The third movement created an uplifting yet stoically accepting mood. Recited excerpts from Rod McKuen's Sea Cycle fit Janis' melody like a perfect lyric with the words "I am not afraid. I'd go down gladly in a whirlpool, if I had ridden all day on a friendly wave" reinforcing the meaning of Stewart's new ballet.
The final ballet of the evening, guest choreographer Anton Wilson's Tease the Turtle, is a work as new as the day after tomorrow. The accompaniment, including music by Maryland Hall soundman Tony Sims, an 18th-century symphonic piece by British composer William Boyce and the Afro-Celt Sound System, ushered in a whole new realm of music. Using the turtle's shell as a metaphor to express how we restrict our progress toward self-realization, the dance worked on several levels.
The message of the ballet encourages letting go of our inhibitions to expand our freedom by listening to these repetitive, insistent sounds. A chorus of dancers created shifting patterns to challenge our visual perceptions.
Boyce's classic melodies blend and contrast with the dancers' sharply angular movements, their silhouetted images creating abstract patterns reminiscent of artist Henri Matisse's paper cutouts. Wilson takes us into an abstract realm of dance to reinforce his turtle shell message, extending our conception of what dance is about.