The Ballet Theatre of Maryland opened its 2002-2003 season last weekend with an inspired performance at Maryland Hall for the Creative Arts. The evening began with theater President Casey McNeal paying tribute to the ballet company's founder and artistic director Edward Stewart, who died in July.
During the performance, it became clear that Stewart has left a legacy of talented dancers, who are now moving forward with guidance from guest choreographer Peter Anastos.
The founder of Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo and a Balanchine disciple, Anastos has taken the company into a new era with his masterful choreography.
For the evening's program, Anastos created one new work and revived two of his earlier ballets. He had also created a second new work, Partita Number One with music by Bach, for prima ballerina Zhirui Zou and principal dancer Bat-Erdene Udval. Unfortunately, during rehearsal, Zou suffered torn ligaments and was unable to dance at either weekend performance.
All three ballets were danced to live piano accompaniment with Stefan Scaggiari playing Chopin selections for Yes, Virginia, Another Piano Ballet and playing a 1924 solo piano version of George Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue." Pianist Amy Klosterman played selections by Claude Debussy for the Clair de Lune ballet.
The dance troupe rose to new heights in "Rhapsody in Blue." Four-year veteran Dmitri Malikov danced with increased fluidity and freedom in a lively pas de deux with Kelly Hoenig, who recently apprenticed at New York's Juilliard School. Dancers Christi Bleakly, Sarah Cincotta, Melis Gursoy, Jaime Lawton, Lara Tant and Anmarie Touloumis stylishly delivered all that was required. Completing the three trios of dancers were Robert Michalski, displaying new strength and an easy naturalness; Jeffrey Watson, always adept at jazz and now gaining a new fluidity; and Sergei Vladimirov, combining superb technique with a new sense of freedom.
This newfound freedom extended to each trio's easy changing of partners. This provided another liberating element along with a celebration of strength exhibited by the female dancers in their amazing extensions and breathtaking speed. Juxtaposed with fluidity and grace was a precision springing from syncopation, expressed in the sideward snapping of heads and slashing of space with rapid arm movements and high kicks.
Above all, a sense of pure joy permeated the ballet, with shifting forms creating ever-changing kaleidoscopic patterns and reflecting Gershwin's quintessentially American music. This work might well be subtitled "American Rhapsody" because it integrates the rhythms of African-American blues and jazz into the classical context of several themes, culminating in the ultra-romantic main theme that somehow grabs our attention no matter how often we've heard it.
Pianist Scaggiari captured every nuance of Gershwin's "Rhapsody" so well that I was often tempted to close my eyes to experience the sound more completely, a luxury this dance reviewer couldn't afford.
Clair De Lune, with the music of Claude Debussy beautifully played by Klosterman, formed a pleasant contrast. This ballet nicely balanced the program, although for me it lacked the excitement of what preceded and what followed. Here was a triple pas de deux danced by three couples: Vladimirov and Hoenig, Michalski and Lawton, and Watson and Bleakly, who filled in for the injured Zou with only three days rehearsal. This might be labeled the prettiest ballet of the evening, and it was the most conventional, but at times it lacked the smoothness that the choreographer undoubtedly intended.
The third ballet -- Anastos' classic Yes, Virginia, Another Piano Ballet, became the highlight of the evening with the dancers achieving near perfection in what is a demanding ballet. Pianist Scaggiari returned to offer several Chopin selections, and at one point became part of the fun as he proved to possess a sharp sense of comic timing.
This hilarious spoof of classical ballet that probably contains more than a grain of truth requires superb technique from the dancers. They must engage in a variety of near-collisions, ballerinas submitting to their partners' unceremoniously shoving them across the floor, finally grasping a piano leg or briefly perching on the piano bench.
Ballerinas jostle for position, competing for the attention of male dance partners, who display little affection for them. Or a partner approaches her, inviting the ballerina to dance a pas de deux, and the ballerina furiously shakes her head in refusal. Ballerinas' flat-footed entrances and exits, coupled with the most inelegant lifts imaginable, add up to the dancers' riotous poking fun at themselves and at their art.