Welcome Back, MCB

by Martha Sherman

After 19 years, Miami City Ballet returned to Jacob’s Pillow. It opened The Pillow’s 85th season, presenting a beautiful, eclectic program of classic music and key 20th century choreographers. Heading past its third decade, the company is a gem, almost a southern offspring of the New York City Ballet, now under the artistic leadership of former NYCB principal Lourdes Lopez. Its deep roots in Balanchine’s technique continues to anchor the company. You could see it in the repertory choices: MCB brought three time-honored works, all originally created for NYCB.

But classics are classics for a reason – they last and they are timeless in their ability to move. Happily, they can also be recreated with satisfying power, when well-danced and staged, and each group that dances them stamps them with its own style. Opening with “Allegro Brillante,” MCB worked so tightly that despite an early spill by one of the dancers (who recovered instantly and didn’t miss another beat), the cast still delivered a beautiful performance.

In “Allegro,” five couples moved in and through challenging patterns with a feather touch. The four corps couples formed a continuous octet: the women’s flowing dresses of pale blue dresses, designed for the original production by Karinska, were as gorgeous and apt as ever.

The dancers’ command of Balanchine technique and intention gave this quick, sweet piece the gravity it also demanded. The weaving symmetry of the corps was clear and satisfying; the dancers moved as if the distance between their bodies had been set by a magnetic force. For the viewer, it was both a thrill and relief to watch the precision unfold. Despite Balanchine’s repeated insistence that he didn’t care about clean lines, they make it easier to see his patterns.

In the consistently bright troupe, the ballerina who stood out in the program was Jennifer Lauren, highlighted in two lead roles, first in “Allegro,” where her spring and lightness gave each of her scenes a crystalline quality.

Jovani Furlan, and Kleber Rebello in “Polyphonia.” Photo © Christopher Duggan.

She also danced with Kleber Rebello in one of the highlight duets in Christopher Wheeldon’s groundbreaking “Polyphonia,” which closed the performance. Each of the duets had its own bright or lyrical mood, adding up to a compelling small work that highlighted the company’s musical instincts and physical acumen. The piano music, by contemporary master, Györgi Ligeti, was played live by Francisco Rennó. At Jacob’s Pillow, where dance is the heart and soul of the enterprise, there is little space (and probably little budget) for live musicians. But what a difference it makes when the whole work is a shared artistic enterprise.

Between the two larger pieces was a charming quartet by Peter Martins, “Barber Violin Concerto.” In his funny and serious nod to the rigors of both classical and modern ballet, Martins paired the elegant and cool Simone Messmer (a former American Ballet Theatre artist) with Chase Swatosh as the classical dancers; and the fiery Nathalia Arja and Rainer Krenstetter as their modern alternatives. Costumed and coiffed to match their roles, the duets were also clearly demarcated by their lifts, movements, feet, port-de-bras all based on the same powerful techniques, and each constructed in their own tradition. In short opening gambits, each duet clearly modeled their own traditions; it was a shorthand textbook comparison of the two forms of dance.

Nathalia Arja and Chase Swatosh in “Barber Violin Concerto.” Photo © Christopher Duggan.

For the climax, not surprisingly, Martins had the dancers switch partners, and the contemporary style “won” in each scene. At first reluctant, the classical dancers bent to their freed and freeing partners. When Krenstetter finally persuaded Messmer to loosen up, she – literally – took down her hair to dance the end of her duet in the flowing mode of a newer form, her perfectly straight leg collapsing into an elegant but bent-kneed turn.

The second swapped couple had a more pointed dance struggle, a funny and relentless Arja jumped, pouted, annoyed, and prodded a reluctant Swatosh to abandon his courtliness. It read like a balletic form of “Anything you can do, I can do better,” and just as Ethel Merman did, Arja won her contest. Swatosh surrendered to her relentless energy, and she rolled over his shoulders to perch like a ship’s figurehead, pointing to the future.

Victorious though the modern partners were in their scuffles, the through-line of classical ballet technique was the essential vocabulary. Miami City Ballet would be the last to discard it, this territory where their power and elegance is situated.

copyright © 2017 by Martha Sherman

“Allegro Brilliante,” “Barber Violin Concerto,” “Polyphonia” – Miami City Ballet
Jacob’s Pillow Festival, Becket, MA.
June 24, 2017

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