at the Civic Center for Performing Arts

April 25, 27, and 28

Ballet Chicago’s three performances at the Civic Opera House last week offered heartening assurance that the young troupe is well on its way to establishing itself as a resident ballet company Chicago can take pride in. Artistic director Daniel Duell can also take pride in the vibrant young phoenix he’s raised from the ashes of Chicago City Ballet.

Three years ago, when Duell assumed the artistic leadership of Chicago City Ballet, he found he’d stepped into a hornet’s nest. Bitter arguments over the company’s direction had forced the departure of founder Maria Tallchief and a number of board members and dancers and the loss of studio space and financial backing.

Duell was left with a demoralized shell of a company and little money with which to rebuild. Local balletomanes, long discouraged by the fractiousness and infighting that had caused one resident troupe after another to collapse over the years, were about to give up on ballet in Chicago.

But Duell, a former principal dancer with New York City Ballet, hadn’t moved here to preside over a funeral. He simply rolled up his sleeves and got to work. He engaged and assiduously trained a new young corps, and he started to build a repertory. He naturally drew on the works of his mentor, the late George Balanchine, but he also generously opened the door to new choreographic talent. Money began to trickle in as a mark of confidence in the young troupe, and as the eclectic Opera House program and performances proved, that confidence was not misplaced. Allegro Brillante, one of Balanchine’s trickiest neoclassic pieces, to Tchaikovsky’s Third Piano Concerto, was the sprightly, pretty curtain raiser. Four couples led by a fifth (Sherry Moray and David Newson) showed off their freshly honed technical sharpness and clarity–in body line, toe work, and arms–and their musical security in the lightness of their attack. Newson, new to BC, is an attractive, buoyant dancer and a sympathetic, supportive partner with a clean, precise technique and good elevation. Moray’s performance was the pleasantest surprise. One of the few CCB dancers who stayed on, she has finally overcome the diffidence with which she used to carry her head and shoulders, and projects a more assured and aesthetically pleasing persona. Andrea Swan was the brilliant piano soloist; the BC orchestra was conducted by George Daugherty.

By Django, by Gordon Peirce Schmidt, a BC dancer, to recorded music of Django Reinhardt and Stephane Grappelli, was introduced last autumn. A striking hit then, Schmidt’s imaginative, slyly witty spoof of long-gone vaudeville acts, performed in Kathryn Koesling’s equally witty period-piece flapper costumes, is now executed with even more conviction. Schmidt’s tongue-in-cheek humor and his ease in combining show-biz traditions with technically demanding classic ballet movements were sheer delight. The cast of six threw itself wholeheartedly into the spirit of the six-sectioned piece. Kristie George and Sally Rousse were especially entertaining as they cavorted in precise unison on toe with canes; Newson, Samuel Bennett, and Alex Sanchez were a virtuoso trio in their turn.

Further proof of BC’s ability to cope with an eclectic repertory was offered by its performance of Peter Martins’s astringently neoclassic Calcium Light Night. Duell and Heather Watts originated the role for NYCB in 1978, and Petra Adelfang and Manard Stewart brought an austere strength to the nine enigmatic short pieces by Charles Ives.

Lisa de Ribere’s Orchesographie, performed to Peter Warlock’s music arranged for brass qunintet, was danced by Bennett, Newson, Sanchez, Mark Ward, and Jeffrey Wong in black tie. An amusing piece with a somewhat avant-garde dance design, Orchesographie gave the quintet a fine opportunity to show off their accomplished leaps and keen sense of timing.

Balanchine was also represented by Square Dance, a 1957 piece that concluded the evening in fine style and spirit. Despite its folksy title, Square Dance was created to selections by Arcangelo Corelli and Antonio Vivaldi, prominent Baroque composers. When it was first presented, Square Dance boasted a country caller who actually called out the dance patterns. Balanchine eliminated that fussy if cute detail years ago, however, and the piece is performed in practice dress, allowing it to be seen in its abstract, neoclassic purity.

Even without the caller, one can distinguish some familiar square-dance figures: the longways set, the circular running set, and promenading one’s partner. However, the Russian Balanchine (where did he learn so much about American folk dance?) redesigned them as a series of enchanting ballet enchainements. The six couples here, headed by Adelfang and Stewart as the seventh, provided such scintillating charm and bravura dancing that even the most hardened NYCB fan could approve and enjoy.

Ballet Chicago is still too young and too small–only 18 dancers–to qualify as a major ballet company, and it must expand its repertoire. The present size of the company, of course, will play a part in determining the works it can present, which will in turn determine BC’s direction. However, with this engagement, one can unequivocally say that BC is on the way–if not yet to national prominence, then certainly to a leading role among regional troupes.

A sign of the company’s increasing importance on the ballet scene was the announcement last week that Randall Green, executive director of the Civic Center for the Performing Arts, is leaving that position to be managing director of BC. When so savvy a man–Green has been largely responsible for expanding the Civic Center’s presentation of dance–expresses such confidence in a young troupe, we can also share in the dream of Chicago as a major dance center.