at the Civic Opera House

May 21

Ballet Chicago, latest applicant for the position of Chicago’s resident classic dance company, made a promising debut with a calling-card benefit performance at the Opera House. judging from the modesty, intelligence, and care with which artistic director Daniel Duell prepared the company for this event, it appears likely that he has hit on a workable formula for rebuilding the company, a formula that wisely includes generous amounts of patience and realism.

Of course we should keep our fingers crossed, for such hopeful words have been heard too many times over the years, as one classic troupe after another has bit the dust amid personality conflicts, suicidal backbiting among various boards of directors, costly, overambitious projects, and favoritism that drove many gifted dancers away.

Duell arrived in Chicago last summer to assume artistic leadership over the Chicago City Ballet after the resignation of Paul Mejia, the troupe’s artistic director. He found a disheartened pretense of a ballet troupe rehearsing for the premiere of Joel Hall’s disastrous jazz ballet Chicago, which was the kiss of death for CCB.

A more worldly, cynical man might have looked at the wreckage and run the other way. But the 35-year-old Duell simply rolled up his sleeves and got to work with the dancers who had been left high and dry with CCB’s demise, and he began to develop friendly, supportive relationships with leading dance and musical organizations, and business and civilian supporters.

His work with the dancers (who now number 20, including several new faces) showed on the program of five cleverly chosen pieces; there was a new cleanliness, clarity, and precision of technique. The curtain raiser was Jubilee!, a pleasant if unimportant piece, choreographed by Duell’s brother, the late Joseph Duell, to rollicking music by Louis Moreau Gottschalk, familiar to us from Ruthanna Boris’s ballet Cakewalk. The corps of eight dancers, and principals Petra Adelfang, Elise Flagg, Joseph Malbrough, and Kip Sturm, offered bright, perky performances. Arms and legs were under control, elevation was effortless, and lifts were smooth and effortless. It was an encouraging beginning, if not breathtaking ballet.

Marius Petipa’s Le corsaire pas de deux was danced by Sherry Moray and a newcomer, Maximiliano Guerra, who recently won a silver medal at the International Ballet Competition in New York. Guerra will be a tremendous asset to Ballet Chicago. He has the bravura style of a true virtuoso.

Another pas de deux, from George Balanchine’s neoclassic masterpiece Apollo, was beautifully danced by Moray and Steven Majewicz, who has the good looks that the title brings to mind. Moray was much more comfortable here, in the demanding role of the Muse, than as the captive princess in Le corsalre, where she was merely correct.

The program concluded with Balanchine’s Allegro Brillante, set to Tchaikovsky’s Second Piano Concerto, brilliantly played by soloist Andrea Swan with the Ballet Chicago Orchestra, under the baton of George Daugherty. The principals, Petra Adelfang and Manard Stewart, had no difficulty with Balanchine’s complex choreographic designs. Since the BC roster is so much smaller than New York City Ballet’s, the corps in this presentation consisted of only eight dancers. Yet they looked fine and coped well. I was impressed that the company was so well-prepared, given its brief existence.

Of course, five short pieces do not an evening of ballet make, nor should any reasonable person have expected to see a perfectly finished, technically burnished troupe at this stage of BC’s existence. The company is still a baby, and needs time to grow and mature. This is where the national dance community showed its generosity of spirit and its goodwill toward Duell and Ballet Chicago. A number of the best-known and most accomplished regional American troupes contributed to the evening’s success by freely donating several dancers to the program.

Deborah Hadley and Benjamin Houk of the Pacific Northwest Ballet danced a sensuous, sculptural pas de deux, choreographed by Vincente Nebrada to three piano preludes by Scriabin. Gail Rosenheim, a former principal with Chicago City Ballet, now with the San Francisco Ballet, danced an elegant solo, Confidencias, by Helgi Tomassen, SFB’s artistic director, to a group of romantic Spanish waltzes by Ernesto Nazareth.

Janie Parker and Li Cunxin of the Houston Ballet danced a dazzling Esmeralda pas de deux, choreographed by Ben Stevenson, HB’s artistic director who for a short time a number of years ago headed a resident Chicago ballet. The final guest presentation was a contribution from Les Grands Ballets Canadiens, Katia Breton and Nicholas Minns dancing James Kudelka’s Alliances, a deeply moving portrayal of a disturbing, complicated personal relationship set to the second movement of Brahms’s Piano Concerto no. 1.

These guest appearances, and the loans of costumes and musical scores, served several purposes. They enriched the program immeasurably, of course. They demonstrated to the audience that a local ballet company, given support by its community, can develop into an aesthetic joy. And they certainly showed that dancers and artistic directors from far and wide have confidence in Duell’s ability to develop Ballet Chicago into a Chicago cultural resource. It won’t happen overnight, nor does Duell expect it to. But right now he has the goodwill and support of many in Chicago, people who are aware that a classic ballet can mean as much to a city as a baseball team.

Unfortunately, there are dark forces at play. I was told by one of the guest artists that members of his institution were harangued and threatened by someone here who didn’t want them to appear in support of Ballet Chicago. One can only hope that this was merely the act of a single, disgruntled individual. But why would anyone want to destroy this infant?