at the Blackstone Theatre

October 17, 19, and 20

The awkward adolescent has grown up. Like a member of the corps de ballet learning her first principal role, just discovering her unique mental and physical potential and anticipating a long, distinguished career, Ballet Chicago has come of age.

Circumstances conspire to make our time a critical and exciting one for ballet in America. The death of George Balanchine spurred a dance diaspora: Peter Martins assumed direction of the New York City Ballet, and Balanchine dancers–notably Kent Stowell, Francia Russell, Edward Villella, and Daniel Duell–left New York and established companies in the hinterlands. Balanchine never considered his ballets museum pieces–he suppressed some, revised some, tinkered with others–and he never exercised a choreographic monopoly over his company. To create a ballet company “in the Balanchine tradition” must be to create a company not only of Balanchine works, fine dancers, and beautiful productions, but also of vital, varied repertory bearing an unmistakable stamp of its own.

Ballet Chicago’s first seasons quashed any fear that Duell sought to clone NYCB or to establish himself as Balanchine’s sole legitimate heir. Most of Ballet Chicago’s dancers were already competent technicians. Performing Balanchine’s and Duell’s works established a characteristic company style in surprisingly little time: that style is musical, genteel, unaffected, and ostensibly democratic on the Balanchine model but with more youthful openness and typically midwestern warmth. Productions were generally well designed, only occasionally too clever. The company performed with accomplished musicians and conductors, and used taped scores only when absolutely necessary (sonic collages, historic recordings, etc). Until this year, the repertoire was problematic.

In three years, Ballet Chicago has built a repertory that includes Petipa, Bournonville, Balanchine (and Balanchine after Ivanov), Ruth Page, and contemporary choreographers Diane Coburn Bruning, Gerard Charles, Daniel Duell, Joseph Duell, Marcus Galante, Peter Martins, Lisa de Ribere, Stuart Sebastian, and Gordon Peirce Schmidt (recently appointed resident choreographer). These works are by no means all of equal artistic merit. There are few ballet choreographers in America; and there are very few who compound craftsmanship, a respect for convention and tradition, and the ability to entertain without condescending. Ballet Chicago’s wide-ranging repertory results from the company’s search for such a choreographer who is also sensitive to these dancers’ particular strengths and the emerging company style.

Schmidt’s By Django is a breezy romp for Samuel Bennett, Lesley Bories, Patti Eylar, Kristie George, Jeff F. Herbig, and Alexies Sanchez set to historic jazz recordings by Django Reinhardt and Stephane Grappelli. As the title suggests, it’s a punny dance–a Charleston step precedes a soussus; the flat-footed hops and arms-akimbo strut of the men’s trio recalls Rodeo; one dancer exits with Plisetskaya’s great leap, her head flung back nearly to her bent back leg. (Bolshoi prima ballerina assoluta Maya Plisetskaya herself appeared in By Django’s cameo role on Saturday night.) So many jazz dances and jazz ballets tread relentlessly on the beat, but in By Django, musical and choreographic phrases and accents sometimes coincide and sometimes diverge; the relationship of movement to score is unexpectedly complex and interesting. By Django doesn’t sacrifice classical virtues like line and elegance to showmanship and bravado; it’s easy without being cheap.

By Django is also transparent: it would look equally good on any group of accomplished technicians. By way of contrast, Schmidt’s new work for the company, Scenes From an Italian Songbook, suits these dancers’ particular strengths and idiosyncrasies and harmonizes with artistic director Duell’s emphasis on musicality.

Set to ten songs by Hugo Wolf performed onstage by soprano Patrice Michaels-Bedi, baritone Richard Cohn, and pianist Kimberly Schmidt, Scenes From an Italian Songbook suggests the tempestuousness of young love, dawning sensuality, and emotional excess. Chris Phillips’s soft lighting and Birgit Rattenborg Wise’s jewel-toned costumes evoke a time simpler and more elegant than our own.

The first two sections–a quartet for Michael Bjerknes, Herbig, John Ross, and Bennett, and another for Petra Adelfang, Karen Baynham, George, and Sherry Moray–introduce the dancers. The women’s quartet is the more polished; alternating moments of movement and stillness shift the focus from the ensemble to one dancer and then to another. The women’s performance, too, is more polished–a neat balance between effortless unison and individual differences in small details like the curve and placement of the hands.

Five solos, two duets, and a section for all eight follow, a series of dances that establish a changing emotional landscape more than tell the stories of the accompanying songs. Ross’s solo is a study in contrasts–rapid aerial turns and extended balances–that closes with a breathtaking tableau. Schmidt’s choreography displays the women to great advantage: Baynham’s fluidity animates a solo full of repeated developpes and space-devouring steps; lightning-paced steps and taut kicks stress Adelfang’s line and agility; Moray’s expressive arms and dramatic manner fill the stillness in rush after rush of interrupted steps.

Only two of the sections, Herbig’s solo and the duet for Bennett and George, adhere closely to the texts of the accompanying songs. Herbig dances with a new ease: perhaps that is why he can perform his solo’s legible gestures–its bows, waves, and fist shaking–with such appealing unself-consciousness. The duet testifies to the power of performance to transform choreography: one night, Bennett’s strangling in his jacket, prone pelvic thrust, and somersault looked trite and out of place; on another, the same sequence provided welcome comic relief.

Schmidt’s duet for Adelfang and Bjerknes presents the dancers as something other than a treasured ballerina displayed by her cavalier, more than the jewel and its setting. So often, lifts and supported turns seem to rob a ballerina of volition: she becomes an object lifted, swung, and lowered at another’s whim. These lifts are not static; Adelfang’s gestures string ascent and descent together. Bjerknes enables her to perform the dance’s peculiar, off-axis turns; he does not manipulate her. The dance becomes an activity the two perform together, ending with the partners in affecting unison. The final section, a sparkling ensemble, gradually quiets. With the women poised on the men’s shoulders, the men move up- and downstage on the diagonal, as calm and rhythmic as waves on a nearly windless beach. Scenes From an Italian Songbook subsides in a still embrace.

Ruth Page’s Die Fledermaus does not suit the Blackstone’s stage: Andre Delfau’s extravagant costumes, set pieces, and painted drops are simply overwhelming there, and the dancers seem to be engaged in a constant struggle to squeeze in all their steps and still avoid each other, the set, and the edge of the orchestra pit.

Die Fledermaus is a rollicking spectacle reminiscent of Diaghilev, Massine, and the Ballets Russes, replete with toe-tapping onlookers, mistaken lovers, and assorted high jinks set to Johann Strauss. Balanchine’s Apollo is bone-bare–angular movement, austere staging, dance subjected to the exigencies of its Stravinsky score. The stylistic flexibility necessary to perform both on the same program is extraordinary; Ballet Chicago’s ability to offer even credible performances of such disparate works is almost beyond belief.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Janet Mesic-Mackie.