Ballet Chicago

at the Civic Opera House, February 25-27

Perhaps George Balanchine’s most quoted apothegm was that he wanted “to make audiences see music and hear dancing.” Balanchine’s proteges recall his genius for shaping movement to music. Yet his style–spare, formal, and precise–demands a high level of technical expertise and refinement. Ballet Chicago’s recent tribute to Balanchine at the Civic Opera House proved that the ensemble is developing the polish and solidity of a first-class company. According to publicity materials, the troupe originally planned an all-Balanchine concert, but concerns about creating a “more balanced program” led them to abandon two Balanchine works in favor of resident choreographer Gordon Peirce Schmidt’s In a Nutshell.

It’s rare for Chicago audiences to see such legendary works as Balanchine’s Square Dance and the popular Rubies (from his three-part ballet Jewels). Murmurs of delight accompanied the opening of Rubies, which revealed a dozen dancers on pointe in shimmering ruby leotards, arms gracefully aloft in the low fifth that resembles a V. To a dramatic Stravinsky score, they execute sharp jetes, then undulate, rolling forward from the torso. Petra Adelfang, Christine Dorian, and Manard Stewart ably dance the leads, while the corps sculpts the background. One phrase has Stewart moving against the music as he partners, lunging into deep plies. Perhaps due to nerves, penches varied from very clean to very shaky. The ensemble does not always manage the precision of line that makes this highly stylized ballet so beautiful to watch and so difficult to perform.

Although he’s a fine dancer, Stewart lacks the authority and bearing that should accompany his bravura leaps. In one of the ballet’s signature moves, Adelfang rolls onto a severe forced arch, echoing the score’s edgy dissonance, but her footwork falls just short of capturing the requisite dynamic tension. This is a technically demanding ballet that a lesser company would not have the temerity to attempt, and Ballet Chicago deserves credit for risk taking and for nurturing young talent, all of whom show flashes of brilliance. Still, this performance lacked the undercurrent of tension and urgency that permeates other productions, most notably those of the New York City Ballet.

Set to music by Arcangelo Corelli and Antonio Vivaldi, Balanchine’s Square Dance is another ensemble piece giving prominence to the working design of unison movement. Stripped down from Balanchine’s original, this version has no dance caller or blatant suggestion of square dancing. It’s visually pleasing but insubstantial, devoid of purpose. Even the dancers’ sky blue leotards and pale tights are easy on the eyes but bland. The first section is rife with petits battements and beats, gamely executed by Jason Paul Frautschi: Frautschi and Lisa Kipp danced the leads. While Kipp projected an engaging sparkle, Frautschi was without affect. In their pas de deux, Kipp beautifully executed 180-degree penches, while Frautschi lacked attack. The pair seemed an odd couple, like Felix and Oscar: one was neat and tidy, the other ragged around the edges. Men in the corps looked stiff, and forgot to fully point their feet during jumps. The ensemble finally came together in the last section, dashing off Balanchine’s mercurial footwork. Kipp gives this rambling, unfocused work a thread of continuity, but this production is a case of the emperor having no clothes. The dancers don’t show us the motivation behind the steps.

Seasonal ballets have a wondrous power to evoke nostalgia. But like holiday cookies, they are best if consumed during the holidays and in moderation. Schmidt’s In a Nutshell is, in a nutshell, a jazzed-up version of the traditional shopworn Nutcracker on view each December. But audiences may not warm up to a ballet that celebrates Christmas when holiday bills are rolling in. I found the timing disturbingly anticlimactic, although I overheard contrary opinions.

Nutshell was the only dance on the program with the semblance of a set. Two metal desks sit alongside panels decorated with wreaths, and a lighted garland hangs above the “office.” Set to a lively Duke Ellington score (his Nutcracker Suite and “I’m Beginning to See the Light”), the ballet opens with Clara (Adelfang) feverishly trying to finish her work. It’s Christmas Eve, and clearly Boss (Robert Remington) and Dross (Stewart) partook too freely at the office party. Adelfang dances with verve, capably partnered by Stewart. She moves easily from arabesque to jazz steps with a Broadway theatricality. There are some humorous bits, as when Stewart lowers Adelfang from a lift into a fish dive, where she flails in protest. Stewart repeatedly dashes off four and five pirouettes with ease, but in the end Ellington’s score conveys more dramatic tension than the dancing. Children may be enthralled with the props–an enormous Christmas tree and miniature “car” appear onstage–but adults may find them cloying. The corps demonstrate some nice footwork in the divertissements, but overall the choreography fails to sustain interest. Too much activity is pinched into the end of the ballet, giving it a chaotic rather than festive air.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jennifer Girard.