Ballet Theater of Chicago

at the Athenaeum Theatre,

October 17-20

By Joseph Houseal

Ballet Theater of Chicago is an appealing, full-blooded company unbound to the (fatal?) rigors of attempting to be a Balanchine satellite: using the New York City Ballet as a prototype is problematic. Balanchine himself recognized the transient nature of dance and had no specific plan for the concretization of his choreographic legacy; many New York dancegoers now question whether even the NYCB dances Balanchine properly. Dance Balanchine, yes, again and again. But don’t try to re-create what was essentially, inescapably, and only his: his company.

Imposition, even of a Balanchine ideal, almost never works. Integrity, as offbeat as it might be, almost always does. And BTC, as far as I can tell, has integrity. After a raucous Dance Chicago ’96 opening night, with a full house cheering on the five groups including BTC, the less-than-half-full house for the opening of BTC’s season was disappointing.

The evening opened with the second act of perhaps the most famous of classical ballets, Swan Lake. Immediately we saw three clearly defined roles–VonRothbart, the evil sorcerer; Odette, the most beautiful of the swans; Sigfried, the torn prince–and three excellent dancers. The richness of one of the great forms of Western theater was manifest from the start, and it only got richer: more exquisite as dance, more captivating as story. One reason was the remarkable dancing of Meridith Benson, the company’s associate director and a principal dancer with the Joffrey. It’s puzzling that she’s not better known in national and international circles. Two other utterly different ballerinas resemble her in the way they enrapture an audience with their artistry: Sylvie Guillem, now with the Royal Ballet, and the NYCB’s incompar-able Kyra Nichols. A good production of Swan Lake is rare, and very much determined by the ballerina who plays Odette. The Royal Ballet has an excellent Swan Lake, and so does BTC.

Benson performs with the music coursing through her veins, her whole body, saturating the dance. An inner intensity builds within her and finds an expression that’s unhurried and full. Nureyev said to dance as slowly as possible because it made the dance more beautiful, and in Benson we witness that. Not only does her performing reveal the highest technical caliber and theatrical mastery, it has a personal quality, a commit-ment to the present moment–and another reality plays out before our eyes. She is an extraordinary dancer.

The power of classical ballet reaches a kind of apotheosis in the legendary pas de deux of act two between Odette and Sigfried: Cuban dancer Guillermo Leyva Barley was fine, controlled, and complementary to Benson as her partner. Here years of hard training allowed the details of technique to sing, and the multiple nuances of epaulement, or movement of the neck and head, coupled with genuine eye contact and facial expressions revealed the truths of this dance. Benson conveys a pained and exquisite awareness of how impos-sible and precious their love is: here is the emotional whirlwind of pain and love, of beauty and sadness. BTC artistic director Mario de la Nuez, a dancer himself, the company, and especially Benson bring these classical forms alive, revealing the superhuman grace, strength, and agility that ballet dancers can uniquely possess.

BTC’s corps, who filled the stage with swans, were unified by their fine technique: though each swan was individually absorbed by her own dance, they moved in synchronicity, joined by their curse. They were cool and aloof, swans not women, beautiful and nervous. Lilla Makki stood out for her wonderful proportions and lissome interpretations, but the entire company exhibit an exquisite freedom in their use of the back that naturally extends to the expressive use of the neck and head and to open hips, affording lush jetes. The four Cygnets, with their much-parodied variation of intertwined arms and lateral jumps, did not disappoint. Their crisp epaulement was of a technical level rarely seen: they actually looked in the directions in which they turned their heads, when often dancers do little more than struggle through the rapid changes of shape. Seventeen-year-old Sean Stewart as VonRothbart is an unlikely dancer, still with some baby fat and in the throes of adolescence. But his technique is whistle-clean, and he performs with the innocent confidence of youth. His effortless amplitude in turning jumps is simple factuality, presence not pretense. He’ll grow into the evil the role requires.

The evening continued with a premiere by Joffrey dancer Tyler Walters, Without Seeing Without Speaking, set to unspecified music by Poulenc. The work evoked much of what was done in Europe in the last 15 or 20 years by groups such as the Hamburg Ballet, Stuttgart Ballet, and even Bejart Ballet. Ambiguous and impassioned, abstract and urgent, this is more an intelligent rearrangement of forms than real innovation. At its best the work is intriguing and hypnotic, capturing attention by mirroring organic shapes and exhibiting a driving compulsion whose source is unclear. It treats, but does not trade in, images of isolation and mild brutality, which resolve somehow in an intense, slow-burn pas de deux. Walters says he choreographed this pas de deux on his fiancee Julie Janus (another Joffrey dancer), hoping to reveal that beyond all the complex interactions we engage in is a real person with whom a connection can be made. The dancers gave the work a shimmering energy, and having such resources, Walters would do well to work with a contemporary composer who challenges his gifts and move from the art world to the real world, as choreographers such as William Forsythe and Ashley Page have done in their explorations of the chaotic extreme edges of ballet.

The justly famous pas de deux from Le corsair was elegantly danced by Rafaella Centro Munoz and Norbe Risco Avila, who occasionally looks very much like Nureyev. They stayed on the side of calm assurance, avoiding the ta-dah trap that plagues many interpretations of this showstopper. Still, the duet ends as so many classic pas de deux do: with bombast. One is unsure whether one is in an opera house or the big top.

The evening ended with James Clauser’s Surprise Symphony, a lighthearted sorbet full of airy little advancing jumps and flashes of humor that rely on breaking the formal conventions of ballet. Some of the variation details, such as wrist flips and bent ankles, were silly but funny. It was a delightful ending to a delightful evening: even the programming reflected the company’s excellence. Chicago may have finally gotten the ballet company it’s been waiting for.

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