at Ravinia

August 30

There’s an inherent excitement in witnessing the birth of some new talent. An artist at the beginning of a career, on the brink of success, has an eagerness to please, an ambition that promises you not only what’s before your eyes but the possibility of much more.

Multiply this sense of possibility by 30 dancers, and you have Miami City Ballet. This vibrant young company (it was founded in October 1986) is full of eager young faces with big, bright smiles. You look at Miami City Ballet and think “potential.” Not that the company isn’t already professional or technically sound. Its performances are good now; they might be great. I imagine this is how the cognoscenti felt in the early days of New York City Ballet, when there were jeers at Balanchine’s neoclassical aesthetic. Not that MCB’s resident choreographer, Jimmy Gamonet De Los Heros, has anything like Balanchine’s genius. But there is a certain feel and look to the company that spells ultimate success.

“We wanted to skip provincialism, and bring in and develop our own talent,” said MCB’s artistic director Edward Villella in a preperformance lecture. Villella, a former NYCB dancer and a great one, is clearly used to being center stage. He gave some pointers on what to expect from the evening’s program: Balanchine’s 1961 Raymonda Variations comes from a 19th-century tradition but adds a 20th-century veneer and understanding, expressing a constant elegance of bearing. De Los Heros’s Movilissimanoble (premiered this May) also deals with people moving in a noble manner, but in an even more contemporary vein. “Rubies,” a section from Balanchine’s full-length ballet Jewels (1967), has a sense of a new American elegance. Villella tells us that Balanchine wanted the set to create “a Milky Way of jewels.”

The curtain opens in “Rubies” to reveal a deep red glow to everything onstage, including the dancers dressed in plush crimson; the pinpoints of light across the ceiling look like reflecting facets of a giant ruby. It is breathtakingly beautiful: Balanchine knew how to create spectacle. That initial sense of awe is sustained once the lights go up and the dancers begin to go through their rapid-fire paces.

This was one of Villella’s signature pieces, and his work with the company shows in the fine ensemble dancing. Unfortunately, the solo work isn’t quite up to par; the three soloists are competent but not electrifying, as Villella once was in the principal male role. Watching this “Rubies” is like seeing a necklace of glittering fine young dancers with no solitaires. But the dancers (Marcia Sussman, Sally Ann Isaacks, and David Palmer) look as if they’ll grow into it, and one expects to see star quality eventually. This is, after all, a young company; and no star-studded ballet company forms overnight.

MCB looked the elegant part in Raymonda Variations that Villella had described. The opening scene, which contrasts the dancers’ intensely pink tutus with the gray set and its realistically painted marble columns, gives the piece an instant elegance. The dancers’ regal bearing is up to the same standard.

Once the lead couple (Iliana Lopez and Franklin Gamero) enters dressed in blue, the pastel palette is picture-perfect. Lopez has a restrained, studied lyricism as she raises or rounds her arms. Her smile implies a European sophistication, as if she were holding back but could do so much more for you if she wanted to or if you asked her. She doesn’t dance with a dynamic full-out force that would bowl you over, preferring a subtle sophistication that matches Gamero’s sensitive partnering. His intent attention to her reminded me briefly of Ivan Nagy’s famed partnering abilities.

Comparisons to other dancers constantly sprang to mind as I watched MCB. Quick as lightning, in a certain gesture or movement or characteristic look, I’d see a flash of another dancer’s greatness, then it would be gone. Maybe that’s why an aura of distinction clings to the company. In any event, the present dancers have good line, and Gamero’s fast and fancy footwork in his solo variations pays tribute to Villella’s glory days. Natalie Hauser in her variation gets through her sustained pointe work creditably, and Dominique Angel’s straight and rigid torso makes her variation suitably regal and proud. Myrna Kamara’s variation is a little too studied; you see her mentally preparing for her poses and positions, getting ready to point a foot or place an arm. But later, when the fast-paced choreography calls for an instantaneous physical response, she’s forced to do the movements without thinking about them and has a quick, high jump.

Maribel Modrono substituted for Lopez in De Los Heros’s Movilissimanoble, dancing with Isaacks, Palmer, and Eve Lawson. Palmer reminded me of a young Ib Andersen, another NYCB star, planting his feet just as firmly into the ground and turning just as securely. This piece, too, has a visually stunning opening scene: its electric blue costumes are the perfect foil for the pastels of Raymonda Variations, which preceded it. The elegant movement here comes with a quirky twist in the Balanchine vein. After a brief blackout, a bright-purple-costumed contingent is featured, and its central dancer becomes a human maypole swathed in trailing white banners that end in an abstract design of purple and blue. The bold summer colors seem inspired by Floridians’ clothes, and the color scheme together with the neoclassical choreography give the piece a modern, even trendy look. As the banners are wrapped and rewrapped around the central dancer, intricate shapes evolve, making the piece seem almost Oriental–the material, like fans in the dancers’ hands, seems to form a flower pattern. Outdoors at Ravinia, the cloth also billowed in the wind, creating an extra layer of movement.

Movilissimanoble includes a brief pas de deux, but it’s too lacking in emotion to have any intensity. Four men in purple are given a macho dance together; they bring their fists repeatedly against their chests in typical he-man style, looking like throwbacks to Ted Shawn’s men trying to prove their virility. It’s a powerful gesture, but it also has a consciously humorous side. Ultimately, interesting as it is to watch the dancers, Movilissimanoble has an imitative stamp–after Balanchine’s inimitable style. It’s a good copy, like an art student’s rendering of a museum masterpiece; but still it’s just a drawing, not the original painting.

The MCB dancers, too, in general have an NYCB clone look, the women seemingly all tall, thin, and long- legged. But today’s art students go on to become tomorrow’s legendary artists. If they continue to progress at the rapid pace they’ve already shown, and are given more coaching from Villella, these dancers may follow in his august footsteps.

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