Ballet Theater of Chicago

at the Athenaeum Theatre,

October 8-12

By Molly Shanahan

Ballet is hard. In every sense. As I sat down to watch Ballet Theater of Chicago at the Athenaeum–in a solid performance peppered with brilliance–I was desperately trying to suspend the disbeliever in me, the part that has trouble reconciling the pretense, the artificiality, and the majesty and fantasy of ballet with the fact that most of us need more than a proscenium stage, dramatic lighting, and shimmering costumes to “escape.” The disbeliever asks, “Why are the dancers smiling so much?” and “Into what unreachable land are they gazing?” I want reality, not pretense. I want edge, not fantasy. I want real people onstage, not heroes, fairies, or princes. I want to be moved, not awed. I want to be reminded of joy, not handed it on a platter.

The concert was made up of three works. Cuban choreographer Jorge Garcia’s Majisimo, with music by Massanet, is described in the program as “a powerful classical ballet based on Spanish classical dance traditions.” A celebratory, well-structured piece for four couples, Majisimo follows a choreographic formula: the couples dance together, then in male and female groups followed by a duet, and the group reassembles and finishes as they began, with a victorious center-stage pastiche.

The piece calls for a proud demeanor, but perhaps the dancers are also proud of their tenacious young company, propelled by the vision of artistic directors Mario de la Nuez and Meridith Benson. The dancers’ faces belie the anxiety produced by small audiences, an uncertain future in a difficult funding climate, and a city whose heart seems big enough to embrace only a few major dance companies. The BTC dancers must be tough. And at the beginning of Majisimo, that toughness seemed to affect their performance: it was solid but a little stiff and overdone. However, as the piece progressed into the male quartet and through the end, the fire behind these dancers’ resolve began to shine through, and they offered their talents with unapologetic passion. The payoff for ballet dancers, who spend years reshaping their muscles and bones, comes during performance, when they become the means by which an audience is transfixed–however fleetingly–in wonder.

Choreographically, the strongest section of Majisimo occurs in the middle, when three couples reenter from the wings, weaving through the space in lush waltzlike patterns. Guillermo Leyva Barley, who set the piece on BTC, seems to have injected this section with his own spirit, his innate sense of its Spanish bravado, and thereby moved away from the earlier careful placement, allowing the dancers’ energy–and the viewer’s eye–to bounce rapidly from place to place. Throughout the piece, lead dancer Rafaela Cento Mu–os exhibits a rare combination of virtuosic skill and reserve. And like all the dancers in BTC’s corps, she moves with an expressive torso and port de bras, revealing a refreshing fluidity compared to ballet dancers who focus too much on lightning-fast articulation through the legs and feet.

The second work was Three Preludes, a pas de deux set to Rachmaninoff and choreographed by Houston Ballet’s Ben Stevenson (who won a medal for the work in 1961 at the Varna dance competition). The piece opens with prima ballerina Meridith Benson standing before a ballet barre and her partner, Leyva Barley, mirroring her behind it. At first their dancing suggests a strained intimacy, which through a series of lifts and the man’s manipulation of the woman over, under, and around the barre becomes less strained and more romantic. While inventive and executed with satisfying abandon, the use of the barre seems cliched and would have been a disappointment if it weren’t for Benson’s and Leyva Barley’s committed performances.

The second and third preludes find the pair intertwined among patches of light, liquidly embracing in a series of virtuosic but repetitive lifts. While the latter sections of Three Preludes also showcase Benson’s astonishing range, the choreography loses its emotional impact. At this point I wanted to know more about the couple’s relationship, which dissipates given the length of Rachmaninoff’s pieces. I was awed by the dancing, but not moved.

The final work on the program was the “Kingdom of the Shades” act from Marius Petipa’s famous 19th-century ballet La bayadere, restaged for BTC by Benson. Danced by the corps de ballet, including a trio of three women, the piece highlights the pas de deux of the lovelorn male and female leads, Nikia and Solor–performed by Cento Mu–os and the strong and buoyant Norbe Risco Avila–woven into a fantasy sequence during which Solor dreams of his murdered Nikia. This dance is all make-believe, complete with chiffon, starry tutus, and off-in-the-distance gazes. I found the choreography stilted and academic until the last third of the act, when the dancers move again through the shapes they performed less freely in the first part. The male solo showcases Risco Avila’s larger-than-life jumps. But the piece suffers from too many false endings, and with a few exceptions, the dancers’ performances glossed over the drama–and tragedy–the plot suggests. Again, I wondered why they were smiling.

De la Nuez clearly envisions Ballet Theater of Chicago as a company of international-caliber dancers presenting classical and contemporary classical works in accessible theaters at accessible prices. These laudable goals in some ways give him more in common with emerging modern companies in Chicago than with the larger, mainstream companies, which seem so wrapped up in the “business” of dance that their aesthetic objectives remain unclear. What motivates de la Nuez and company is obviously a love of their art form combined with a desire to respond to economic realities ignored by larger ballet companies. Their press materials clearly and humbly state their mission and values rather than listing a dossier of accomplishments. De la Nuez wants us to know that he’s committed to excellence in his dancers and repertoire and to affordable venues–that he’s dedicated to bringing classical dance to the world because he believes it lifts our spirits and makes our lives better.

As the evening progressed, I began to wonder if I want to deny ballet its rightful place because in a way its artificiality has produced our overly edgy world, with its assumption that pretense and fantasy are mindless forms of entertainment. But classical ballet is like a book of manners, postures, and trends marking a significant part of Western theatrical history. Each codified movement–hackneyed when performed by some, luxuriated in by others–bears the signature of time. This night, for me, Mario de la Nuez was a hero embarking on a journey with little more than his vision, courage, and a tiny army of well-trained, passionate dancers. Yes, ballet often exists in a fantasy world, evoking dreamy recollections of loves forever lost. But in this case the grit and edge that fascinate me exist behind the scenes.

Ballet is hard, and it will probably never be my favorite form of dance. But I’ll settle for being awed by the skill and passion of de la Nuez and company, because the disbeliever in me is moved by their belief in themselves, the work they want to share with us, and its timeless ability to celebrate the human spirit.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Meridith Benson and Guillermo Leyva Barley photo by Lee P. Thomas.