Texas Ballet Theater Tchaikovsky Evening Review
February 11, 2022 | Wyly Theatre – Dallas, TX, USA
On February 11 at the Dee and Charles Wyly Theater of the AT&T Performing Arts Center, Texas Ballet Theater celebrated the opening night of a three-piece showcase set to the stunning sounds of the Russian composer behind many of ballet’s beloved scores – Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky. Those in attendance were also witness to the world premieres of choreography by Artistic Director Ben Stevenson and Associate Artistic Director Tim O’Keefe.
The evening opened with one of George Balanchine’s signature works, Serenade, set to Tchaikovsky’s Serenade for Strings in C, Op. 48. Serenade is heralded as a major milestone in dance history, as it was the first original ballet Balanchine choreographed in the United States and remains revered 87 years later.
The ballet has undergone several transformations since its initial presentation, though in its present form there are four movements expressing a breadth of movement quality and emotion – “Sontina,” “Waltz,” Russian Dance,” and “Elegy.” The final two movements reverse the order of Tchaikovsky’s score, concluding the ballet on a somber note.
The music begins in a darkened theater, and the curtains open to reveal the women of TBT bathed in pale blue and standing stoic in the iconic parallel position with one arm and a flexed wrist elegantly extended upward toward the light.
The audience breathlessly awaits the ascending chords that compel the women to gradually lower their arms until the backs of their hands have just grazed over their brows, moving in striking synchronicity. The women appear to effortlessly float through the symbolic first few phrases demonstrating the progression through ballet’s basic positions until the music changes and signals a shift in overall texture on stage.
Now they begin to dance.
Serenade is not a narrative ballet, though it is imbued with much romance, a bit of drama, and untamed passion.
The first movement, comprised of simple yet shifting patterns of pairs, trios, and so forth, is often believed to exhibit hegemony. And in some sense there was.
The dancers moved harmoniously together, demonstrating not symmetry but authority and precision in their non-linear movements. The heterogeneity was not perceived in the choreography itself but in the strength of the soloists far surpassing that of the corps de ballet as well as in the variation in the physique of the women on stage.
Balanchine is largely credited with constructing the notion of a stereotypical slender ballet body, though the capacity of the dancers to perform such a technically and artistically challenging piece proved that such an ideal does not exist.
It was refreshing.
On the opening evening, the Waltz Lady was performed by Carolyn Judson whose delightful effervescence and theatrics quickly captivated the audience. There is no story in Serenade, yet somehow the audience cannot help but empathize for the dancer who has fallen and disrupted the careful patterns.
As “Sontina” ends, the other dancers purposefully walk off stage and abandon the Waltz Lady to perform the following movement alone. That is until she is met by the Waltz Man of the evening Carl Coomer.
Immediately, I was struck by the juxtaposition between Judson’s vivacity and Coomer’s more mature sense of being grounded. Together, they dance a relatively simple waltz. There is an ebb and flow as the other dancers rejoin the couple and depart the stage. Eventually, the music signals a shift from the second movement.
Now, the Russian Lady becomes the central figure.
The Russian Lady is performed by Nicole Van Enck whose dynamism is a beautiful blend of the neo-classical and Russian characters of dance. She, along with four other women, perform an intimate circular series of steps by which they appear to flow as one body.
This phrase is swiftly contrasted by the quickening beat of Tchaikovsky’s score that calls the other dancers to return to the stage for a sequence of spirited choreography that devours the space. There is much momentum as the dancers briefly revisit their opening positions followed by a sharp break as Judson – aggressively attempting to tear the pins from her tidied hair – falls to the floor, left alone once again.
The final movement, “Elegy,” has begun.
As Judson is lying crumpled in the corner of stage right, the Dark Angel, performed by Samantha Pille, and the Elegy Man, performed by Alexander Kotelenets, emerge from the wings upstage left.
With her arms draped intimately around Kotelenets from behind and one hand covering his eyes, Pille guides her Elegy Man across the stage on a long diagonal toward Judson. They move as one. With Pille still wrapped around him, Kotelenets now stands ominously over the Waltz Lady who has been revived. She rises, and they begin to dance together.
Pille’s movement is authoritative, enabling a beat between each calculated arabesque and pose.
The women are the central subjects of Serenade, so it is difficult to attest to anything but Kotelenets’ mere presence on stage and his ability to support the three women – Judson, Van Enck, and Pille – who passionately and repeatedly fling themselves at him. To this, I can say he is unshaken.
At the end of “Elegy,” Pille and Kotelenets disappear from the stage as they entered and leave the Waltz Lady on the floor once more. The other dancers return to the stage, though Judson remains the principal figure.
Those in the audience hold their breath as Judson is effortlessly lifted by her feet to float through a sea of blue. Once she is carried offstage, the remaining women adopt the iconic image of arms opened and chests raised toward the sky. With that, the curtain closes.
After a brief intermission, the curtains reopen to reveal a star-studded backdrop. The world premiere of Ben Stevenson’s Star-Crossed has begun.
Andre Silva enters as Romeo and immediately brings a boyish charm to his mature movements that have a fierce command of the stage. Eventually, Romeo is met by his Juliet, performed by Judson who only moments before traversed the stage as Waltz Lady in Serenade.
If her theatrics were amusing then, they were nothing compared to the juvenile gaiety and innocence she brings to the role of Juliet. By her energetic steps, one could never have perceived she had just performed in a thirty-minute piece.
Though there were some overtly academic phrases, Stevenson’s choreography was less controlled, as if alluding to the irregularity of a young romance.
By the widespread understanding of the star-crossed lovers’ unfortunate fate, the choreographer could afford to experiment with symbolic representations of the plot. This is seen early in Romeo and Juliet’s encounter when, on their knees, they bring their hands together as if in a prayer position to convey the severity of their situation.
The use of props was incongruously inconsistent. At one moment, Romeo mimes drawing a sword or dagger from his hip, though there is nothing there. At another, he appeared with a scabbard and small dagger.
However, Silva and Judson’s pas de deux is performed with such animation and fervor that the story comes across just fine. It was as if it was choreographed with them in mind. The perceived chemistry between the pair is one that can only suggest their rankings as seasoned performers. Much like in Serenade, the difference in height between the two did not hinder the portrayal but broke down another classical convention.
The roughly twenty-minute piece culminates in a heart-wrenching moment of agony to which Silva and Judson brought such substance. This was the true elegy of the evening.
O’Keefe’s Violin Concerto in D closed the production. Contrasting the unconventional costuming and choreography of the two preceding pieces, O’Keefe’s features classical white platter tutus, tiaras, and traditional steps.
Alexandra Farber and Brett Young commanded the first movement. Farber possessed a rich mastery of the music and bore an easy expression as if conversing with the audience.
The second movement was heralded by Paige Nyman and Kotelenets who could prove his artistry far more than in Serenade. The extraordinary control made this pas de deux particularly suspenseful, though the apparent connection between the dancers kept it vigorous.
The third and final movement was led by Van Enck and Silva, both of whom danced with unmatched precision. As in Star-Crossed, Silva had the audience spellbound by his ability to consume such a large space despite his stature.
Also deserving of attention is a surprising stand-out of the corps, Rieko Hatato, whose flamboyant steps and radiant smile drew my eye.
Toward the end of the piece, the buoyancy of the younger men in the back proposed a promising future for the company. By the disparity between the movement quality of the younger men and some of the more seasoned, perhaps O’Keefe should have considered some of them for his leads for a stronger show.
During the performance, I had the pleasure of sitting near some of the artistic staff and faculty, including Ben Stevenson and Tim O’Keefe themselves, and heard both involuntarily gasp suggesting someone faltered, as well as soft utterances of delight when one of their dancers did well. For me, I was simply impressed at the quality of the overall performance.
Featured Photo for this Texas Ballet Theater Tchaikovsky Evening review of Alexandra Farber. Photo by Steven Visneau.
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