"Les Sylphides" and "Salome's Daughters"
Baltimore Museum of Art
February 28, 2009
by George Jackson
copyright 2009 by George Jackson
There is a ballet company in Baltimore again! News of it came as a surprise, even to nearby Washington, because the group isn't brand new. Baltimore Ballet grew out of a school established in 2000 and undoubtedly has more growing to do, yet dancers of stature (Neli Beliakaite, Evgenia Obraztsova, Veronika Part, Michele Wiles et al.) have already guested with it. While that eminent music institution, the Peabody Academy, mounts occasional ballet programs and ballet groups from elsewhere in Maryland have tried to make a second home in Baltimore, this major city didn't have a persistent classical dance company for about a decade* - after the last in a line of related troupes ceased to be.
Last Saturday's double bill showed Cem and Elysabeth Catbas, the directors of Baltimore Ballet, being both cautious and taking chances. There are good reasons for scheduling "Les Sylphides" and "Salome's Daughters", either separately or together, yet there are pitfalls too. "Les Sylphides" is a drawing card because of its familiar title and reputation as a "dancy", traditional repertory piece. It doesn't demand pyrotechnics from its sizable cast but the dancers must, absolutely, have taste, musicality and physical command. A handicap on this occasion was squeezing everyone onto the museum's smallish stage, yet Michel Fokine's art nouveau vision of 1908 was realized. Catbas' staging was sensitive to the fact that Fokine had not meant to make still another "white" scene exactly like those in "La Sylphide", "Giselle" and other 19th Century romantic ballets. His choreography's design was freer and more flowing, and the rhythmicality more nuanced. The movement, although pure, was somewhat stylized - with the dancers behaving as if they were ballet masters demonstrating a role by exaggerating its qualities. Limpidity, flow and other traits were taken almost to extremes. Ideally, a performance should suggest all that and still seem simple.
This performance's soloists - Evgenia Singur, Christin Arthur, Jennifer Drake and Cem Catbas (as the ballet's sole male) were of professional caliber and approached the Fokine ideal - especially Catbas and Ms. Arthur. His assets included a passionately stretched line, buoyant leaps and plush landings. She danced the Prelude with urgent dignity and a rich body harmony. The corps, although still tentative, was cleanly trained and apt stylistically.
"Salome's Daughters", by Nejla Yatkin, contrasts with "Les Sylphides" like folk character dancing did with classical dancing in the big Czarist productions of the late 19th Century, or as Fokine's own "Polovetsian Dances" did with "Sylphides" on Diaghilev's mixed-but-balanced bills of one-act ballets. In this respect, scheduling "Daughters" was a safe choice even though Yatkin hasn't Fokine's big name. As one watched the Yatkin unfold, however, it became apparent that there was more to this "Sylphides"/"Daughters" juxtaposition than mere variety. Yatkin was re-inventing the traditional character ballet.
This choreographer is well equipped for the task. In Yatkin's background, suitably for the Salome theme, are the dances of the Near East. Also, she takes ballet class, so is able to work readily with a classically trained cast. At heart, though, she is a modern dancer and in "Daughters" she does not neglect being radical. There are seven of these daughters - one for each of Salome's veils. We see them as a type - in group formations that are dynamic and architecturally stunning. Then, suddenly, they emerge as distinct individuals once they are unveiled. The format of "Daughters" is and isn't the traditional one of ensemble-variations-ensemble. Instead, Yatkin has made a masterly alternate that avoids looking like yet another divertissement. In terms of movement there is a joining, splicing and then recombining into a new fusion of Yatkin's three sources - the Near East's sensuality, ballet's stretch and modern dance's forcefulness. And there is, true to modern dance, a message in the movement. It is delivered in different ways by each of the seven women and goes something like this: "Beware and be prepared for surprise. We may have dressed like sylphides earlier this evening and now look like harem women but not one of us is predictably alike. There is a force stirring inside every one of us. Even she who bears it doesn't know its name. Yet it will out." Jenna Simon, Alicia Pedques, Alexandra Keen, Ivorie Jenkins, Sarah Gelband, Jennifer Drake and Christin Arthur - did themselves, the choreographer and Baltimore Ballet proud.
Where were the men? Not only was Cem Catbas the sole male in "Sylphides" but no other man appeared on this program. Although that was justified by the choice of repertory, it shouldn't become a habit. The company deserves to develop - for Baltimore's sake.
*From the 1950s to the 1990s there were: Baltimore City Ballet, Maryland Ballet, and Harbor City Ballet. Directors included Danny Diamond, Kathleen Crofton and Petrus Bosman. The peak years were Maryland Ballet's under Crofton.