"Stravinsky Violin Concerto," "Episodes," "Rubies"
1 June 2012 evening
2 June 2012 matinee
By Helene Kaplan
copyright © 2012 Helene Kaplan
"Episodes" is a rarity in the Balanchine canon in many ways: originally half of a joint project with Martha Graham, set to multiple works by a single composer, Anton Webern, that span nearly a quarter century of composition, and comprised of four connected works, three of them multi-movement pieces, each of which could stand alone, but together, are greater than the whole. While "Agon," "Four Temperaments," and "Stravinsky Violin Concerto" appear on more and more company calendars, productions of "Episodes" are much rarer, and the challenge greater, since it was created for one of the, if not the, strongest assemblage of ballerinas in a neoclassical work: Violette Verdy, Diana Adams, Allegra Kent, and Melissa Hayden, partnered by Jonathan Watts, Jacques d'Amboise, Nicholas Magallanes, and Francisco Moncion. With staging by Joysanne Sidimus, Ballet Arizona took on that challenge, and while not as consistently strong as last year's excellent company premieres of "Monumentum pro Gesualdo"/"Movements for Orchestra", it was a remarkable new addition to the company's season-ending "All Balanchine" program .
Key to the strengths of this production are the blossoming of Tzu-Chia Huang and Ilir Shtylla as dancers who command the stage, and the pairing of Huang with Astrit Zejnati and Natalia Magnicaballi with Shtylla. Shtylla, always an elegant dancer and partner, has come forth from background as a stronger and more vivid presence -- we now see the ballerina through his eyes -- without losing any of his natural elegance. His height is a natural fit for Magnicaballi, and Zejnati, who had partnered both senior and up-and-coming ballerinas for many years, looks best with Huang: the two of them exude a soft warmth and intelligence. For Shtylla it was a small but critical intensification; for Huang, it's been the steady progress of growing into the increasingly prominent roles in which she's been cast, particularly in the full-length repetory. As a result, when these four dancers perform together, Magnicaballi, is dancing among equals, and, paradoxically, her unique qualities can be more appreciated than when she dominates the stage. As different a dancer to Verdy as they come, she and Shtylla danced the opening "Symphony, Op. 21" and with their clarity and command in the pristine, point-counterpoint choreography, they set the standard for the rest of the ballet, including the three corps couples, who met it.
"Five Pieces, Op. 10," which followed, is series of very short segments or vignettes, and to be effective, the dancers must articulate every phrase: there's no forgiveness. On Friday evening, veteran Kenna Draxton danced with Shea Johnson, and she danced with a weakened core and a contracted upper body, while seeming to throw her legs. This role demands what Jessica Phillips, with her long, open torso and articulate legs and feet, brought to it on Saturday afternoon: precision, coolness, control, and impeccable timing, like a main sail unfolding and a joy to see. She and Shea Johnson were more equally balanced.
Huang and Zejnati led "Concerto, Op. 24," too easily turned into a contortionist contest, with understated style, intention, and thoughtful phrasing and the result was a coherent whole and a logical extension of the movements that came before it. Following in the "Ricerata" based on Bach's "A Musical Offering", Jillian Barrell and Slawomir Wozniak gave a gentle, lilting performance reminiscent of the Elysian Fields section of Gluck's "Orpheus ed Eurydice, and which was too gentle to sustain the pulse and power through this section, especially in the central female solo. While there can be many valid interpretations of a work, some of Melissa Hayden's command and focus would have given the powerful conclusion of "Episodes", with its large female corps, gravitas.
The opening work, "Stravinsky Violin Concerto" is a company revival, and on Friday night, repeating their roles from 2009 were Magnacaballi and Shtylla in Aria I and Huang and Zejnati in Aria II, but this time paired in the same cast. Each couple has deepened its interpretation of the roles, and the partnerships have become richer. Magnicaballi was more engaged with her partner and less inscrutable than before, and Huang's phrasing, particularly in the opening movement solos was thoughtful and musically rich, with wonderful use of white space. In Aria II with Zejnati she was a strong presence while showing vulnerability to a trusted partner.
Paola Hartley and Roman Zavarov (Aria II) and Jillian Barrell (Aria I) were new to their roles this season, with Joseph Cavanaugh reprising his with a new partner. Dancing at the Saturday matinee, Cavanaugh's plush, elastic movement quality was a perfect fit for the role created for Bart Cook, who staged the work in 2009, and Jillian Barrell matched him with a dynamic, tensile performance of her own. Paola Hartley seems incapable of dancing without warmth: sunny and articulate in the opening and closing sections, she led Roman Zavarov in Aria II with a knowing emotional resonance, and he followed her dance logic willingly, but, at the same time, with strength and intensity.
"Rubies" has been one of the few Balanchine ballets that the company has used in both the "All Balanchine" programs at Symphony Hall and mixed bills at the Orpheum Theatre, and here it was the closer. Compared to the two masterworks in a similar genre that preceded it, it looks like a lesser work, especially when the performance isn't enough of a knockout to make this not matter. On Friday night, Jillian Barrell and Nayon Iovino, who joined Ballet Arizona from Washington Ballet, danced the lead couple, with Kenna Draxton in the Tall Girl role. Barrell was somewhat hectic in the role, Iovino's relentless attack could have used more contrast, and they haven't yet meshed as a pair; this is a still a work-in-progress for this very new partnership. Draxton's movement again looked forced. Saturday afternoon's performance was that knock-out, with Harley and Zavarov again paired, and they danced a playful, romping tour de force, playing off one another phase by phrase. Beautifully contrasting with their sunny strength was Kanako Imayoshi in the Tall Girl role, with her cool, sleek legs, open port de bras, and quick physical wit.
The corps was superb in all three works, very clearly showing the contrasts between them and providing a strong canvas for the soloists. Kudos, too, to Timothy Russell and the Phoenix Symphony, with concertmaster Steven Moeckel and pianist Francisco Renno as the instrumental soloists.
Photo: Kenna Draxton in George Balanchine's "Rubies" by Rosalie O'Connor.