Miami City Ballet
Program III: "Allegro Brillante," "Sweet Fields," "Carmen"
March 1, 2015
Program IV: "Raymonda Variations," "Heatscape," "The Concert"
March 28-9, 2015
Kravis Center for the Performing Arts
West Palm Beach, FL
by Leigh Witchel
copyright © 2015 by Leigh Witchel
Miami City Ballet has got a brand new bag. The company made its reputation on high-quality performances of Balanchine, and it has a strong corps, one of the most cohesive in the country. But while it once stuck with proven masterworks and the infrequent commission, it’s also becoming a lab for new works.
Miami City Ballet in “Heatscape” Photo © by Gene Schiavone.
“Heatscape,” the new work by Peck, was the centerpiece of the company’s final program of the season. It was a typical Peck ballet – densely packed musical visualization – only better. Peck chose Martinů’s first concerto for piano and orchestra: a long work of changeable moods from manic to lyric, but one that suits Peck’s innate style.
The most touted aspect of the production, Shepard Fairey’s artwork, was the least important. Fairey provided a colorful, busy backdrop; a mandala that looked like woodblock-printed fabric. The company danced in front of it. End of collaboration. Reid Bartelme and Harriet Jung designed the simple costumes: white T-shirts and sandy colored shorts for the men, white dresses for the women.
Different soloists led each of three movements. A young man and woman came together in the opening. In the second, the twisty partnering of another couple stood in for the complexity of a relationship. A playful trio closed the ballet.
“Heatscape” glistened structurally and spatially. Peck was ingenious at moving groups, his greatest strength. In the opening, a springing jump brought the ensemble backwards from a single line into a square. A trio of women danced a blistering phrase in fugal counterpoint. They were joined by partners to form three couples, and as quickly the men were replaced by three other women to form a sextet.
To begin the ballet, Renan Cerdeiro or Andrei Chagas rushed forward in a line with the rest of the group, but remained as the others danced away. One moment the soloist was part of the crowd, then alone, then he rejoined them again. His relationship to the others flickered as changeably as in a group of children, and it was just as innocent. Peck comes from a tradition where a solo male figure could represent the voice of the artist, but his avatar isn’t the troubled or searching Poet. It’s the Surfer Boy or the self-satisfied Dude.
The young man sat alone on the stage and gazed outward, then tore into a solo. His partner stood among the seated corps, but they also stood to swallow her. She was almost forgotten until all left but three women, and then the young man singled her out in a quote from “Apollo”: he helped the trio dip into arabesque penchée; the two women (who led the next movements) moved away and his choice remained.
In the second movement, the stage darkened for a nocturne. The couple (Tricia Albertson and Kleber Rebello or Nathalia Arja and Renato Penteado) reached for one another, revolved and then the woman broke away to lead the group. The man stood to the side as the ensemble shuttled back and forth in two layers like a jacquard loom.
Peck’s phrasing was as dense as the music. During a piano cadenza in the second movement the couple wound and unwound, the woman got popped in the air, he switched her direction, she threw her arms up and down, and finally they paused to look at one another.
If you took everything as a direct response to the score, it made sense. When the music triumphed, the ballerina got pressed overhead. Peck worked with movement and structure rather than narrative or emotion. Despite the clues, trying to follow him down that road leads you to a cul-de-sac. At one performance, it felt as if all those emotional hints had no follow-through; the couple in the second movement lay down and suddenly looked up – and you had no idea at what. But by their next performance, Arja and Penteado had connected some dots; you could sense what they saw. The approach recalls Christopher Wheeldon; the subtext gets added later by the dancers.
The density and complexity only increased with the jovial third movement. The circles of Fairey’s mandala were transformed into playground games for the group, led by a trio. The games extended to the rest of the leads in a recapitulation, and the ballet ended with the same rush forward in a line as the beginning.
Two casts performed; both had plenty to offer. Patricia Delgado was calmly luminous as Cerdeiro’s desire in the first movement; Emily Bromberg and Chargas both seemed even more innocent. She beamed; when Chargas gazed outwards, it seemed as if the world was opening up to him. Peck gave Delgado’s sister Jeanette a part complex enough in the third movement to contain her exuberance. At some point she probably did an unsupported quadruple turn on stage, but who’s counting? In the other cast, Michael Breeden threw himself into the movement headfirst as if on a quest – literally. Peck seemed to have asked for phrases that led with the head and shoulders for a more contemporary look.
With all the breathless ingenuity, Peck’s ballets can be glib. But “Heatscape” was so intent in its invention it didn’t seem self-conscious. Peck dove into solving his Rubik’s cube rather than showing us how it’s solved.
“Heatscape” was an unqualified success, but the season did have fumbles. In the previous program, the premiere of Richard Alston’s “Carmen” provided good dancing opportunities but had trouble telling the story. Made in 2009 for Scottish Ballet, there’s no way to cram all four acts of Bizet’s opera into Rodion Shchedrin’s suite. Alston streamlined the narrative from the opera, but didn’t manage to make it clear.
Alston added a fortune teller in a black ruffled skirt who opened the action and represented fate. Has adding a fate figure ever been a good idea? It’s been tried – and failed – so many times. Still, that could have been pulled off if the casting had worked. All the leads, Patricia Delgado as Carmen, Chase Swatosh as Don José, Callie Manning as the Fortune Teller, and Cedeiro as Escamillo were debuts.
Swatosh is tall, pale and very blond with very clean batterie. In a sultry role, Delgado showed off her juicy way of sinking into plié. Her Carmen, as in the opera, is harsh, tough and streetwise, knife fights and all. Swatosh’s Don José is callow and passive, and rather than being attracted to one another, it looked as if Carmen were torturing him – and enjoying it.
Even if their attraction wasn’t equal, Don José still had to be a match for Carmen. He handcuffed her and she not only escaped, but purloined his keys and cuffed him instead. From that point, you kept hoping for something that would run the story right off the rails: Carmen not only cuffing José, but tying him to a bed (“Fifty Shades of Carmen?”) or capturing the whole garrison at gunpoint and selling them into slavery.
Sadly, no. Things continued on in their Carmen-y way, with the ensemble dancing sharply as toreadors and senoritas, until the fatal denouement. It seemed as if Carmen goaded José into killing her by insinuating he was such a loser he couldn’t even stab her properly. This upset him, so he proved he could, ending the mismatch.
Happily, Miami's signature in Balanchine remained legible and unaffected. Whether "Allegro Brillante," in Program III or “Raymonda Variations” in Program IV, when you've seen MCB dance Balanchine with clarity and a sense of ensemble, you’ve really seen the ballet.
Albertson and Rainer Krenstetter fronted the couples in “Allegro Brillante.” Albertson was strong and musical; she nailed her turns and hit the top of her extensions right at the high note. She's a quintessential leader for the troupe; she represents the company’s matter-of-fact style. As a solo dancer, you might even wish for a little more affectation from her. Krenstetter, who joined MCB last year from Staatsballett Berlin, is an elegant blond and lent discreet support to Albertson in tricky pirouettes that had to finish and then switch direction.
“Raymonda Variations” has been performed by the company since 1990. It’s a minor work that often looks at sixes and sevens at New York City Ballet from being thrown together as filler. It fits MCB like a glove – the ballet’s structure is much like the company’s own. The piece is one of Balanchine’s pastiches of grand ballet; a frothy swirl of pretty women in lilac, moving kaleidoscopically around the stage. But several dancers emerge from the corps to perform variations that end in tricky turns or fiendish hops. Both it and “Allegro” fully utilize the company’s greatest, yet quietest gift: a senior corps that dances together beautifully, yet with members good enough to be soloists.
In “Raymonda,” there were two casts and several debuts. In one cast Rebello, who is young, showed why he has gotten pushed. He did beautiful swift batterie surmounted by an airy, calm upper body and clean, generous port de bras. His first variations of beats looked as if the Bluebird had been promoted to prince. He was paired with soloist Jennifer Lauren, an amiable dancer with quick legs; she rushed out on pointe with nibbling footwork. Lauren had the courage and just the right timing for the theatrical final dive at Rebello; she didn’t rush and she didn’t linger.
Her virtues percolated through the corps. Fast legs and secure turns are the norm here; both casts had no trouble with hops on pointe. Samantha Hope Galler was as big and sweet as the harp music she danced to, followed by Rebecca King in a martial-flavored variation with neat footwork that closed sharply into fifth as she changed facings. Leigh-Ann Esty whirled the pizzicato variation to a close with turns that looked as if she were tying them neatly with cord.
The company chose brisk tempos and stayed on top of them. Its musicality seemed consistent. The dancers phrased like a relaxed conversation, often moving through the big pose instead of sticking it at the end like an exclamation point after every sentence.
But now, MCB does more than impeccable Balanchine. Peck, Scarlett and Ratmansky have now done some of their best work in Miami, often better than they do on their home turf. What is the company doing right? The dancers get top credit: they’ve earned it. But let’s look further. Scheduling may be an important factor. In a pre-performance talk, Peck described the process from start to finish as taking nine months. Not all that time is spent rehearsing, but it’s not rehearsal time that’s crucial. MCB scheduled a series of working periods with time off where the choreographers could gestate and edit. They didn’t have to grind the ballet out and slam it onstage. Whatever it's doing, the company is now one of the best incubators for ballet choreography in the country.
copyright © 2015 by Leigh Witchel
Middle photo: Miami City Ballet in “Heatscape” Photo © by Daniel Azoulay.
Bottom photo: Miami City Ballet in “Raymonda Variations” Photo © by Gene Schiavone.