Texas Ballet Theater’s repertory programs seldom offer all fresh material, but last month’s season-ending show in Fort Worth came close. Of the five ballets performed, only one was a repeat, company director Ben Stevenson’s Laila and the Swan pas de deux, commissioned by TBT board member Laila Gleason and based on the Greek myth Leda and the Swan. New were Glen Tetley’s athletic Voluntaries and Val Caniparoli’s atmospheric Lambarena (both more than 30 minutes long) and two additional pas de deux choreographed by Stevenson: Ave Maria and Sylvia.
It was an exciting evening, and four more performances are scheduled this weekend in Dallas’ Wyly Theatre in the downtown AT&T Performing Arts Center. For those who missed the program here, it is well worth the trip.
Melding modern and classical movements in a high-octane mix, Voluntaries was a major breakthrough when it first appeared in 1973. Set to Francis Poulenc’s acidic Concerto for Organ, Strings, and Tympani, the ballet is almost non-stop speed, full of running, jumping, and lifts; not traditional ballet lifts but running lifts, with the men, straight-armed, balancing their partners overhead, hands in the small of the ballerina’s back as she arches backward. The acrobatics were repeated many times in various combinations, at one point one-handed at a gallop.
A brief slow section gave Carolyn Judson and Lucas Priolo a chance to shine in a pleasing duet, and then it was back to the races, exhausting for the dancers but exhilarating for concertgoers, who gave a rousing cheer when the curtain came down.
At the other extreme, Lambarena explored the sensual world of African and Caribbean rhythms, highlighted by jungle squawks and human grunts and shouts. Surging up behind the melodies and chants were moments of J.S. Bach chorales and instrumental music that did not seem out of place, offering strength and depth to the action. (All of the sound was recorded.) The colorfully wrapped ballerinas faced real challenges in adapting to movements foreign to their training –– at times straight-backed but with shoulders rapidly fluttering, hips gently undulating side to side while slowly walking, feet pointing straight ahead rather than out. After the performance, one audience member commented that the whole effect reminded her of The Lion King, and there were similarities. Interestingly, the two were created around the same time, back in the 1990s.
For the Ave Maria duet, TBT did not use the familiar Bach/Gounod score, opting instead for Vladimir Vavilov’s Renaissance-style Russian version sung by Slava Kagan-Paley, the sweetest sounding countertenor you’re likely to hear. The husband-and-wife team of Alexander and Heather Kotelenets were wonderful dancing the dream-like sequence created by Stevenson to accompany the music. For Laila and the Swan, Carolyn Judson and Carl Coomer reprised their roles from last year, and this time they were more refined and elegant as they traced the story of Zeus, having transformed himself into a swan, patiently seducing the beautiful Laila. Coomer maneuvered two oversized fans to suggest wings with remarkable dexterity, and the dancers kept the episode at a G-rated level.
The only nod to traditional ballet on the program came with Stevenson’s new setting of the pas de deux from Sylvia, with music by Léo Delibes. Allisyn Hsieh and Simon Wexler, two up-and-coming TBT soloists, were given the chance to strut their stuff here, and they didn’t disappoint. In her third season with TBT, Hsieh is blossoming into a dancer with charm and strong technique. Wexler threw himself into his solo variations with passion and bravado. His turns were particularly good, and though his enthusiasm got him into trouble –– at one point he over balanced –– his joy in what he was doing drew the audience in and earned a hearty ovation.
As I’ve mentioned before, the only thing missing from TBT programs now is live music. The dancing is first-rate and the scenery, costumes, and lighting top-notch, but the give and take between dancers and a live orchestra adds even more. Unfortunately money to hire musicians isn’t available and doesn’t look like it’s on the horizon. Too bad. The company deserves to be a complete package.
Texas Ballet Theater. 8pm Fri-Sat, 2pm Sat-Sun. Wyly Theatre, 2400 Flora St, Dallas. $20-65. 877-828-9200.