NBT: NEVER BETTER
By: Hal de Becker
Photos: Virginia Trudeau
In honor of its founder Nancy Houssels, Nevada Ballet Theatre’s “Balanchine Celebration” at The Smith Center presented three works by legendary choreographer George Balanchine: Serenade; Slaughter on Tenth Avenue; and Who Cares?
The company, consisting of artists, apprentices and trainees, was stronger and more artistically mature than it has been for some time. Also increased was the unity of the dancers’ level of skills. Their performance was indeed something to celebrate.
In addition to the dancers, credit belongs to guest Repetiteurs Sandra Jennings and Philip Neal who were authorized by the George Balanchine Trust to stage and rehearse the ballets, and to Tara Foy the company’s ballet mistress.
Ms. Foy is NBT’ new Ballet Mistress. Her duties include conducting rehearsals as well classes to keep the dancers in top form. Judging from the Balanchine performance she’s doing a good job.
Serenade, one of Balanchine’s true masterworks, was created in 1934 on students many of whom had only limited ballet training. The choreography’s steps are basic, calling for little individual virtuosity. What makes it a rich and enduring balletic experience are its gorgeous, interlacing patterns, the fluid, floating quality of its movements and an aura of mystery, all destined to become parts of the choreographer’s creative pallet.
The ballet begins with a tableau of 18 ladies in white diaphanous skirts enveloped in soft blue lighting. They each have one arm raised to the side with hands flexed up while gazing out beyond it. Whether their stance denotes longing or rejecting is one of the ballet’s many tantalizing and unanswered questions.
Another often asked question is why one lady’s hair is wild and free and all the others’ tightly coiffed. This came about during an original rehearsal when one dancer’s hair did come undone and Balanchine, with his infallible sense of theatrical effect, decided to include it in the finished work.
Other than solos and small groups, Serenade is primarily an ensemble dance and, melded into a single beautiful unit, NBT’s 26 men and ladies, delivered a splendid performance.
The surprise hit of the evening was Slaughter on Tenth Avenue, a veritable circus of non-stop action, spoof and romp. This was not the frequently unsatisfying version seen in some Hollywood musicals and elsewhere but the Balanchine original created for the 1936 Broadway show “On Your Toes.”
It was hard to believe that the same dancers who 20 minutes earlier had performed an ethereal classical ballet, were now portraying strippers, floozies, gangsters, police and other figures one might have encountered in a prohibition era speakeasy. They seemed to throw themselves into their roles with an enthusiasm resulting in expert and frequently humorous characterizations.
It’s not possible to give each of the 20 cast members the special mention they deserve but two especially dynamic portrayals must be noted: Christina Ghiardi as the high kicking, high spirited Stripper and Stephan Azulay, a fine classical dancer, in the demi-character role of the tough-guy Hoofer. Ghiardi, long limbed and raven haired, resembled the legendary movie star Cyd Charisse and may even be as good a dancer.
“Who Cares?” was Balanchine’s first work after Suzanne Farrell’s departure from his ballet company and to some extent from his life and that event might have influenced the title?
It’s not generally considered to be one of the choreographer’s finest creations. The dances are based on standard ballet steps set to the music of 16 Gershwin show tunes leaving the viewer to ponder whether it’s a classical ballet or a Broadway dance number.
There were some repetitious, look-a-like sections but, as performed by NBT’s dancers, many of the solos, duets and ensembles were entertaining.
On the distaff side Alissa Dale, Betsy Lucas, Caroline MacDonald, Michelle Meltzer, Kaleigh Schock, Rachel Thompson and Laura Zimmerman were especially impressive.
One of the brightest spots came in the all-male Bidin’ My Time when Azulay, Steven Goforth, David Hochberg, Joshua Kekoa and Benjamin Tucker hit the stage with brash confidence and flashy leaps and turns.
Those five talented performers plus Morgan Stillman, Sergio Alvarez, Enrico DeMarco and Thomas Richmond have finally provided NBT with a full complement of accomplished male dancers.
Music for the three ballets was composed, respectively, by Tchaikovsky, Richard Rodgers, and George Gershwin. The 50 piece orchestra, many of them members of the Las Vegas Philharmonic, played impeccably under the baton of Guest Conductor Leif Bjaland.
Credit for ‘Slaughter’s’ imaginative and colorful scenery and costume designs was spread between Irene Sharaff, Jo Mielziner and Jay Depenbrock. The backcloth skyscraper design for “Who Cares?” was credited to M. Kay Barrell and its costumes to Karinska who also dressed Serenade. Lighting designs by Ronald Bates and Mark Stanley were executed with consummate skill by Peter Jakubowski.