Miami City Ballet concluded its 2017/18 season at Fort Lauderdale’s Broward Center for the Performing Arts in style with a program that featured ballet’s greatest hits of past and present: George Balanchine’s historic “Apollo” and his darkly enchanting and haunting dance-drama, “La Valse,” plus the company’s premiere of Alexei Ratmansky’s exuberant and nostalgic “Concerto DSCH.”
This program proved winning on many levels. First and foremost, it showcased Miami City Ballet’s dancers in all their technical and interpretive excellence. I was able to catch the performances of two casts and I was totally impressed: throughout the ranks the dancing was awe-inspiring.
This company was built to preserve and promote the heritage of George Balanchine. And the Miamians do justice to the great master’s works under the wise and sensitive guidance of Lourdes Lopez, a Balanchine ballerina and former principal dancer with New York City Ballet, who assumed artistic leadership of Miami City Ballet more than five years ago. Lopez does a stupendous job of keeping the flame of Balanchine alive but, as this program demonstrated, she also looks to the future and makes all the right choices in enriching the company’s repertory with the very best choreography of today.
Lopez does a stupendous job of keeping the flame of Balanchine alive but, as this program demonstrated, she also looks to the future and makes all the right choices in enriching the company’s repertory with the very best choreography of today.
The greatest revelation of the program was the performance of “Apollo”—one of Balanchine’s oldest surviving ballets. Huge thanks go to the company for giving us a full, unabridged version of this masterpiece of neoclassicism—a precious glimpse to the past, to the time when this ballet was born nearly nine decades ago.
Balanchine was only 24 years old when he created “Apollo” for Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes in 1928. He regarded this work as a turning point in his life—a momentous choreographic achievement that changed his view about ballet as an art form and inspired his legendary artistic collaboration with Igor Stravinsky. For Balanchine, Stravinsky’s music for “Apollo” was nothing but a revelation. He admired its eloquent restraint, sophisticated economy and logical order, its “sustained oneness of tone and feeling.” And in the score, there was a lesson from Stravinsky to be learned. “It seemed to me that I could, for the first time, dare not use all my ideas; that I, too, could eliminate,” wrote Balanchine about his perception of the music. “I began to see how I could clarify, by limiting, by reducing what seemed to be myriad of possibilities to the one possibility that is inevitable.”1
Over the years, Balanchine would return to “Apollo” again and again, altering and customizing the choreography to accommodate and accentuate personal qualities and strengths of the dancers. He also would revisit the ballet in its relation to the music, streamlining and often extracting what he deemed as “extraneous layers of visual and narrative elements.” “Each cutback led to the austerity of a pure classicism Stravinsky would surely have cheered. With each reduction the music grew in importance,” wrote Charles M. Joseph in his excellent book Stravinsky and Balanchine (Yale University Press, 2011).
In 1979, however, Balanchine did the most significant cut to “Apollo,” discarding the ballet’s Prologue which depicts Apollo’s birth and his very first baby-like steps on his quest to divinity; gone was also his final triumphant ascend to the Mount Parnassus as a leader and protector of the arts. These reductions were done on the occasion of Mikhail Baryshnikov’s debut in the title role with New York City Ballet. It’s said that Balanchine didn’t want the Russian-born superstar to claim the spotlight with his celebrated technical prowess and to steal attention away from the ballet’s message. New York City Ballet performs “Apollo” in its truncated form to this day.
As danced by Miami City Ballet, the full-size “Apollo,” however, feels more powerful in its visual and narrative appeal and less abstract compared to the reduced version. To watch the young god, stumbling while trying to walk, awkwardly flexing his muscles, or playing with his lute as if it was a toy rather than a musical instrument in the beginning of the ballet is to fully appreciate and admire his ultimate growth and maturity at the end. And the picturesque image of the finale, with Apollo and his three Muses in their heavenward ascend, adds tremendously to the ballet’s unique theatricality.
On opening night, Kleber Rebello was an Apollo of exceptional talents. A charismatic presence, the Brazilian-born dancer had a complete grasp of his role, presenting his hero in various stages of his physical and spiritual growth with dramatic intelligence and technical command. In the Prologue, his hero looked timid and unassuming, his body flat, his movements clumsy. Yet, through his interaction with the muses (in their roles, Katia Carranza as Terpsichore, Ashley Knox as Polyhymnia and Nathalia Arja as Calliope were admirable throughout), his comportment and physique gradually changed. His manners acquired nobility, his body muscular definition—a spectacular metamorphosis indeed.
On Sunday matinee, Rainer Krenstetter gave a more introspective and less audacious reading of the role. Tall and slim, with a long classical line, Krenstetter turned his hero from an inexperienced youth to a dashing heart-throb. The evocative sculptural poses and high-flying leaps—a trademark of this ballet—in his interpretation looked particularly effective. The performance of Tricia Albertson as Terpsichore, the muse of dance, was divine in its own right, her duet with Apollo spiced with tenderness, grace, and lively ardor. Dancing with vivid animation and crispness, Ashley Knox as Polyhymnia and Emily Bromberg as Calliope sparkled in their roles as well.
To watch Miami City Ballet in Alexei Ratmansky’s momentous “Concerto DSCH” (2008) was to marvel at the dancers’ agility, speed, perseverance and communal spirit. It felt as if they were destined for this extremely challenging and infinitely moving ballet. Choreographed as a poignant homage to Dmitri Shostakovich and set to the composer’s Piano Concerto No. 2 (hence the ballet’s title which incorporates Shostakovich’s musical signature), the piece unfolds as a dramatically intoxicating flow of energy and movement. “The choreography is so fast, it leaves steam in the dark,” Lourdes Lopez quipped during the pre-performance talk, describing the frenzied nature of the piece.
“The choreography is so fast, it leaves steam in the dark”
As is often the case with Ratmansky, “Concerto” never feels abstract, even if there is no definitive story line. Throughout the piece, the choreography is laced with rich imagery that suggests myriad of mini-dramas, where love and friendship, sorrow and happiness, betrayal and regret go hand in hand.
Breezing through space with a lightning speed, never losing focus and demonstrating her flawless, quicksilver footwork, Nathalia Arja was phenomenal in the role of the Girl in Blue (this part was originated by an extraordinary technician, Ashley Bouder, principal of New York City Ballet). On Sunday, Arja was flanked by the equally impressive Renan Cerdeiro and Kleber Rebello. This dynamic trio claimed some of the most propulsive and technically taxing moments of the ballet.
As a central couple, Tricia Albertson and Rainer Krenstetter lost themselves in a dreamily languid pas de deux, full of cascading lifts and flowing turns, gliding onstage as if floating on air. Yet for all their passion, their love story felt troubled, their emotional dilemmas unresolved.
The bouncy corps de ballet (seven women and seven men) not only framed the soloist but also contributed to the ballet’s dramatic storytelling, adding immeasurably to the overall sense of theater, their dancing fuelled by contradicting feelings of camaraderie and conflict.
Set to Maurice Ravel’s music (Valses Nobles et sentimentales and La valse), Balanchine’s ominous “La Valse” is hardly a perfect curtain closer. Yet the piece is so spectacular, even extravagant, in its concept and presentation that it invariably makes a powerful impact.
On opening night, Simone Messmer looked glamorous and almost defiant in the role of the ballet’s doomed heroine. She danced with the Death (Ariel Rose) as if she was courting with danger, choosing her own destiny and willingly submitting to it. On Sunday, in her farewell performance with the company after nearly a 20-year performing career, Callie Manning gave a totally different interpretation of this role. Her character seemed to be excited but also terrified. At times she looked solemn and content, but quite often, her movements and facial expression would acquire an air of reluctance, as if she was possessed by fear and regret—in all, a highly effective and dramatically poignant rendition.
In the ballet’s devastating conclusion, the dancers flooded the stage in a sweeping frenzy of movement, blurring together into one large, homogenous circle and bringing to mind Ravel’s poetic description of his score: “We are dancing on the edge of a volcano.”
This program also proved a treat for the music lovers. Ormsby Wilkins, who is currently music director of American Ballet Theatre, led the Opus One Orchestra with distinction. And with those in the audience who attended his pre-performance talk, he shared his ample knowledge and wisdom about the music genius of Stravinsky, Shostakovich and Ravel.