Most mid-size US ballet troupes went through a thing or two during the pandemic, of course, but Sacramento Ballet’s passage was especially rough. When Covid hit, the troupe was just settling in with new artistic director Amy Seiwert after a bitter struggle between the board and the company’s longtime leaders, Ron Cunningham and Carinne Binda. Seiwert was then abruptly let go, for reasons the board would not comment on. Anthony Krutzkamp, a former Cincinnati Ballet dancer who had been serving as executive director, took her place.
Fittingly, although Krutzkamp brought the company back with “Beer and Ballet” in 2022 and presented “Swan Lake” and a mixed bill earlier this year, the company’s season finale, “Emergence,” was my first opportunity to see the 20-member troupe again post-Covid. So how is Sacramento Ballet emerging under Krutzkamp? Fabulously, it turns out.
The litmus test was George Balanchine’s “Agon,” given a bold and confident performance that made me forget the Stravinsky score was canned, so great was the pleasure of seeing a crystalline, no-place-to-hide modern classic in the close proximity of a small venue. At a time when podcasts and commentaries have revived the eternal struggle over how to hold the complicated truth of Balanchine’s bad behavior and his work’s brilliance, Saturday evening’s performance proved there is no debating the power of “Agon” to fascinate a fresh audience even 66 years after its creation.
Credit is due to Lauryn Winterhalder, giving her final performances with the company, in the climactic pas de deux originally choreographed for Arthur Mitchell and Diana Adams. Winterhalder had the flexibility, the strength, and the transparency of affect, aloof but never theatrical. Richard Smith was her partner in this weird ritual—you know the one, in which the man skitters to his back on the floor while the woman in arabesque balances above, still holding his hand—and he hit the sweet spot between tense and solicitous.
Dominique Wendt was impressively musical and assured in the pas de trois that involves the woman wrapping the man’s waist with her attitude leg. Paul Boos set the work on the company, without a weak link. Truly, I would have bought this rendition of “Agon” at any of the major companies in the country. Perhaps this should not be surprising given Sacramento Ballet’s long history of dancing Balanchine.
The rest of the program offered three world premieres, two of them funded by Dance/USA’s BIPOC Female Choreographers in Ballet Initiative. Chicago choreographer Stephanie Martinez’s “All the Bright Places” started strong with an appealingly quirky solo for apprentice Daniel Kubr, frenetically hand-waving and then collapsing inside a big black suit. But the work lost focus when the elegant Michelle Katcher entered the scene, trailing off into a conventional, piano-arpeggio-driven duet.
Far better sustained was “Love me anyway,” by former BalletX dancer Caili Quan. Through seven lighthearted pop music selections from the 1960s, she kept finding satisfying ways to fill the stage with eight dancers in casual trousers and tank tops.
Quan knows how to give the total stage picture just enough asymmetry to keep the eye interested yet focused, how to give the movement vocabulary enough variation to feel sophisticated and enough consistency to feel meaningful. Tall Dylan Keane got to deliver most of the jokes with jazz hands, and to walk down the line of frozen dancers, repositioning their tense limbs like an interior decorator displeased with a sofa arrangement. The big high-point, a duet for Ava Chatterson and Smith to “Do Friends Fall in Love?”, slacked a bit in choreographic ideas. But all was well with the company’s most compelling male dancer, Victor Maguad, back on the scene for Las Vegas crooner Wayne Newton’s “Volare” as the group finale.
Compact and cleanly shaped in both the smallest gestures and the flashiest grand pirouettes, Maguad was also the bright spot in “Newton’s Cradle,” a premiere from Louisville Ballet resident choreographer Adam Hougland. The music was an electronica-tinged suite of songs by pop duo Sylvan Esso, driven by vocals reminiscent of Billie Eilish. The costumes by Zandra Manner were simple white body suits, and the mood, between bursts of high energy, was tender and intimate.
Unfortunately, Hougland’s choreography here wasn’t terribly musical, and felt padded out with stock lifts and gestures that didn’t build in meaning. But there was Magaud to fill the void with those gold standard grand pirouettes, and when another potential dead spot arose, one more big whirl. Winterhalder danced the aching final solo with exquisite concentration. She and Maguad are standard bearers for a company re-emerging in fine form indeed.