Ballet Austin Reviews
Review: Ballet Austin’s ‘The Magic Flute’
By Claire Christine Spera | May 9, 2011
A shadow puppet serpent lurches forward, its body rapidly enlarging until it fills the lit-from-behind screen onstage. Prince Tamino, whose shadow form has been courageously battling the monster, collapses with exhaustion. Next: Three ballerinas to the rescue, their silhouettes betraying tutus and pointe shoes. It is only after destroying the serpent, its body shrinking down to nothing, that the three dancers enter the stage proper, parading in striking black tutus with silver-streaked bodices, their hair fantastically frizzed and piled atop their heads.
Welcome to Ballet Austin artistic director Stephen Mills’ version of Mozart’s beloved opera, “The Magic Flute.” To create this contemporary ballet, the opera’s score was artfully whittled down from its full four hours to a danceable one and a half by University of Texas professor and composer Donald Grantham.
From the playful overture to the prince-and-princess-are-reunited happy ending, the Austin Symphony Orchestra beautifully accompanied the visual feast onstage at the Long Center, composed of Mills’ dance choreography, costume designer Susan Branch-Towne’s delectable outfits and San Francisco-based ShadowLight Productions’ creative shadow puppetry.
In transforming the opera into a ballet, the shadow puppetry effectively filled in what would have been plotline gaps in the absence of the voice. After his tussle with the serpent, Tamino (Frank Shott) is presented with a heart-shaped locket containing the portrait of the lovely Pamina (Ashley Lynn Gilfix), the kidnapped daughter of the imperial Queen of the Night (Aara Krumpe). Pamina’s profile, encircled by the locket shape, appears on the shadow screen. Upon falling instantly and deeply in love with the maiden’s image, Tamino promises to rescue her from her captors, though he doesn’t attempt the mission without his magic flute — capable of changing the hearts of men — and his trusty sidekick.
Enter bird catcher Papageno, danced by the comical Christopher Swaim. His entourage, six bird-women, don richly colored tutus complete with poofed-up ducktails and matching feathered headpieces. The birds’ movements, perfectly synchronized, mimic the harried motions of a flighty flock. Papageno’s love interest, danced by the appropriately frenetic Beth Terwilleger, wears a rainbowed bushy tutu and matching feathered leg warmers. Swaim and Terwilleger make a lively pair in performing a laugh out loud interpretation of mating rituals.
Branch-Towne’s costume designs elicited squeals of delight repeatedly from the audience, including those developed for a parade of animals that traipse across the stage. The crown of one dancer’s head bore the elongated neck and face of a giraffe; another dancer embodied a kangaroo carrying its baby in the front pocket of an apron.
Mills’ choreography was consistently danced confidently. Gilfix, in a pink chiffon outfit, floated about the stage dreamily as the evening’s leading lady; Krumpe illustrated her technical skill as the queen when she hopped on her tippy toes in black pointe shoes; Shott beat his legs together mid-air to the tune of his flute.
Ballet Austin’s “The Magic Flute” is a vividly colorful spectacle you don’t want to end. But the theater experience, we realize, is just as ephemeral as a serpent’s shadow, just as fleeting as the trills of a flute. That’s why we keep going back.
Review: Ballet Austin’s ‘La Sylphide’
By Claire Christine Spera | February 14, 2011
Possession. It’s what Scotsman James wants in the 19th century romantic ballet “La Sylphide” when he tries to tame a free-spirited forest fairy by binding her wings. We’re presented with the age-old question, at least in the world of ballet — can love between a mortal man and a woman in white lead to a happy ending? If you’ve seen “Giselle,” “La BayadÃ¨re” or “Swan Lake” to name a few, you can guess the answer: No.
Ballet Austin’s production of Danish ballet master August Bournonville’s “La Sylphide” at the Long Center Friday marked the first time the ballet has been performed in the city. In some ways, it’s an unconventional choice of ballet to present on Valentine’s Day weekend — because James is unable to touch the sylph until he ties her up with a magical scarf, the ballet is devoid of a single luscious pas de deux between its two leads. The realization of their love is unattainable, especially evident when the sylph dies at James’ touch.
To embody the otherworldly role of the sylph, the ballerina is required to be light on her feet, while playfully mischievous at the same time. Aara Krumpe, in flowing stark white tulle, danced the character beautifully. One moment she would move across the stage with the help of her pointe shoes on her tippy toes, the next tilt her body towards the floor with one leg as her anchor, the other gorgeously extended behind her. She always remained an enticing few inches outside of James’ grasp.
James is the polar opposite of his would-be lover. Donning a kilt with furs belted around his waist, Frank Shott illustrated the character’s connection to the earthly. His huntsman’s lodge, complete with a deer-antler-and-candle chandelier, is seen in contrast to the sylph’s realm of the forest, flooded with girls in white. Both sets as well as the costumes were on loan from Boston Ballet.
But it’s not all doom and gloom. Christopher Swaim took the role of Gurn, desperately in love with James’ betrothed Effie, and turned him, appropriately, into a galumphing doofus. Swaim’s priceless facial expressions brought forth such laughter from the audience that, by Act II, all he had to do was walk onstage to elicit giggles.
In the end, the sylph’s lifeless body floats up, up and away in a leafy vessel. It’s a poignant moment for James, who realizes once and for all the foolishness of his need for possession.
Review: Ballet Austin’s ‘The Nutcracker’
By Claire Christine Spera | December 13, 2010
Bunheads know Christmas is here when “The Nutcracker” cast list is posted and rehearsals begin, demanding every spare second of their time. The 118-year-old ballet, with its many character roles, is a natural opportunity for dedicated young dancers to perform in a full-length, professional production. Ballet Austin’s 48th annual “The Nutcracker” at the Long Center is no exception to this rule.
Children from the Ballet Austin Academy fill the supporting roles of Act I’s party scene kids, fight as soldiers against the three-headed Rat King, serve as sweet angels, and dash out from under a 25-foot-tall Mother Ginger’s skirt. Blake Cooper and Caroline Ward, both Academy students, share the coveted role of Clara.
Ballet Austin’s “Nutcracker” is as traditional as can be, minus the fact that the classical choreography is actually Artistic Director Stephen Mills’ work. The music is enjoyed as it should be — live, played by the Austin Symphony Orchestra. Tony Tucci’s lighting makes everything a little more magical. When Clara shrinks to doll size, the Christmas tree growing ever larger behind her, the lighting blinks every color imaginable, and it is as though we are looking at the twinkling bulbs on the tree from much too close.
Tommy Bourgeois’ elegant costume designs are perhaps best exemplified by the first act’s matching boy-girl dolls. In Friday’s performance, Beth Terwilleger, donning red pointe shoes, white face makeup and an emerald-green dress, was wonderfully mechanical. Ian J. Bethany sharply executed a series of jumps and beats with the legs as the doll, then pulled out all the stops as the lead in Act II’s Russian variation.
En route to the Sugar Plum Fairy’s domain, Clara and her Nutcracker Prince are caught in a snow flurry. Mills’ choreography, which calls for concise movement and perfectly placed lines by the snow corps de ballet, mimics the crispness of a snowflake landing on one’s nose. As Snow Queen, Anne Marie Melendez was stiff, a performance that translated to her role as the lead in the Waltz of the Flowers, which calls for a more sumptuous interpretation.
The bouncy Brittany Strickland and Matthew Cotter were a delightful pair in the Spanish variation, while the combination of Mills’ choreography and Kirby Wallis’ supple back in the Arabian number lent a dreamy air to the theater. As Sugar Plum, Aara Krumpe demonstrated her technical prowess, particularly in the solo variation as she stretched the movement like one pulls taffy candy.
We all have our holiday traditions, but those in ballet world — professional and amateur alike — can count the thrill of performance among them.
Review: New American Talent/Dance 2010
By Jonelle Seitz | Thursday, April 1, 2010
The darkest psycho-emotional struggles. Nostalgia thick as cigar smoke. The familiarity and absurdity of ritual. These themes, combined with good design, eager and energetic dancers, and no small degree of theatrical and choreographic craft made the New American Talent/Dance choreographic competition an evening of dancing as fresh as – oh, whatever – insert your best springtime analogy here.
Finalists K.T. Nelson, Dominic Walsh, and Nelly van Bommel, chosen from a slush pile of 75 applicants, were each required to create a 20-minute work with Ballet Austin dancers using only 40 hours of studio time. Each choreographer also received the services of a rehearsal assistant, costume designer Alexey Korygin, and lighting designer Toni Tucci as they competed for the total of 20,000 smackers, distributed among the artists by judges and audience votes. The judges cast their votes after the March 27 performance: $3,000 went to Nelson, $6,000 to Walsh, and $6,000 to van Bommel. Each night, an additional $500 goes to the audience favorite. (At the March 26 performance, my vote for van Bommel was beat out by supporters of Walsh.)
Nelson's work is by far the darkest of the three and also the most abstract and roughest around the edges. Titled "When Love Is Hard," the piece plunges into an army-green and black place – what one might call an emotionally bad place. The dancers stomp, heave, and writhe in a quite literal interpretation of the dissonant pieces for strings by Borut Krzisnik that accompany it. Sections of flatfooted walking and running link moments of struggle, despair, and abuse. Overall, the piece is rather ugly, and while it is difficult to watch, if Nelson's intent was to capture the ugliness in love, I believe she is at least moderately successful.
Next up is "The Whistling" by Walsh, former Houston Ballet dancer and current director of his own company in that city. Danced mostly to songs by Beny Moré and other Latin singers of the mid-20th century, the movement is relaxed, smooth as Cuban coffee, and punctuated by some cubist-looking poses and cheery humor. The lighting and costume design work to create a warm, sepia-toned setting – it could be a Havana cafe in the 1950s – and the charming argyle socks, sans shoes, on the dancers' feet nudge good humor into the look and bring to mind the subjectivity of memory. A framework for the piece involves a near-nude Ashley Lynn Gilfix and Joseph Hernandez undulating as some sort of apparitions that lead the way in and out of the memory.
"Fanfarnèta," by the French-born, New York-based van Bommel, is the program finale. Eight dancers take on the roles of lads and lasses in an imagined folk culture, the women with their hair in beribboned braids and wearing rosy full skirts, the men in matching bloomers. Barefoot, they bounce through a series of jaunty episodes exploring rituals of courtship. The sheer joy, energy, and humor of the piece makes this microculture endearing, and the absurdity of some of the rituals – such as one in which each woman has to walk between rows of her peers as they hold her braids out at the sides of her head – cleverly questions the little rites we all practice that add up to what we call our "culture." The dancers excel in this athletic piece, letting the energy level climb and never drop. However, the episodic nature of the work allows only snapshots of some ideas. It certainly seems as though van Bommel has enough material to develop the piece into a longer work, and I hope she does.
Besides bringing some very good and interesting work to Austin, the competition illuminates Ballet Austin's best dancers. The choreographers' casting choices were telling. Although any dancer could be cast in a maximum of only two of the three works, those chosen twice were Jaime Lynn Witts, Michelle Thompson, Beth Terwilleger, Oren Porterfield (although she is not performing, due to injury), Frank Shott, Paul Michael Bloodgood, and Joseph Hernandez. This group represents the solid core of the company, those who have a strong technical base, are comfortable in the most diverse repertoire, throw themselves into new work with gusto, and seem to be thinkers as well as movers.
Review: Thang Dao’s ‘Quiet Imprint,’ Ballet Austin II
By Clare Croft | Tuesday, March 9, 2010
Love stories between a man and woman (often of royal parentage) enjoy narrative hegemony in ballet. But Ballet Austin and choreographer Thang Dao proved ballet can be (and should be) a tool for telling other stories, too.
Ballet Austin II, Ballet Austin’s apprentice company, premiered Dao’s “Quiet Imprint” this weekend at Ballet Austin’s AustinVentures Studio.
Dao paired contemporary ballet with the smoky, almost bluesy voice of Vietnamese singer Khanh Ly to tell Vietnamese Americans’ stories of growing up in Vietnam during waves of war and violence. The series of vignettes to ten songs, performed live by Ly, hinted at narrative, but more compellingly portrayed a emotional landscape of survival: fierce struggle in the face of sorrow.
Dao crafts an image of a community of undulating bodies of rocking and swaying dancers. A couple swims forward from the group, but just as quickly the group swells to swallow them. No man nor woman ever seems representative of a single character, but the dancers gain identities through relationships. In an early section, a series of women perhaps mourn a lost love. The pairs intertwine their bodies, but never seem to see each other, as though a memory, not an actual man lifts each woman.
In general, the piece’s partnered choreography is strong because Dao imagine partnering as much more than one man lifting one woman. Some of the most interesting partnering features two quartets. In each two men and a woman work together to lift the other man.
The slow rock of Ly’s singing shapes much of the piece’s movement, but one section — really, one movement — stands out as sharply defiant. The cast circles the stage, one at a time interrupting their running fist-pumping, foot-punching jumps.
So much in this ballet is sad, but the dancers seem to refuse to go down under the emotional weight. Similarly, Ballet Austin II’s young dancers face Dao’s choreographic challenges thoughtfully. The dancers explore what it means to give into gravity, often letting their legs lead as their torsos ripple slowly behind.
It’s exciting to see young dancers trying out new ways to move and, equally exciting that Ballet Austin, by commissioning now a fourth from Dao, has made a long-term commitment to an emerging voice.
Review: Ballet Austin’s ‘Truth & Beauty: The Bach Project’
By Clare Croft | Saturday, February 13, 2010
Choreographers can’t resist the lure of J.S. Bach’s stately, luscious music.
Ballet Austin artistic director Stephen Mills added himself to dance history’s long list of baroque smitten choreographers when Ballet Austin’s ‘Truth & Beauty: The Bach Project’ opened Friday at the Long Center’s Dell Hall.
With clever approaches to familiar classical music and a wealth of excellent musicians in the pit, Mills and Ballet Austin have pulled off another artistic success.
Creating three new pieces that compose a full evening program is a huge artistic risk. It means one choreographer had to have three new concepts, work with three sets of music, and rehearse three casts. But Mills did it, and he did it quite well. It will be interesting to see whether the company keeps all three works in repertory and how each work will stand on its own. As a program, these three ballets were meant for each other.
“Truth and Beauty” rose to the challenge of Bach’s “Orchestral Suite #2.” The company captured the music’s tone as the company’s men and women, dressed in long, full purple skirts, entered as one. Their steps were deliberate, and they held their chests and chins high. The regal posture resonated with the elevated, almost sacred music.
In smaller group portions, the dancers ably shifted their approach. Jaime Lynn Witts and Frank Shott made a fantastic pair—sprightly royals dancing to Naomi Seidman’s flute, one of six excellent musicians from the Austin Chamber Music Center.
The fantastic live music continued in the program’s second piece, “Angel of My Nature,” as Michelle Schumann stroked the piano through a collage of Bach and Mills’ favorite go-to composer Phillip Glass. The choreography closely matched individual notes: a dancer quickly whipped her leg to a quick trill or jumped in perfect timing with one of Glass’s deep rumbles. In a mid-piece trio, Beth Terwilleger, Paul Michael Bloodgood and David Van Ligon most fruitfully explored the choreography and music’s parallel paths.
Perhaps the program’s biggest risk was asking local new music phenom Graham Reynolds to compos a work inspired by Bach—Reynolds chose “Suite in A minor.” The result “Bounce” might be the program’s most ingenious element, even though the piece’s performances and choreography have not quite fully merged yet.
Reynold’s brass explosions were a welcome shift from the program’s more somber works. The music also gave the dancers a chance to race across the stage, although only Jaime Lynn Witts exhibited a full appetite for the kind of space eating dancing the choreography and music demanded.
Clare Croft is an American-Statesman freelance arts critic.
Review: Ballet Austin's 47th Annual Production of The Nutcracker
By Clare Croft |
Monday, December 7, 2009
The swish of taffeta dresses heard in early December can only mean one thing: it’s time for Ballet Austin’s “Nutcracker” again.
At the Long Center Sunday afternoon, the patent leather shoe-wearing children were in full effect. Although the “Nutcracker” matinee’s audience demographic suggests the show targets children, the company’s performance attests there are many reasons for balletomanes of all ages to revisit the holiday classic.
This year marks the company’s second “Nutcracker” run in the Long Center, and the theatre’s size allows for the celebration of “Nutcracker’s” full spectacle.
The set, designed by Richard Isackes, creates opulent worlds for ballet dreaming, both in the early first act party scene at the Silberhaus’s home and in the second act’s Kingdom of the Sweets. Many of designer Tommy Bourgeois’s costumes, particularly the party dresses for adult and children and the many tutus of the second act, accentuate the production’s sense of luxury. It’s nice to see that Ballet Austin avoids the “Nutcracker” ballet trap: often the classic veers towards looking run-down and re-hashed. Ballet Austin’s production sparkles.
Much of the dancing, particularly from the company’s women, extended the production’s clear, open feeling. As Snow Queen, Jaime Lynn Witts had a calm dignity. Kirby Wallis’s flash in the Spanish variation and Rebecca Johnson’s sleek Arabian were second-act standouts.
With so many solos and pas de deux, ensemble performances can go overlooked in “Nutcracker,” but the corps dancers in Snow and Waltz of the Flowers deserve recognition. In Snow, dancer Beth Terwilleger seemed a strong, sure leader among a flurry of beauty.
While Stephen Mill’s choreography does not always follow the swells in Tchaikovsky’s iconic score, Mills excels at creating smaller moments of suspension, from the more staid dances done by the parents in the party scene through the delicate variation for the French couple (Terwilleger and one of the company’s most promising recent additions Joseph Hernandez).
As Sugar Plum Fairy, Michelle Thompson made the most of Mill’s signature timing, opening her arms with a slow grace in the Grand Pas de Deux’s final turns. As Sugar Plum Cavalier, Frank Shott, yet again, proved himself the company’s strongest, most confident partner, a quality too often absent in other moments in Sunday’s performance.
While the adults might have been the focus Sunday, the cast’s children are integral to the annual “Nutcracker” event. As Clara, Marina Butler displayed lovely shoulder and head placement, creating a central character worthy of center stage. Like Clara, we all deserve a “Nutcracker” this year.
Clare Croft is an American-Statesman freelance arts critic.
Review: Ballet Austin's Season Opener
By Clare Croft | Monday, October 5, 2009
As the Austin City Limits Festival celebrated nineties bands like Pearl Jam in Zilker Park, down the road at the Long Center Ballet Austin also celebrated the nineties this weekend—the 1890s. Friday night the company proved its classical chops in “Swan Lake’s” second act, based on Russian greats Maurius Petipa and Lev Ivanov’s 1895 choreography, and artistic director Stephen Mills’ newest creation “The Firebird.”
In both ballets, the company’s women proved that to excel in classical ballet is to be able to transform into something more than human. As swan leader Odette, Ashley Lynn Gilfix remade her arms into delicate wings. Dancing the ballet’s central pas de deux, with Frank Shott as Prince Siegfried, Gilfix met the challenge, but both dancers seemed uncharacteristically anxious.
“Swan Lake’s” precise and demanding choreography leaves no place to hide less-than-stellar technique, and the corps dancing demands absolute unison movement. Ballet Austin’s sixteen swans performed with amazing synchronicity—quite a feat since the orchestra and dancers seemed like they were still testing out one another’s musicalities. The swans’ crispness made them seem worthy adversaries to evil sorcerer Von Rothbart (Christopher Swaim). As they battled him in the final moment, they seemed like a corps of swans who just might win.
“Swan Lake” and “Firebird” made an interesting program, in part because Mills’ striking use of asymmetry in “Firebird” sharply contrasted with Petipa and Ivanov’s absolute symmetry.
As the title character, Aara Krumpe was stunning. She has a perceptive ability to create angles with her body. Her chin has just the right thrust. Her eyes have just the right sharpness. As evil magician Kastchei, Edward Carr also made the most of the choreography’s clever shapes. Evil villains and beautiful birds: they are ballet’s winning combination no matter the century.
Clare Croft is an American-Statesman freelance arts critic.
Review: Ballet Austin’s ‘Hamlet’
By Clare Croft | Monday, February 16, 2009
Opera and ballet fans often overlap: both forms tend toward spectacular extravagance. While story ballets may be replete with costumes and sets, it’s rare to see a production where choreography and design work together as well as Ballet Austin’s “Hamlet.” Artistic Director Stephen Mills’ 2001 rendition of iconic Shakespeare returned to Austin on Friday at the Long Center. The staging and the stage picture were always stunning and smart.
“Hamlet’s” design, created by Jeffrey Main and Mills, and lighting, designed by Tony Tucci, manipulated space to tell the story of the despairing prince and his wounded lover. Hamlet could be the story of one man’s tightly wound mind, and Phillip Glass’ swirling music kept focus on Hamlet’s (Frank Shott) journey. The set’s sense of scale, a mix of openness and elements that are so large they are monstrous, makes Hamlet’s intensity more painful.
When the second act opens at Ophelia’s funeral, the white hammock-like bed for Ophelia (Ashley Lynn) floated high above the mourners against a huge blue-lit scrim. Ophelia and Hamlet are always cast as outsiders in the ballet. In the opening moments, Hamlet sits on an elevated platform similar to Ophelia’s funeral bier. Then he moves through the crowd largely unseen. Ophelia dances with everyone, but her hair is down; the other women’s hair is tightly bound. Her dress is light pink; the other women wear deep colors.
Hamlet and Ophelia serve as observers and mirrors to a community unaware it has been unleashed from ethics in the wake of the murder of the king, Hamlet’s father. The people’s unfounded innocence unfolds most obviously from Ophelia’s brother Laertes. As Laertes, Johntuart Winchell’s fluffy blonde hair and earnest attack at movement made Laertes’ connection with the new King Claudius (Edward Carr) believable.
The completeness of the ballet’s narrative has much to do with the intelligent coupling of design and dance, but Shott and Lynn bring nuance to roles that can be stereotypical. In several solos, Shott foreshadows Hamlet’s breakdown through energetic choices. His knees suddenly jerk and bend. Hamlet’s ground is being torn from beneath him. Lynn’s Ophelia seems doomed by vulnerability Her open chest and deep lunges speak to her sensitivity, but also her undoing.
Choreographically, Mills’ work for Ophelia might be the best in the production. Her steps tap the softness of the other women’s classicism, but Ophelia’s are rooted. The combination illustrates how Ophelia is a woman who chooses to be different. Perhaps she goes insane because she, like Hamlet, is honest.
Clare Croft is an American-Statesman freelance critic.
Review: Ballet Austin’s ‘The Nutcracker’
By Jeanne Claire van Ryzin | Monday, December 8, 2008
Something magical happened to Ballet Austin’s production of ‘The Nutcracker’ now at the Long Center for the first time.
It glitters like never before.
After years in the University of Texas’ Bass Concert Hall — and last year spent at the Paramount Theatre while the Long Center finished construction and the Bass was under renovation — ‘The Nutcracker’ has landed in its new home with a re-invigorated splash of sugar and spice.
Maybe it’s the Long Center’s sharp acoustics that make Tchaikovsky’s romantic score sparkle. (The necessary use of recorded music last year at the Paramount gave the show a dreary feel.) Guest conductor Jeff Eckstein led the Austin Symphony Orchestra in an engaging performance.
Maybe it’s the excitement of performing in a new permanent venue built just for Austin’s top trio of performing arts groups (Ballet Austin, Austin Symphony Orchestra and Austin Lyric Opera). Across the cast Saturday night, the dancers projected verve and excitement. They have room to breathe on the Long Center stage and it showed Saturday night with bright, animated performances. Rebecca Johnson and Edward McPherson gave an as the pair of Arabian dancers. As the Sugar Plum Fairy, Aare Krumpe and Allisyn Paino’s Snow Queen was utter elegance.
Then again maybe it’s Tony Tucci’s refreshed lighting scheme that gives this ‘Nutcracker’ a pretty new shimmery look. Tucci washes the magical Land of Snow with soft violet shades and adds some fun special effects when Clara’s house morphs into a dreamlike world. And to the Land of the Sweets, Tucci adds nice touches of subtle motion and shifting mood.
Thanks to the Long Center’s superb sight lines, the pretty freshness of this ‘Nutcracker’ projects even up in the balcony where the budget-minded can find seats for $12 to $45. (The show runs about 2 hours and ten minutes including intermissions.)
And after a year’s hiatus, the guest Mother Ginger role is back. Who doesn’t enjoy watching a local personality goof it up while dressed in a giant red hoop skirt?
And who wouldn’t enjoy letting this ‘Nutcracker’ transport them away?
Review: Ballet Austin and ‘Episodes’
By Clare Croft | Monday, October 27, 2008
Ballet Austin has a knack for choosing good bedfellows. Working with Washington company the Suzanne Farrell Ballet elevated the company’s dancers and brought a rarely seen, but important dance work to Austin audiences. The company’s season opener Friday at the Long Center featured George Balanchine’s 1959 ballet “Episodes,” reconstructed in partnership with Farrell and her company. The dancing, like the ballet, was clean, clear, and smart. (The season opening program also included Artistic Director Stephen Mills’ premiere “Liminal Glam” and Twyla Tharp’s “Nine Sinatra Songs.”)
Balanchine built “Episodes” from intelligent couplings, too. Originally the ballet had two sections: the former choreographed by modern dance matriarch Martha Graham and the latter by Balanchine.
Musically Balanchine paired the sparse dissonance of Anton Webern with the lush baroque of Bach, arranged by Webern, and played this weekend by the Austin Symphony. Graham’s portions of “Episodes” lasted only two years, but what remained — Balanchine plus Webern and Bach — feels like a revelation, a palate cleanser of ballet.
“Episodes” featured dancers from Ballet Austin and Farrell. Ballet Austin’s Ashley Lynn and Paul Michael Bloodgood were excellent in the ballet’s first section, “Symphony,” which turns an investigative eye to the body’s joints, exploring how limbs move. The leads, accompanied by a corps that included Austin’s Orlando Canova and Christopher Swaim, suddenly break their legs at the knee or the ankle. Then Lynn and Bloodgood move on to the hips; he holds her as she swings her legs in ever-widening circles. Individual bodies break into pieces and then reform into coherent wholes as Webern’s equally segmented “Symphony Op. 21” spits notes into the air. Knees bend. A triangle tinkles. They connect.
If “Symphony” assembled the body, “Episodes” second movement assembled a couple. Austin’s Allisyn Paino and Farrell’s Momchil Mladenov play with moving together, rarely to graceful effect. Paino has had so many comedic roles in various Ballet Austin programs, and she is funny here, too. But it is not a character that makes her funny, but rather the placement of her body against Mladenov. The dancers take full advantage of the choreography’s intended awkwardness, coming together like the pieces of an old jigsaw puzzle. They fit together, but not so cleanly that the lines between them disappear. “Episodes” final sections, “Concerto” and “Ricercata,” feature Farrell dancers as the leads, though some of the most beautiful work comes from “Ricercata’s” corps, which included many Ballet Austin dancers.
Six women stand frozen for the ballet’s beginning, then start a series of arm and leg movements, visually and kinetically layered over the rest of the corps, who are on their knees, extending and circling their arms and legs. Bach’s music buoys Balanchine’s simplicity, and “Episodes” threatens a pleasurable overflow. All the pieces of Webern and Balanchine get added together, the precision of arms and legs in unison or in canon suddenly offer emotional sustenance.
Clare Croft is a dance freelance critic for the American-Statesman