As openings go, the one from CityDance Ensemble at the brand-new Music Center at Strathmore on Thursday was memorable, not for the political back-patting -- both Maryland Sen. Paul Sarbanes and Montgomery County Executive Douglas Duncan offered congratulatory remarks -- but for the impression that this still-young local troupe can dance in the big leagues.
The evening was a full one, offering eight works, including four by resident choreographer Vladimir Angelov, one by in-demand modern choreographer Doug Varone and another by New York up-and-comer Roger C. Jeffrey. Ballet star Rasta Thomas, the company's artist-in-residence, has performed with the Kirov Ballet and Dance Theatre of Harlem, and is currently with the national tour of Broadway's "Movin' Out." He flew in to dance a pair of solos. Notable about Thomas's appearance in the area premiere of Angelov's darkly shaded "Soul-o" and in the quirkily comic "Bumblebee" was that his breathtaking virtuosity didn't overshadow the 11 CityDance performers. They held their own and more against Thomas's formidable talents.
With its alternating funny and serious vignettes, the opener, "How Do I Love Thee?" by the late D.C. stalwart Eric Hampton, looked as fine as ever on the music center's expansive stage. The closing piece, Artistic Director Paul Gordon Emerson's jazz-inflected "Peregrine," a large, demanding work, requires height and width for flying leaps and airy lifts. Now it has room to soar.
Surprisingly, the intimate works -- solos, duets and trios -- were not overwhelmed by the grandeur of the nearly 2,000-seat hall. "Soul-o," accompanied by cellist Vasily Popov, deals with a personal breakdown played out in high relief. Angelov's newest, "A Comfortable Quiet," while a compelling duet for Reginald Cole and Tiffani Frost, lacked the palpable scars of Frost's own coming-out story when she had choreographed it to the same spoken poetry, which she also penned. To dance a Varone work requires thin-skinned sensitivity to his exacting gestural communication. Bruno Augusto, Melissa Greco and Ellen Rippon are on their way to inhabiting this psychological ménage à trois.
CityDance Ensemble, unquestionably, is all grown up. At the inaugural dance program at Strathmore, the company demonstrated how well dance fits the space, and the audience of nearly 1,500 concurred. There is more to say about where to sit for the best sight lines and how to frame works on the proscenium-less stage. But for now, let dance at Strathmore continue.
-- Lisa Traiger