Bluegrass pickin' perks up Ballet Across America's opening

By Sarah Kaufman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, June 17, 2010; C01

Leave it to a bluegrass band to gin up the opening night of Ballet Across America, a sampler of regional troupes performing at the Kennedy Center Opera House through Sunday. Tuesday's installment was looking woefully predictable until North Carolina Dance Theatre hit the stage with Appalachian strings and a barnstormer aptly named "Shindig."

(Did somebody holler "Yee-haw"? Why yes, it was one of the dancers!)

This wasn't your grandmother's ballet.

Well, it was and it wasn't. For all its raucous energy, "Shindig," created by Jean-Pierre Bonnefoux, North Carolina's artistic director, reveled in classroom-minted classical technique. The steps were fairly 19th century, whirled into hyperdrive and sent soaring on the mighty fiddling of Cailen Campbell, centerpiece of the Asheville-based Greasy Beans (with Josh Haddix on guitar, David Long on mandolin, Jake Hopping on bass and Brad Hutchison on banjo).

Was it trailing mountain air that swept the dancers into ever-higher spasms of leaps, turns and aerial displays? Or just the joy of moving to music made for dancing? Bonnefoux's 2003 work brought ballet and bluegrass into a surprisingly natural partnership, each enlivening the other and underscoring their shared qualities of lightness, vigor and skimming speed.

The Greasy Beans' gentleman virtuosos took on a hearty dose of cool in the reflected youthfulness of the dancers, while the dancers, flying around to such songs as "Pistolero" and "Dog Patch Scramble," proved ballet's got some pepper in it.

There was an especially dazzling section for five men in loose trousers and shirttails, rather like "Seven Brides for Seven Brothers" meeting that Southern summer staple, pickin' in the park. Traci Gilchrest -- dressed, as all the women were, in a sweet sundress with ribbons in her hair -- anchored a spirited threesome with Jamie Dee and Justin VanWeest. It was a kick to see her match the whipping fouetté turns of a swan queen with the fiddler's express train. Choreographically, however, "Shindig" ran out of steam before the final tunes; the musicians had plenty of new material, but the dancing, one bravura display after the other, gradually lost impact. But not before the dancers had won the hearts of a grateful audience.

The earlier groups had caused a bit of concern. The idea behind Ballet Across America, which debuted in 2008, is to bundle together in a single evening some of the nation's smaller ballet troupes that may not have the repertoire or the renown to sustain an entire program on their own. It's a chance to see what is happening on ballet stages across the country.

At first, this program looked like business as usual. It opened with a Houston Ballet performance of Artistic Director Stanton Welch's "Falling" (created for San Francisco Ballet in 2005), accompanied by Mozart's "Salzburg Symphonies." Like many of Welch's works, it injects notes of humor into a classical exercise. Credit Welch with not going overboard with the visual jokes, but there was nevertheless a randomness to them -- an odd gesture here, a sudden tic there, with little apparent cause and fleeting effect.

Thankfully, Melody Herrera and Ian Casady were spared that in their central pas de deux, which was quite beautiful. Herrera possesses an intriguing blend of softness and self-possession, and there was a lovely moment when Casady dipped her and she brushed the stage with her hand, a curiously tender image.

At another point, a dancer performed a solo in half-light and in silence, which was momentarily arresting, but like so many of the novelties in this work, it wasn't tied in to any cohesive concept. The dancing skated along on the musical surface without adding up to much. Ermanno Florio conducted the Kennedy Center Opera House Orchestra.

Including the Suzanne Farrell Ballet, which performs here every year (most recently in March), in this week's assortment of companies who don't frequently come to Washington felt like a less-than-inspired choice, though it was perhaps a matter of convenience. Farrell's leading ballerina, Natalia Magnicaballi, is also a member of Ballet Arizona, which will perform Thursday and Saturday. The Farrell troupe represented the George Balanchine wing of American ballet with "Monumentum pro Gesualdo" and "Movements for Piano and Orchestra," twin Stravinsky treatments from the 1960s. Scott Speck conducted both works; "Movements" featured the excellent Glenn Sales on piano.

Both are handsome, somewhat dry pieces, pared-down and blunt. You imagine the dancers have insides of ice. There is a clever moment in "Movements" when the corps is frozen in the poses of an exercise class -- lunges, side bends -- and Magnicaballi seems to faint, melodramatically, in her partner's arms like a silent-movie star. By the end of the ballet, Michael Cook, her partner, is on his knees in front of her, while she looms over him in her white bathing suit with a sweep of her arms that would take his head off if it were in the way. Ballet is not a gentle art.

Ballet Across America

Ballet Memphis, Ballet Arizona and Pacific Northwest Ballet perform Thursday evening, Saturday afternoon and Saturday evening. Aspen Santa Fe Ballet, Tulsa Ballet and the Joffrey Ballet perform Friday and Sunday afternoon. At the Kennedy Center Opera House, or call 202-467-4600.

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