The best of the Studio Connections programs make intentional connections between the works being presented, and this program goes further connecting those dots through more than 40 years of Louisville Ballet history.
The Friday evening’s works were staged by former Artistic Directors Alun Jones, Helen Starr, and Bruce Simpson, and also Ballet Mistress Mikelle Bruzina, with commentary by current Artistic & Executive Director Robert Curran.
The 12 pieces span almost the entire 20th century, from “The Dying Swan” (1905) to “Gloria” (1999), as well as paying homage to the classical heritage with two Petipa variations, from “Don Quixote” and “Swan Lake.”
The highlights of the evening, for me, were the restaging of two mid-20th century dance dramas. That the Louisville Ballet has in its repertoire ballets by Antony Tudor and Eugene Loring speaks to the personal connections that each generation of dancers and choreographers has with the previous (and the next) generation.
Alun Jones staged both Tudor’s “Judgement of Paris” and Loring’s “Billy the Kid.” In the former it was great fun to see Friday evening’s cast embrace the larger-than-life physicality of the denizens of the Parisian seedy café, which kept the audience in ripples of laughter. Annie Honnebrink, Leigh Anne Albrechta, and Emily Reinking O’Dell captured the world-weary awkwardness of each “goddess’’ attempt to captivate the client’s (Ryan Stokes) interest, ably supported by the stiff-legged waiter (Justin Michael Hogan.)
The last time I saw “Billy the Kid” was when the late Clark Reid danced the title role, and it was wonderful to see even a snippet, again, from this fascinating blend of American mythology and ballet. Curran’s introduction of this piece included a tribute to Reid’s connection with the ballet and also lifted up all the artists whom the Louisville Ballet has lost. Stokes danced the role of Billy, with intense precision, joined briefly by Alias (Rob Morrow) and cowboys Alex Kingma, Joseph Cianciulli, and Sanjay Saverimuttu.
The evening opened, appropriately, with Fokine’s “The Dying Swan.” This was the first work danced by the Louisville Ballet, and was also programmed for the 50th anniversary gala. Helen Daigle danced the iconic role; in the intimate setting of the studio, the audience could hear the intentional short, hard breaths as the swan struggles for life, Daigle’s arms eerily capturing the sense of the mortal struggle to open and fold her wings.
Later in the evening Christy Corbitt Miller danced the Russian Princess from Act III of “Swan Lake,” one of the charming divertissements presented by the candidates for Prince Siegfried’s hand in marriage.
The first half of the evening ended with another Petipa variation, the Pas de Deux from “Don Quixote” danced by Kateryna Sellers and Brandon Ragland, both embodying a regal grandeur, and negotiating the breathtaking lifts and swan dives with confidence and apparent ease.
Choreographer Val Caniparoli’s long connection with the company was represented by Simpson’s staging of a pas de deux from “Lambarena” danced by Jordan Martin and Justin Michael Hogan. Caniparoli’s choreography always looks good on this company, and Martin and Hogan are no exception.
Jones’ own choreography was represented by “The Trojan Women” and “The Merry Widow.” The variations selected placed the former firmly in the world of the other dance dramas that Jones staged. Lexa Daniels was Hecuba, Jones’ grandson Rhys Thomas was Astynax, and the eponymous women’s ensemble was drawn from the trainee company.
“The Merry Widow” and the Balanchine variation “Square Dance” were least well-served in this studio setting. While it’s a lovely idea to represent historic and contemporary posters, costumes, set pieces, and more in the studio, their arrangement left both a busy and sometimes-cramped space for the dancers. Ragland and Ashley Thursby (as Danilo and Hanna) captured the joie de vivre of the Gilded Age, swirling boldly to the almost irresistible waltz of Lehar’s music, and yet, when the other nine couples joined at the end, the stage picture was unfortunately muddled, as costumes and bodies jostled visually.
In a different way, Balanchine’s long, clean lines and stage pictures were also undermined by the cluttered setting. The seven couples in this piece were never able to put enough distance between the various groupings for the elegant precision needed to embody the cool classicism that is a hallmark of Balanchine’s choreography.
Simpson staged two pieces which, I infer from the permissions in the program, may be new to the Louisville Ballet. The Act II Pas de Six from Andre Prokovsky’s “Anna Karennina” and the Second Song from Ben Stevenson’s “Four Last Songs” provided additional reminders of how widely the connections of three generations of the Louisville Ballet’s leadership spread throughout the international ballet world.
The pas de six was a charming, bright beginning to the second half of the evening, and gave O’Dell and Albrecht the opportunity to display their performative. Kateryna Sellers also danced in this piece, with Roger Creel, Phillip Velinov and Jenjamin Wetzel partnering the women.
The Stevenson piece was an intriguing trio danced by Edouard Forehand, O’Dell and Vellinov. Exploring the tension between balance and stillness, as the dancers moved through intricate patterns, almost an oasis between the color and vibrancy of the two pieces before and after this.
It’s always good to see something choreographed by a Louisville Ballet member in a studio performance, and Bruzina’s “Gloria” is that piece in this program. She staged the first and third sections with Kingma as the young man who discovers treasure and has to discover how that impacts his life and what he will do with it.
These 12 variations are a fascinating snapshot into the range of genres and choreographers the Louisville Ballet has brought to Louisville audiences for decades. As Curran said, the warhorses of the great 19th century classical ballets will always be a staple of a ballet company. Seeing the Tudor and Loring pieces again on Friday serves as a reminder that there is also a place for our more recent ballet history to be incorporated into the repertory.
This is a company that performs story ballets, historic and contemporary, as well as they perform modern, abstract choreography. If this program is a preview of what the 65th anniversary might include, audiences are in for interesting times.
(Credit: Louisville Ballet)