Ballet Masterworks

The Colorado Ballet's bi-annual presentation of modern virtuoso ballets once again sates our appetite for the inspired choreography that has grown out of the classical repertoire, and which expresses pure movement, as well as emotions, thoughts, and stories germane to the 20th and 21st centuries.

As Gil Boggs, artistic director of the company, comments in his notes for this program, performing such masterworks is important for challenging the dancers and showcasing their talent, to which we would add (as he implies) the enrichment of local subscribers and supporters, who enjoy world-class performances without having to leave Colorado.

The three ballets on the card are star-filled jewels of music and dance for the aficionado and novice alike.

Choreography by George Balanchine (1934)
Music by Peter Ilych Tchaikovsky
Serenade for Strings in C, Op. 48
Staged by Vicki Psihoyos
Cast: Tracy Jones, Chandra Kuykendall, Asuka Sasaki, Kevin Hale, Domenico Luciano, Alexei Tyukov

Serenade ensemble
Serenade ensemble
Photo: Mike Watson
As Balanchine describes it, though Tchaikovsky's score was not composed for ballet:

"... because [it] has in its danceable four movements different qualities suggestive of different emotions and human situations, parts of the ballet seem to have a story: the apparently "pure" dance takes on a kind of plot. But this plot, inherent in the score, contains many stories—it is many things to many listeners to the music, and many things to many people who see the ballet."

As soon as the curtain rises, we are struck by the stunning imagery, with the female ensemble in bright, fluid, crossing lines, wearing elegant tulle dresses, bathed in a blue, evening light, reaching to the sky. Small groups form effervescent, at times prancing, patterns to the music, eventually returning to the opening tableau, as one girl arrives late. A boy arrives, her friends leave, and a waltz ensues. The atmosphere is spring-like and the music is mesmerizing. As the playful pas de deux ensues, her friends return and the pair leads them until the movement ends.

Five girls sit on the stage and rise with gaiety as the famous melody is heard. A boy rushes onto the stage and meets a girl; they dance together; when then ensemble exits, a girl is left alone, fallen on the floor, her head in her arms, as the tone of the music deepens and slows.

(Top to bottom) Tracy Jones, Domenico Luciano, Chandra Kuykendall
(Top to bottom) Tracy Jones,
Domenico Luciano,
Chandra Kuykendall
Photo: Mike Watson
Another girl brings a blindfolded boy to her. The girl walks behind the boy, controlling him. When they reach the girl on the floor, the boy helps her to her feet and the three dance together. At some point, the boy must make a choice, and he chooses the girl who brought him and leaves with her. The forsaken girl collapses, is revived briefly, and then passes. She is carried off by three boys, on their shoulders, in a procession, as her body arches back and her arms open wide.

This was Balanchine's first ballet created in the U.S. It was developed at the School of American Ballet, which he had just opened with his partners. The choreography evolved from the lessons he was giving, plus unpredictable events, such as a dancer falling, or a girl late for class. It was revised when it was staged (in 1934), using the best dancers for the more difficult parts. Despite the interactions, Balanchine emphasized in his notes on the ballet that the only real story is that of the music, a serenade, and a dance in the moonlight.

Petite Mort
Dance Production/choreography by Jiří Kylián
Assistant to the choreographer: Stefan Zeromski
Music: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
I Piano Concerto in A Major KV 488, Adagio
II Piano Concerto in C Major KV 467, Andante
Set design: Jiří Kylián
Costume design: Joke Visser
Light design: Jiří Kylián (concept), Joop Caboort (realization)
World Premiere: 23 August 1991, Kleines Festspielhaus, Salzburg-Austria Nederlands Dans Theater
Scenery and costumes courtesy of Boston Ballet
Cast: Emily Dixon and Bryce Lee, Sharon Wehner and Sean Omandam, Chandra Kuykendall and Joshua Allenback, Dana Benton and Francisco Estevez, Tracy Jones and Domenico Luciano, Melissa Zoebisch and Christophor Moulton

Petit Mort ensemble
Petit Mort ensemble
Photo: Mike Watson
In literary history, the term petite mort, or little death, refers to the post-orgasmic state of bliss, or the losing of one's self into such a state. In Kylián's popular piece, created for the Nederlands Dans Theater in 1991, the noted choreographer explores this theme from a variety of directions.

Kylián introduces fencing foils in the first scene, employed first by men, then by women, and then in pairs, until a tarp (or perhaps a bed sheet) is spread over the proceedings and the next scene begins, where the interplay shifts from tactical to emotional and physical, yet remains nimble.

Dana Benton and Francisco Estevez in Petite Mort
Dana Benton and
Francisco Estevez in Petite Mort
Photo: Mike Watson
Kylián's humor shines through as Mozart's famous C Major concerto provides a melody for a set of large formal dresses that detach themselves from their wearers, and take on a dance of their own.

Finally, the dance turns more connective, intimate, and robust, with the two final pairs putting an emphatic cap on the sexual metaphor.

Choreography by Yuri Possokhov
Music by Igor Stravinsky
Staged by James Sofranko
Additional Rehearsal by Roman Rykine
Based on original lighting design by David Finn
Costumes by Sandra Woodall
Sets by Yuri Zhukov
Scenery and costumes courtesy of San Francisco Ballet

The ballet, written by Stravinsky for the 1910 Paris season of Sergei Diaghilev's Ballets Russes, with choreography by Michel Fokine, was an immediate hit with audiences and critics. The scenario, by Alexandre Benois and Fokine, is taken from Russian fairy tales of a magical bird that can help or hinder its owner.

There are many variations on this story, as choreographer Yuri Possokhov (San Francisco Ballet Choreographer in Residence) writes in the program notes:

The Firebird appears in Russian folklore and fairy tales as different images with different motivations. However, one constant was that the Firebird was always a symbol of light and fire associated with natural power, and would fight and defeat the demonic, dark side of life.

On Saturday night we had the pleasure of seeing Maria Mosina, in her 20th and last season with the company, as The Firebird and, indeed, it was magical, with Mosina bringing a visceral fire, laser-focused power, and transcendent elegance to the role, amplified by the marvelous costume provided by the San Francisco Ballet.

Alexei Tyukov and Maria Mosina
Alexei Tyukov and
Maria Mosina in The Firebird
Photo: Mike Watson
She enters the orchard of the evil Kastchei (Francisco Estevez), who holds a number of princesses captive on his walled grounds nearby, and attempts to steal one of the golden fruits that grow there; but, Prince Ivan (Alexei Tyukov), who has been following her, captures her and asks for a feather in return for her freedom. The feather is a magic talisman that summons The Firebird for a magical intercession, should the holder ever ask.

Mosina and Tyukov's pas de deux is, alternately, spirited, sweet and exploratory, and seductive, before The Firebird flies away, leaving the Prince in the orchard in growing darkness, where he learns of the plight of the captives from one of the princesses (Dana Benton). The Prince is smitten with the Princess, as we see in their lovely and exuberant dance, and the Princess falls for him as well, with the approval of all her friends.

 (Left to right) Alexei Tuyukov, Maria Mosina, Francisco Estevez, and ensemble in The Firebird
Alexei Tuyukov, Maria Mosina,Francisco Estevez,
and ensemble in The Firebird
Photo: Mike Watson
At dawn, they kiss and she warns him not to follow her, but the Prince does not heed her warning, and opens the gate to Kastchei's magic garden, unleashing monsters who await their master's command. The wicked magician attempts to turn the Prince into stone (a nice special effect here), but the Prince waves the feather, which bring The Firebird, who compels the monsters to dance until they drop. The Firebird then instructs the Prince to grab the special egg that holds Kastchei's soul and break it, which he does (another nice special effect here) and, thus, Kastchei dies and the Prince is free to marry the Princess. Everyone rejoices. We see a feather float down from the sky, as The Firebird flies away.

Adam Flatt, the Colorado Ballet Orchestra, and guest piano soloist Hsing-ay Hsu, provide inspired accompaniment.

The Colorado Ballet's presentation of Ballet Masterworks runs through February 26th. For tickets:

Bob Bows

Footnotes: 1 George Balanchine and Francis Mason, Balanchine's Complete Stories of the Great Ballets, Revised and Enlarged Edition, Doubleday & Company, Inc., Garden City, NY, 1977, p. 566.

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