Cleveland Ballet @ Ohio Theatre Dancing with Feeling

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We went to see Cleveland Ballet at the Ohio Theatre last Saturday. It was an unusually warm, mild night for October, a perfect night for a poet to meet up with some sylphs in a secluded forest clearing for dancing in the moonlight. Appropriately, the first piece on the program was Les Sylphides, a dance about that very situation.

Premiered in Paris in 1909, decades after the ballet blanc had passed out of vogue there, Les Sylphides was choreographer Michel Fokine’s look back at the ballet of an earlier time, epitomizing Romantic ballet performance style and becoming one of his most enduringly popular works. But as Les Sylphides gestured toward the past with its gauzy white costumes and ethereal atmosphere it turned away from narrative to emphasize what is now the norm in neoclassical ballet, dancing to music with feeling but without story. Arguably, it is this idea that has stood the test of time and that carries dance into the future.

Technically, Cleveland Ballet’s dancers seemed more than capable of their assignments in Les Sylphides and acquitted themselves with calm confidence. From the 4 women soloists — Lauren Stenroos in the Waltz, Anna Dobbins in the Mazurka, Jenna Steiner in the Prelude, and Luna Sayag in the Waltz pas de deux – down to the trainees and apprentices, not a single Sylph stumbled on her pointe shoes or got out of formation. In the role of the Poet, Nurlan Abougaliev provided the necessary gravitas and showed partnering strengths that we had not previously appreciated.

Aygul Abougalieva staged Les Sylphides for Cleveland Ballet. Although we do not know her as a teacher or dancer, we notice that her resume includes a great deal of international performing experience including La Sylphide, the ballet in which Marie Taglioni virtually invented the Romantic ballet, and Giselle, the most enduringly popular of all Romantic ballets. So, she certainly appears familiar with Romantic ballet style, a necessary ingredient in this ballet, which is about style as well as steps.

At its 1909 premiere Les Sylphides was performed to orchestrations of Chopin piano solos but since 1973 many companies have returned to the original piano solos as did Cleveland Ballet. The solo piano not only reflects the composer’s original intent; we would suggest that it also makes possible a fresher interaction between the music and the dancing, especially important for Les Sylphides, which emphasizes rubato and feeling. Ralitsa Georgieva-Smith, Music Advisor to Cleveland Ballet and member of the Collaborative Piano faculty at Cleveland Institute of Music, played for both performances of Les Sylphides.

Correct us if we’re wrong, but Les Sylphides is Cleveland Ballet’s first ballet with traditional choreography. (Their Coppelia (http://coolcleveland.com/2016/05/dance-review-cleveland-ballets-coppelia-playhousesquare/) and their Midsummer Night’s Dream (https://clevelandconcertdance.com/2017/04/20/cleveland-ballets-msnd-how-to-build-a-fairy-kingdom/) were both original, contemporary choreography.) Performing a ballet classic with traditional choreography is several orders of magnitude harder than presenting original choreography. The audience (rightly) expects to see the traditional steps and sometimes (wrongly) expects the steps to be interpreted in a certain way, as if only one interpretation is valid. Anyone can search “Les Sylphides” on YouTube.com and watch the exemplary recording of the American Ballet Theater with Mikhail Baryshnikov as the Poet, but it would be an unfortunate mistake to insist on that exact same interpretation of the steps and score. With all that said, we consider Cleveland Ballet’s Les Sylphides a lovely flower bud that will reach its maturity as the dancers discover their inner Sylph and Poet within the Romantic ballet style. Hopefully future productions will provide some minimal starlit night or woodsy backdrop to support and enhance the magic.

It’s the easiest, most natural thing in the world to wrap your arms around your sweetie and dance to recordings of Frank Sinatra. Twyla Tharp and Mikhail Baryshnikov have been here before, but choreographer Gladisa Guadalupe and her dancers can do anything they want, and in A Collage of Frank Sinatra Songs they do it with verve and charm. Young at Heart, Fly Me to the Moon, and I’ve Got the World On a String give us a look at the men in the company, looking fly in their tuxes-minus-jackets. In Saturday Night, Rainer Diaz-Martinez dances opposite 4 of the women and in The Way You Look Tonight we saw Abougaliev partner new company member Silken Kelly. The women wore gowns and party dresses donated by Karen and Ken Conley, her personal wardrobe; fabrics and colors were stunning and shimmery in the stage lighting and the clothes moved well, cunningly altered for the stage by Wardrobe Director Sam Meredith and Seamstress Fast Needle Miltons.

What is it about contemporary choreography to baroque music? For whatever reason, we can’t get enough, so we were on board as soon as we saw the program note for Guadalupe’s Concerto, a group dance set to J. S. Bach’s most famous keyboard concerto, his Piano Concerto in D Minor, played for Cleveland Ballet in an arrangement for 2 pianos, 4 hands by Georgieva-Smith and Sophie Van Der Westhuizen.

In the initial allegro movement Victor Jarvis danced opposite the four women soloists from Les Sylphides plus Nashializ Gomez, a trainee. Guadalupe provided abundant neoclassical invention and the dancers responded with joyous musicality. The middle adagio movement took a grave and forceful tone as Kelly and Abougaliev entered from opposite corners of the stage walking backwards. The pas de deux that developed featured Kelly supported in standing splits in every direction, a tour de force. The final allegro showed the company fleet of foot in propulsive skips across the stage, an upbeat ending to the concert.

Learn more about Bach’s Piano Concerto in D Minor and watch Glen Gould ham it up here (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9ZX_XCYokQo).

Coming in December from Cleveland Ballet, Nutcracker Suite at the Hanna Theatre, Friday 12/15 – Sunday 12/17. For tickets $25 – $45 plus fees go to PlayhouseSquare.org or phone 216-241-6000.

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Alice in Wonderland, a world premiere choreographed for Cleveland Ballet by Margo Sappington. Friday 5/11 – Saturday 5/12 at the Ohio Theatre. For tickets $25 – $69 plus fees go to PlayhouseSquare.org or phone 216-241-6000.

Learn more about Cleveland Ballet at ClevelandBallet.org.

Victor Lucas

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