Cleveland Ballet’s April 21, 2023 performance was full of firsts. It was the world premiere of Ilia Zhivoi’s dance, Symphony of Life, which was set to a new commissioned score by Anna Segal. This was also the debut of the Cleveland Ballet Orchestra, 25 musicians under the direction of Conductor Caleb Young and Concertmaster Alexandra Preucil.
In his program note, Zhivoi says, “This is a performance about the unpredictability of human destiny… The characters of the piece personify the worldly and spiritual, light and dark, and they must choose between the two sides to continue the journey.”
Soon after the Conductor has presented himself in the pit and the music has started, Katharine Cowan and Marla Aleyda enter walking in front of the drawn curtain. Cowan wears a dark green gown and projects maturity; Aleyda wears pink and projects youth. The 2 women kneel and reach down as if to help the curtain rise, revealing 20 dancers in grey unitards.
(A digression: looking very fit! As in the open media rehearsal on March 30, we were struck by the company’s uniformly perfect figures; not one sagging backside; not one protruding stomach. We can’t remember seeing a dance company looking so good in such an unforgiving costume.)
To describe the bare bones of the action, the corps de ballet parts to reveal the male protagonist, Emanuel Tavares, upstage center. He dances a solo — showing turns that are notably on — and then is joined by Cowan in a tango-like duet. The corps de ballet re-enters and kneels in a circle around Tavares; he’s worshipped but imprisoned. Cowan parks Tavares downstage left and exits.
Aleyda enters. Her duet with Tavares is in waltz time. Eventually she is held aloft by the ensemble and rolls down and off. Cowan re-enters projecting powerful determination. Cowan and Aleyda contend over Tavares until he lies supine and both extend a hand to him. He chooses Aleyda and the two dance a final pas de deux ending with Aleyda held at arm’s length overhead. The corps de ballet begins to re-enter one couple at a time and the ballet ends.
Commissioned music and choreography do not always work out but in Symphony of Life, Segal’s music supports the dancing and maintains a feeling of anticipation while Zhivoi’s choreography maintains tension among the 3 principals and provides interesting and innovative neoclassical movement for ensemble and principals alike.
After the 3 principal dancers took their curtain call, we were surprised to see choreographer Zhivoi and composer Segal come out for a curtain call as well as Conductor Young, and Concertmaster Preucil. Are Zhivoi and Segal based in Cleveland now or did they fly in for the premiere?
Serenade is one of those ballets that dazzles the moment the curtain goes up. Cleveland audiences had the full impact of the live string orchestra, the gorgeous blue light provided by Dennis Dugan, and the 17 dancers in long pale blue tutus fabricated by Sam Meredith and Pro Tutu Studio.
If you read our preview (Nutcracker w/ New Wrinkles – Cleveland Concert Dance) of Cleveland Ballet’s Nutcracker, you may remember dancer Lauren Stenroos describing the supportive atmosphere at Cleveland Ballet. “Cleveland Ballet is a very wonderful, positive environment where everybody is accepting of each other and there’s no one here who’s a diva. You know, we clap for each other when someone does a good pirouette or something like that.”
We saw that supportive environment for ourselves in rehearsals for both Symphony of Life and Serenade. Everyone who was not dancing was watching, waiting for the challenging parts, and applauding when things went well.
One especially challenging moment occurs in Serenade. A girl has fallen and remains on the floor as if unconscious or in despair. A man (on Friday night this was Covington Pearson), his eyes covered by a woman behind him, the Dark Angel (Madison Campbell), enters from upstage left and is guided to the fallen woman. Much like the Antonio Canova sculpture, Psyche Revived by Cupid’s Kiss, he bends over her and she sits part way up, after which one of the most difficult and thankless moments in the ballet occurs.
The Dark Angel stands on one foot in an arabesque and the man promenades her – turns her on her pointe – not by walking around her holding her hands or her waist but by kneeling at her feet and turning her standing shin in both hands. This is difficult because the Dark Angel must sustain her balance as she promenades and the man can do little to help her. And it is thankless because the long skirt obscures what is happening.
Curtain call for Serenade included Deborah Wingert, Répétiteur on behalf of the Balanchine Trust. See our interview with her at Gorgeous American Masterpiece – Cleveland Concert Dance.
We watched Cleveland Ballet perform Symphony of Life and George Balanchine’s Serenade on Friday, April 21, 2023 at the Connor Palace. Presenting sponsors included Key Private Bank Wealth Management, Charles Abookire in Loving Memory of His Wife Sandra Hanna Abookire, Akron Community Foundation, Cleveland Foundation, and others.
Elsa Johnson and Victor Lucas