Versatile Miami City Ballet at their finest in varied program

By Lawrence Budmen

"Nine Sinatra Songs" was performed by Miami City Ballet Friday night at the Arsht Center. Photo: Joe Gato.

Miami City Ballet’s versatility was showcased with the program of three contrasting works by George Balanchine, Paul Taylor and Twyla Tharp, which opened Friday night at the Arsht Center. In a week that saw the announcement of the company’s three-week engagement in July at Paris’ Theatre de Chatelet  to cap its twenty-fifth anniversary season, the dancers were clearly not resting on their laurels.

Balanchine’s Scotch Symphony (1952) was the bona fide traditional classic presented Friday night. This setting of three movements from Mendelssohn’s Symphony No. 3 is a revisionist view of nineteenth-century romantic ballet. Complete with the obligatory sylph and noble hero but without the specter of tragedy and doom, Balanchine created dance that is magical. Mendelssohn’s passionate music is wedded to choreography that pays homage to Scottish folk dance and Petipa’s classicism while remaining quintessentially modernist. Indeed, without the sets and costumes, this piece would be one of Balanchine’s typical abstract works. The speed and precision required of the corps is right out of the Balanchine canon while the work’s central pas de deux is a tour de force of classical symmetry and romantic yearning expressed through dance in its purist form.

The company’s impressive corps continued its banner season with dancing of such lightness and spot-on unanimity at top speed that Balanchine’s Scottish classicism practically leapt off the stage. Leigh-Ann Esty’s fleet, enchanting solo turn in the scherzo was a scene stealer. Katia Carranza and Renato Penteado were the central couple, two lovers separated by an insular clan. As the sylph, the highly gifted, recently underutilized Carranza exuded vulnerability and delicacy turned to strength in a high-speed finale in which her repeated spins and intricate point work were breathtaking. Penteado was a superb partner in the beautiful pas de deux, a model of graceful restraint. His brilliant leaps at the ballet’s conclusion confirmed Penteado’s star power and dynamism. Karinska’s costumes were as lovely and picturesque as ever and Arnold Abramson’s new set creates the mystic aura of an ancient castle surrounded by the sea.

In the work of a choreographer who valued music above all, that component was ill served Friday night. Except for the small but capable string section, the orchestra’s playing in the Balanchine  ballet was often painfully bad, with burbles from the raucous brass and unreliable wind playing. Gary Sheldon’s square, leaden direction shortchanged Mendelssohn’s felicitous score and failed to support the superb dancing on stage.

Paul Taylor’s Promethean Fire (2002) is one of that modern dance master’s greatest works. For over half a century, Taylor has created pieces that can either be performed by modern dance troupes or by classical ballet companies. He has always excelled at setting the works of Baroque composers which match his penchant for speed and high energy. In this setting of Leopold Stokowski’s technicolor orchestrations of three Bach organ works, Taylor adds a new emotional layer. While abstract, this work’s subtext suggests life-affirming heroism in the face of tragedy. At once powerful and intense in its jagged movements and signature Taylor exit jumps in unison, Promethean Fire is a theatrical experience par excellence and one of the first dance masterpieces of the twenty-first century.

Miami City Ballet is the first outside company that Taylor has given rights to perform Promethean Fire. Santo Loquasto’s spare but dramatic set and Jennifer Tipton’s darkly foreboding lighting design have been painstakingly recreated. In a pas de deux of struggle, anger and tacit reconciliation, Tricia Albertson and Yann Trividic were extraordinary. Trividic’s charismatic, virile presence and Albertson’s sensitivity and astonishing speed conquered Taylor’s  intricate choreographic demands. The fourteen-member corps matched the duo in sheer athleticism and emotive force. After the fitful orchestral playing in Scotch Symphony, the polished taped soundtrack of Stokowski’s virtuosic Bach transcriptions was a relief. That the audience awarded this complex, dramatic piece with a standing, cheering ovation was a heartening sign that Miami audiences are beginning to see dance as more than just flashy exhibitionism.

Twyla Tharp’s Nine Sinatra Songs is an inventive, entertaining tribute to a pop icon and the Great American Songbook. Dating from her most furtive creative period in the early 1980’s, this series of duos reflects Tharp’s penchant for American vernacular culture and her flair for showmanship. In this suite, Tharp traverses ballroom dancing, comedy and balletic flamboyance. Staged by Elaine Kudo, one of the best dancers in Tharp’s now defunct company, this production shines in the glamour of Oscar de la Renta’s eye catching costumes and Tipton’s atmospheric lighting which engulfs the entire hall in the whirling lights of a ballroom. Vintage Sinatra recordings provided a soundtrack of requisite authenticity.

The company’s dancers have long since mastered Tharp’s melding of Broadway and classical dance. All seven couples exuded class, refinement and vigor in Tharp’s volatile swings between romance and wit. Carranza and Penteado stood out in a rapid fire, stunning off balance battle of the sexes to That’s Life. Sara Esty and Renan Cerdeiro exuded sensuality in Softly As I Leave You, one of Sinatra’s underrated tracks. The dignity and elegance of Callie Manning and Isanusi Garcia-Rodriguez lifted the oft-repeated Strangers in the Night. For sheer balletic grace, Haiyan Wu and Didier Bramaz’s version of All the Way took the honors. The finale with all seven couples exiting the stage to the soft ending of My Way was a touching conclusion to a nostalgic tribute tinged with a modicum of sadness.

Miami City Ballet repeats the program 8 p.m. Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday at the Arsht Center in Miami, March 4-6 at the Kravis Center in West Palm Beach and March 11-13 at the Broward Center in Ft. Lauderdale. 877-929-7010;

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Sat Feb 12, 2011
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