Three Modalities of Enchantment: Ballet West Presents Emeralds

Posted April 17, 2012 in

Demi-Soloist Emily Adams. Photo: Erik Ostling

Utah’s Ballet West opened the run of its final show of the regular 2011/2012 season on Friday night, April 13, at the Capitol Theater.  The show took its name, Emeralds, from the centerpiece of the evening’s performance, the first ballet of George Balanchine’s Jewels trilogy. 

Though the house was not entirely full, the audience was indeed large and energetic.  While dance is alive and well in Utah and enjoys a loyal and supportive following, the level of excitement evinced by those in attendance Friday night was remarkable.  This was not simply an audience, but a crowd of real ballet fans.  And Ballet West proved beyond doubt that it has what it takes to please a crowd.  The evening began with a performance of the Grand Pas, from Marius Petipa’s Paquita.  It would be hard to imagine a piece which more encapsulated the characteristics of 19th-Century ballet.  The curtain opened on a line of ballerinas in pink and white tutus, each seemingly lifted straight from a mechanical musical box.  The chorus then proceeded to drill through the obligatory series of jetés and pirouettes, all executed impeccably, and with all dancers maintaining dazzling smiles. 

The principal male, Ronnie Underwood, then made his grand entrance.  Bedecked as if some fairytale Prince Charming, Underwood completed a series of leaps and landings with perfect aplomb.  Each flight was completed with an adroit flourish of the arm or flick of the wrist, which brought home the apparent intention of the entire piece, to evince an effect of magic or prestidigitation.  The dancers, here, did not gradually enter or exit the stage, nor did they soar into the air.  Rather, all action seemed utterly spontaneous.  Bodies suddenly appeared and vanished, or ascended into the air in an instant.  Further, all action was directed overtly outward, toward the audience and for its delight.  Performance of this sort seeks in all instances to ingratiate itself with the audience.  It is fully aware of its existence on the stage, and fully revels in its status as entertainment.  This self-conscious stage presence, however, did not detract from the quality of the performance, but simply acknowledged an emphasis on acrobatics and ornamentation over emotional depth. In the strictest sense, Grand Pas, was spectacular.  Though, technically, such dancing is called ‘classical’ ballet, such works make it abundantly apparent how much of the baroque ballet retains, even on the eve of the 20th Century.

The contrast between splendid superficiality and profound form was brought out by the next piece of the night, Balanchine’s Emeralds.  Though the assembled dancers, as the curtain rose, drew an audible gasp from the audience, the aim here was not to bedazzle the audience so much as to compel its conviction that, at least in this singular instance, dance has acceded to the status genuine fine art.  The achievement of this result required eschewing, or taming, the flamboyance which was in such full effect in the previous numbers.  Emeralds provided no shortage of impressive leaps and spins, but the overall feel of the dance was more languid and dreamy.   The dancers frequently fell out of strict military attention, the ballerinas often collapsing and draping themselves over the bodies of their partners.  Further, the chorus of dancers showed less deference toward the audience, often facing inwards and away from the house.   Though undeniably performative, this piece nevertheless was far more introverted and more concerned with formal relations intrinsic to the choreographed composition than with any external relations or repartee with the audience. 

This aloofness seems entirely in keeping with the motif informing all three ballets which comprise the Jewels trilogy.  Whatever radiance and value the piece possesses, it results from a play of light within and among its multiple facets, and not from its external situation or setting.  Even though the concept of magic seems to inform Balanchine’s piece, what comes to mind is not the stage magic practiced and promoted by performers and impresarios of the Victorian era so much as the dreamy cinema of Jean Cocteau.  In particular, the overall effect was brought out by the piece’s partnered leaps, in which the dancers seemed neither to zip or fly in startling violations of the laws of gravity, but simply and beautifully to float at their own wistful pace.  Here, one might note Cocteau’s involvement, along with artists such as Pablo Picasso, with Serge Diaghilevs famous Ballet Russe, which sought to elevate ballet to the level of modern abstract painting.  Balanchine himself, for the record, performed with the Ballet Russe in his early career.  Though harkening back to the artistic culture of the early 20th Century, the costuming of the dance was more in keeping with the moment of its composition, the mid- ’60s.  In place of tutus, the ballerinas were dressed in longer, drooping skirts that recalled Christian Dior’s “new look” designs.  If anything, the overall impression created by this ballet was a mid-century Americanization of European dance, the Ballet Russe married to the hit TV series Mad Men.

The final ballet of the evening was Petite Mort, by Czech choreographer Jiří Kylián.  This piece, which premiered in 1991, advances ballet into the world of the postmodern by returning to the world of the baroque, and with a vengeance.  This piece, which placed the dance troupe in corsets and corset-like briefs, opened with a provocative and impressive section in which the male dancers use both hands and feet to brandish, balance and (virtually) impale themselves on fencing sabers.  True to the ballet’s name, the effect is highly, unabashedly sexual, indeed orgasmic.  The arrival of female dancers on the stage only heightened the opportunity for virile display.  As the piece progressed, the partnering typical of ballet becomes veritable coupling, the erotic draping and languishing poses of the earlier Emeralds looking positively pale in comparison to the way the various dancers in Petit Mort glided in and out of apertures created by their posing partners’ bodies. 

Later into the piece, female members of the company appeared onstage in elaborate ball gowns, which were in fact mere facades propped on sets of wheels.  This apparatus allowed the dancers to glide not in the air, as was the case in the choreography of Balanchine, but rather straight across the floor, the dancers’ scuttling feet hidden behind couture that functioned as a kind of inhabited stage machinery.  Here, once again, was magic, though it was magic turned inside out, an ironic illusionism, which delighted in exposing its own artificiality.  Rather than emphasizing the illusory ends achieved, Petit Mort instead focused on technical means.  In this regard, the piece showed a keen awareness of the 18th Century’s fascination with automatons, those mechanical marvels designed to simulate even the most personal, social and biological functions. In Petit Mort, dance is made suddenly to bristle as the inner devices of artistry (the cogs, planes, levers, screws and pulleys, the ropes and bellows) are all brought to the fore.  Here, the human form onstage is displayed not as a living creature or expressive soul, but rather as a dancing machine.

The evening’s performance, through the variety of choreographic styles presented, offered a wonderful miniature history of the development of ballet as an aesthetic form.  The level of artistry exhibited in all three numbers of the show was most impressive, and the enthusiastic applause after each number insured that the company knew its efforts were greatly appreciated.  Emeralds will be performed five more times, Wed. April 18 – Sat. April 21. All shows begin at 7:30 p.m. with a special 2 p.m. matinee on Sat. April 21. Next month, Ballet West brings Innovations to the stage, a showcase of the work of some of today’s youngest and most innovative choreographers.  Performance dates are May 18, 19, 23-26.

Demi-Soloist Emily Adams. Photo: Erik Ostling Principal Artist Christiana Bennett. Photo: Erik Ostling