Monday, October 28, 2013


Sheila and OreoBy Sheila Abrams

I’ve noticed recently that sports team reps whine a lot about injuries. They ought to take a hint from dance companies. Injuries may occur, but the show must go on. And it has to look great.

That’s what New Jersey Ballet managed to do, despite some recent injuries, at Centenary College’s Lackland Center Saturday night. There, the Livingston-based company opened their 2013-2014 season with an evening of works by the two greatest American choreographers of the 20th century: George Balanchine and Jerome Robbins. No whining. Just courage, determination and a commitment to artistry.

It probably helped that the troupe was coached in the Balanchine works by the legendary Edward Villella, one of Balanchine’s greatest dancers, who has had a long relationship with New Jersey Ballet. Additionally, Edward Verso, an experienced Jerome Robbins dancer, coached the Robbins work, on behalf of the Robbins Rights Trust.

There was great variety in the program. Through long and brilliant careers, these two choreographers spanned the whole range of what dance can be. One evening can’t characterize it all, but this program offered the audience a taste and left it wanting more.

The evening opened with Balanchine’s Pas De Dix (dance for ten), to music by Alexander Glazounov, originally composed for the ballet Raymonda. Working in a strictly classical mode (the women in tutus and tiaras, the men in bedazzled tunics and tights) the choreographer paid tribute to his Russian roots.

In acknowledgement of Marius Petipa, the father of classical ballet who choreographed the original Raymonda, Balanchine created a sort-of ballet revue with no plot and no theme beyond the dance itself. The ten dancers, including a lead couple and four couples serving as a corps, divide into various combinations for a series of solos, a duet for two of the women and a quartet for the men. The lead couple, Risa Mochizuki and Albert Davydov, glittered in traditional style.

The mood changed radically as the company proceeded to the effervescent Interplay, in which a brilliant young Jerome Robbins took the language of classical ballet and interpreted it with a distinct jazz accent.

This was Robbins’ second ballet (Fancy Free was the first), choreographed in 1945 for a Broadway show, Billy Rose’s Concert Varieties, to a marvelous score by Morton Gould. It became part of the repertoire of New York City Ballet in 1952.

It shares with the Balanchine work a total lack of plot. But there is a flavor. The four men and four women wear brightly colored practice garb, the women’s hair in pony tails. If they were not so exquisite in form and movement, they might be teenagers cavorting on a playground. Andrew Notarile, who is a product of the New Jersey Ballet’s school as well as the School of American Ballet, was particularly dynamic.

Following an intermission, another group of 10 took the stage to perform Balanchine’s Allegro Brilliante. Balanchine, who was a musician as well as a dancer (he once earned a living playing a piano for silent movies), somehow found a way to integrate the two arts as few had before him. This wonderful up-tempo piece is danced to the first movement of Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 3.

The choreographer is quoted as saying that this ballet contains “everything I know about classical ballet in 13 minutes.” High energy, it is filled with balletic content. The four couples pass steps and patterns back and forth among them in a way that seems absolutely algebraic. The lead couple, Mari Sugawa and Leonid Flegmatov, shone.

The evening ended with one of New Jersey Ballet’s favorite dances, Who Cares? The piece is Balanchine’s tribute to composer George Gershwin, danced to some of the best songs from the Great American Songbook. In 1937, the two were planning to collaborate on a movie, The Goldwyn Follies, when Gershwin was taken ill with the brain tumor that would eventually kill him. It was not until 1970 that the collaboration came to fruition. Who Cares? was premiered by New York City Ballet.

A glittering image of the New York City skyline at night is projected on the backdrop, telling us clearly where we are and what this is about. To call these songs familiar is an understatement. They are part of the American DNA. They are played, not sung, but even without lyrics, we know what they are about. And as he always does, Balanchine takes the music and turns it into dance.

Some of the songs are romantic duets: Embraceable You and The Man I Love. Others are high energy blends of classical ballet and jazz rhythms. Christina Theryoung-Neira rocked the house with her version of Fascinatin’ Rhythm, and as he had earlier in the evening, Andrew Notarile, stood out again with Liza. The ensemble gathered for the finale, I Got Rhythm, ending the evening on a very high note.