Thursday, March 13, 2014

Gelsey Kirkland Ballet, Taking the Classics Seriously

Cristian Laverde Koenig and Dawn Gierling in Leaves Are Fading pas. Photo: Eduardo Patino
What place is there in contemporary dance for classical ballet dating from the mid-19th century? Gelsey Kirkland Ballet's A Showcase of Classical Styles raised this question in its recent Symphony Space performances, which also included a duet from Anthony Tudor's The Leaves Are Fading, which Tudor set on Kirkland in 1975. That piece's relevance is not in doubt, particularly as danced by the gifted Dawn Gierling with clarity, partnered ably by Cristian Laverde Koenig. Gierling possesses both great flexibility and preternatural composure that translates as a whiff of hauteur, an often handy tool for a ballerina.

The balance of the program included the light comedy Cavalry Halt (Petipa), with set elements and red boots for most, and excerpts from Raymonda (Petipa), Ballebille (Bournonville), Flames of Paris (Vainonen), and a Pas de Quatre (Dolin). Costumes are traditional, elaborate, and of varying fit and finish. This raises one of the main interpretive factors—the audience is so close, some people not more than a few feet from the stage—that details such as safety pins and frozen smiles are unavoidably detectable. The proximity indeed forces the dancers to be even more precise and technically sound, but it soberly reveals cracks where they exist.
Dawn Gierling and Anderson Souza in Cavalry Halt. Photo: Luis Pons
In Raymonda Suite, Johnny Almeida as Jean found his center at the right moment, easing through five turns (and, adorably, fist pumping upon exiting the stage, visible thanks to non-existent wings), and complemented the elegant India Rose, in the title role. Bournonville's Ballebille, from the third act of Napoli, is a good indication of a classical aesthetic guidepost, and the dancers handled it well. Pas de Quatre, a perfumy high romantic work, was danced by four women in Giselle tutus with delicacy and great intent. But its seriousness and nearly Manneristic style of ballet evoked the Trockaderos, with their over-the-top earnestness. It's just a sign of the times, but it does raise questions of relevance, at least for this moment.

Cavalry Halt comprised the entire second act. This humorous work combines a romance (Gierling and the fresh-faced Anderson Souza), a platoon of soldiers led by the gangly, hilarious Alexander Mays, and a saucy beauty eager to catch the eye of any male within range (Katrina Crawford, radiant and dramatically accomplished). Gierling again impressed with her pliant spine and high extensions, although her placid face felt somewhat flat among the pointedly exaggerated expressions of the rest.

Kirkland certainly hasn't shied away from pursuing technically rigorous repertory for the company of 23. The dancers have been trained to a relatively high level of polish. (That said, the requisite, repeating mens' double tours en l'air did not impress; it remains a true test that is failed as often as not, even among the top companies. Reason enough to keep it in the canon.) The company performed a full Nutcracker last December, and has planned a Sleeping Beauty for May at the Schimmel Center. And when will contemporary ballet choreography make an appearance in the repertory? In any case, the ambition that drove Kirkland to her best performances is now serving her company and the classics, with promising results.

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