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Flash Review, 2-28: 'Beauty' Full
Glimmering Durante, Shimmering Music, and a Universe of Stars tell Tulsa's Story Ballet

By Alicia Chesser
Copyright 2006 Alicia Chesser
Photography copyright Christopher Jean-Richard

TULSA -- Tulsa Ballet's production of Petipa's "The Sleeping Beauty," choreographed by Galina Samsova after Petipa and seen February 10 at the Tulsa Performing Arts Center, was a triumph -- not only for the company, but for the city as well. In a time when many regional companies are imploding* from internal strife and civic passivity, Tulsa Ballet is notable for its willingness to dream big and to inspire big support and excitement as it achieves its dreams. This 32-member troupe with the minuscule budget put on a world-class 'Beauty,' led by international superstar Viviana Durante and accompanied by the newly-formed Tulsa Symphony Orchestra, which took the extraordinary step of donating its services for this, its debut performance. The presence of Durante and the confidence shown by the TSO -- in addition to the superb classical dancing of those 32 men and women -- demonstrate that what Tulsa director Marcello Angelini has long worked for is beginning to materialize, in quite dramatic fashion. This is indeed a company to be taken seriously, both in the world of dance and in the city whose artistic life it is helping to energize.

Viviana Durante in Tulsa Ballet's production of "The Sleeping Beauty." Photo by and copyright Christopher Jean-Richard, and courtesy Tulsa Ballet.

First, a word about the orchestra. When the Tulsa Philharmonic fell apart in 2002 after long-simmering funding and management problems, the city lost one of the great pillars of its cultural life -- and the Tulsa Ballet lost its live accompaniment. Most of the musicians remained in Tulsa, taking teaching positions and playing in pick-up ensembles here and there. A new organization, the Signature Symphony, started up at a local community college and has served the community very well. But it was never what Tulsa Ballet needed: a serious orchestra with seasoned musicians who understood the challenges of playing for dance. The new Tulsa Symphony Orchestra, made up primarily of musicians from the Philharmonic, has put together an innovative business model for itself. As Vivien Schweitzer reported on PlaybillArts.com, "Unusually, the musicians will be responsible for all aspects of governance, including marketing and fundraising.... The orchestra will have a staff, but musicians will be expected to chip in and help with day-to-day operations." This allows the sort of independence (and the lower overhead) that, the TSO hopes, will enable it to be both more cost-effective and more available to serve the community at large. And the sound? It's no secret around here that there were some teary eyes in the house when the TSO began to play that big Tchaikovsky score. It was the sound of authority, of total command of the music and the instruments. I can't imagine that anyone who heard them play can now imagine living in this city without them.

Now to the ballet. I've suggested in the past that the contemporary slant of Tulsa Ballet's repertoire is both a blessing and a curse. On the one hand, it allows the dancers to explore a wide range of styles and exposes the audience to dance ideas they might never have imagined. On the other hand, since such a repertoire accustoms dancers to abstract movement, it has a tendency to "thin out" interpretations of classic story-ballet roles. It's simply not as clear how to invest a boring old glissade/jete sequence with meaning when you're spending most of your time speaking the language of Nacho Duato. To his credit, Angelini is conscious of this difficulty, particularly in the case of a company as full of youngsters as Tulsa Ballet. It is a truism that the younger the dancer, the less interested he or she is in digging into the emotional life of Aurora's Second Friend's tendu! It takes real effort on the part of the coaching staff to make such dancers care about movement that can often seem tedious, old-fashioned, and uninspiring. But real effort is clearly what Angelini and ballet mistress Susan Frei devoted to the teaching of "Sleeping Beauty." Here was classical movement that was clear, seamless, thoroughly considered, and personal. Every dancer, from the corps to the principals, had a living, breathing port de bras. You could feel the air under their arms and the simple drama of their bodies moving through space. You could feel them feeling it. Such warmth and purity would be remarkable even at an American Ballet Theatre or a San Francisco Ballet. Here in Tulsa, it is increasingly business as usual.

Alexandra Bergman in Tulsa Ballet's production of "The Sleeping Beauty." Photo by and copyright Christopher Jean-Richard, and courtesy Tulsa Ballet.

The individual performances were as impressive as the ensemble as a whole. In the Fairy variations of the Prologue, in which each Fairy bestows a gift on the infant Aurora (benevolence, song, etcetera.), Mehri Paydar was sweet and full of ease. Serena Chu flew through her solo with a fierce, sharp attack. Rene Olivier showed an understated glamour and a Gallic wit. Megan Keough was exuberantly birdlike, delicate and slight. Elena Serna gave a very coquettish "finger" solo. And Alexandra Bergman, as the Lilac Fairy, had her usual air of contentment and an extremely full carriage of the arms. (Her pantomime was also excellent.) The Cavaliers -- Michael Eaton, Wilson Lema, Keith Glenn, Ricardo Graziano, Justin McMillan, and Jose Gonzalez -- were to a man gracious and powerful with extremely strong technique. (McMillan in particular has the makings of a fine leading dancer; his Act Two "Precious Stones" solo was a marvel of geometry.) And as the malevolent fairy Carabosse, recently retired principal dancer Daniela Buson was deliciously Joan Crawford-esque in her shimmering black dress and red-heeled shoes, with three mangy elves (Nathan McGinnis, Humberto Rodriguez, and Henry Montilla) cavorting virtuosically all around her.

In the midst of the lusciously smooth opening ensemble with which Act One began, Durante appeared, crisp and spearlike, bringing a new and thrilling dimension to the rich, full dancing we'd seen so far. Durante, of course, was for over a decade a star at the Royal Ballet and is legendary for her Aurora, having been coached in the role by none other than Margot Fonteyn. (In a nice coincidence, Durante was discovered at the age of 10 by Samsova, a former Royal Ballet star.) She is that rare creature, a dancer whose long stage experience gives her both complete command of a role's technical challenges and complete confidence in her understanding of the "soul" of a ballet. The miracle of her dancing is that she never leaves one in doubt about what thought is in her character's mind or what feeling in her heart at any given moment, so perfectly is she able to translate that inner life into movement.

Durante's Aurora was not naive or shy or dewy-eyed, but rather womanly and self-assured, even a little brusque in her command of a room bustling with friends and suitors. Her Rose Adagio -- featuring one of her signature ultra-long balances (so long that her music ran out before the balance was over) -- was full of sparkle and impetuosity, pointing up all the wit in the choreography (a suitor gives her one flower, she does one pirouette; two flowers, two pirouettes; and so on until she flings the flowers away with a laugh). But then, in the solo that followed, you felt the shadows in her life approaching as she quietly moved to a single cello line; felt her thinking about how fragile all of this is as she slowly, slowly hopped on pointe; felt all of her dreams building as she raised her arm before a deep penchee. She gave complex shadings of tone even to repetitions of the same phrase, as if a new thought or angle occurred to her each time. In this solo she was a vision of what we all are when we're 16 and -- mostly ignorant of the evils in the world -- musing on what the future might hold: as bold, delicate, triumphant, and tragic as a red rose in summer.

To be the Prince who discovers such a Princess is a daunting task even in the fairy tale. For this production, real life turned out to be almost as challenging. Ogulcan Borova, a young Turkish dancer with Indianapolis's recently-disbanded Ballet Internationale, had joined Tulsa Ballet as a principal for the remainder of the season and was to have taken the role of Prince Florimund opposite Durante. About a week before the opening night, Borova was injured, leaving Angelini to find a last-minute replacement. His choice, Igor Antonov of the Richmond Ballet, managed to learn this version of "Sleeping Beauty" in only a few days (an achievement made all the more impressive by the fact that he was scheduled to perform an entirely different version with his home company the following weekend!).

Antonov, a tall, elegant, beautifully formed dancer originally from Ukraine, created a Prince who was young, pale, and brooding -- a man straight out of Byron -- but at the same time full of ardor and with a mind of his own. Clearly bored with the hunting party among which he first appeared, Antonov burst into action when Bergman's Lilac Fairy introduced a vision of Aurora, who then joined them in a subtly erotic pas de trois. At once kept back from Aurora and lured further and further toward her, Antonov grew in energy and desire, his dancing accelerating but never losing its gentleness. As for Durante, in this Vision scene -- under a veil of treetops through which (in Julie Duro's gorgeous lighting effect) a few streaks of sunlight shone -- she was a shadow of her Act One self: no longer a lively princess, but a woman waiting for life. (The only off note, and the only unattractive thing in the whole of David Walker's scenery and costumes, courtesy of Boston Ballet, was the unfortunate green and gold lame dresses worn by the nymphs who accompanied Durante.)

The exquisite tension of Act Two resolved into triumphant joy in Act Three, which featured an amusingly campy Cecile Tuzii and Rupert Edwards as the White Cat and Puss in Boots and 19-year-old Karina Gonzalez (who made her debut as Aurora the following night) as a sweetly feminine Princess Florine alongside Ma Cong's powerful Bluebird. Graziano, Keough, McMillan, and Chu were flawless in the Precious Stones variations, as was the company as a whole in the concluding Mazurka after a thrilling Grand Pas de Deux by Durante and Antonov. That these young dancers were able to perform alongside Durante and never miss a beat -- and more than that, to match her skill and dedication throughout the evening, to rise to her level and respond to her energy -- is a testament to their motivation, their talent, and the strength of their leadership.


*Editor's Note: Ballet Internationale closed in November, and Oakland Ballet earlier this month. Colorado Ballet and Washington Ballet have been riven by internal strife and related financial problems. For more on how Tulsa has been able to buck this trend, click here. To read more about Tulsa Ballet performances, just enter the company's name in the Dance Insider's search engine.

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