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Flash Review, 9-29: Mr. B & Beyond
Something Old, Something New, and a Whole Lotta Blue for Tulsa Opener

By Alicia Chesser
Copyright 2006 Alicia Chesser

TULSA --- The 50th anniversary season of Tulsa Ballet opened on September 22 with a program that showcased all the company's strengths. Its reverence for its ballet heritage was acknowledged with a gracious rendering of Balanchine's "Serenade." Its hope and passion for ballet's future appeared in the form of a new "Carmina Burana" choreographed by principal dancer Ma Cong. Its determination to work together with other arts organizations to revitalize the artistic life of the city was powerfully manifest in the presence of the Tulsa Symphony Orchestra, the 150-voice Tulsa Oratorio Chorus, and a 60-voice children's chorus, whose performance in the Carl Orff "Carmina" was extremely strong. And the company's energetic, enthusiastic outreach to the people of Tulsa was clearly evident in the jam-packed Performing Arts Center (packed not just with lawyers and jewel-encrusted matrons, but with high school girls and boys and moms with little kids).

The diversity of the program -- the lush, poignant "Serenade" (made in 1934) paired with the new, tumultuous "Carmina" -- is typical of the approach of Marcello Angelini, who in 12 years as the company's director has emphasized both its classical heritage and its contemporary possibilities. These two ballets, different as they are, are particularly apt together because they both represent new beginnings: "Serenade" was Balanchine's first ballet created in America, and "Carmina Burana" is a world premiere by a Chinese dancer who has begun a choreographic career here in his adopted city. Tulsa Ballet has been thinking a great deal about new beginnings lately, not just in commemoration of this anniversary, but also in its "Exceeding Expectations" campaign, which has raised more than $10 million, inspiring it to up the goal to $12.5 million. The money will pay for capital, endowment, community outreach, and the creation of three new works per year in the company's new 250-seat theater. It's a long way from the little old Tulsa Civic Ballet that was the start of it all back in 1956 when Moscelyne Larkin and Roman Jasinski settled here after touring the world with the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo. But it's the same pioneering spirit.

The money is here; the passion is here. Now what about the ballets? I am terribly, terribly spoiled for "Serenade" by seeing it not only at New York City Ballet almost every time it was performed during the five years I lived in New York, but also countless times on a very well-loved (and literally almost worn out) VHS tape of a performance broadcast on PBS in 1989, starring Darci Kistler, Kyra Nichols, and Maria Calegari. It was that broadcast of this ballet that made me fall in love with Balanchine's choreographic mind. "Serenade" has always been for me one of the most perfect examples of what ballet is about, what it's capable of in its relation to music, what it can do to your heart.

It's also one of those ballets in which you can see something new every time. In this performance by Tulsa Ballet the new thing I saw was truly revelatory. The performance started a little stiffly, a little sluggishly; the tempo from the pit in the Tchaikovsky score was slow, and the energy on stage (especially the energy of bodies at rest, so critical to the ballet's opening moments) was just a smidge delayed. But as the dancers got into the swing of things, in the second movement, they began to show something new (to me) about this choreography: namely, that the movement is simply the movement of life. It's walking, bowing, skipping, running, falling, spinning around. Far from being a hard-to-identify-with "art thing," this ballet is made up of the ways of moving that are most completely natural to a human body. This choreography is lifelike human action tossed like a little match into a centuries-old tradition of movement, with a keenly felt musical masterpiece for kindling -- thus all those things (movement, tradition, and music) are illuminated and made meaningful in a new way.

It takes guts, to put it bluntly, to dance a Balanchine ballet, and the Tulsa Ballet dancers have guts galore. They are comfortable in so many genres, from "Sleeping Beauty" to Stanton Welch, but this ballet made them patently uncomfortable -- in a good way. They clearly felt rushed and exhausted in the nonstop action of the first two movements, but their dancing was never sloppy or two-dimensional. Feet were always pointed; arms were always stretched; turns were always completed; faces were always engaged. I've rarely seen these dancers push themselves so hard as they did in this "Serenade." By the time the big manege of piqué turns came, they were in full gear -- and there was not one hesitation for the rest of the ballet.

Alexandra Bergman was there as the "Russian Girl," all ease and surprising facility as usual. The young Karina Gonzalez was both dynamic and luxuriant in the "Waltz Girl" role, with its many leaps and hops on pointe. As for Ashley Blade.... What a delicious dancer. She bears a striking resemblance to Calegari, whose "Dark Angel" part she took here, and has a truly magical style: delicate, regal, cat-like, and totally committed to her performance. Of all the principals in this ballet, it was Blade who best understood the Balanchine style: she was quick and smooth, supremely musical, a bit remote yet full of passion.

The men in "Serenade" often get overlooked, but there was no overlooking Alfonso Martin and Wang Yi. These are two truly superb dancers who performed to perfection in this ballet. Martin, who was lured away from Tulsa to Boston Ballet last year, has now returned for good to the great joy of Tulsans (and Angelini). Yi arrived here this season from Zurich Ballet; prior to that he danced with South Korea's Universal Ballet and received high honors in ballet competitions in China, Paris, and Helsinki. He is very tall, very long-legged, very handsome, and very, very gifted -- a really excellent addition (among several others this season) to the roster.

After the meditative subtleties of "Serenade," it was fun to have such a dramatic change of pace with "Carmina Burana." There's nothing subtle about it, but unsubtle things bring pleasures of their own. The music, of course, is full of extremes -- it's loud and whispery, dark and bright, delicate and raucous -- and all about the pleasures of the flesh and the passions of the heart. Ma Cong, whose "Folia" and "Samsara" I have covered previously on the DI, is an ambitious and confident choreographer who is quite seriously working out his ideas about dance. He always seems determined to find the core of the music he chooses, to focus on rhythm and movement rather than storytelling or flashy sets or the like. In fact, his stage was positively bare in this ballet -- just some cleverly-used fabric and Les Dickert's vivid lights (including a mosaic cross which appears at the beginning and the end).

So focused is Cong on working out his dance response to a given score that some of his choreography still seems like a private idea. One is not sure, for instance, what he is getting at with the manifold little upper-body fillips he scatters everywhere throughout his dances. Some look like delicate karate: two arms scissoring very fast across each other, two hands fluttering like a trapped bird. Others are more conventional: arms raised with hands clasped above the head to indicate strength and passion (it seems). I am intrigued by these little movements, but Cong seems to get a bit caught up in them, so much so that they often muddy the larger movement ideas he has introduced.

And those ideas are worth pursuing. Cong likes to work with medium-sized groups -- fours and eights -- and likes to have them come onstage one after another, in a rush, so there's a feeling of constant motion and shifting dynamics as each group entertains a new passage of music. The ballet opens with the whole cast onstage for "O Fortuna," swathed in Benedictine black, looking very much like the cast of a Martha Graham ballet. Then comes "Spring" and a group of men in wide khaki gauchos.... Then two swirling duets at once (Martin and Bergman, Yi and Rene Olivier).... Then four men in a powerhouse passage, in which Bergman joins them later.... Then a bevy of girls in lavender leotards with pink flowers in their teeth.... Orff's music shifts direction so much that it's a bit dizzying, but Cong keeps his focus and meets the music head-on in each episode.

He has clearly attended carefully to the words of Orff's score -- so much so that it would have been very useful to have the lyrics printed in the program! One lovely example of this is the "Swaz hie gat umbe" passage (translated: "Those who go round and round are maidens / they want to do without a man / all summer long / Come, come, my love, I long for you / Sweet rose-red lips / Come and make me better"). In this passage Cong has Yi dance a big bold solo with four men, then a very intimate duet with Olivier ... and then the same solo again for Olivier, who's blushing at the corner of the stage. Very nicely done.

Toward the middle of the ballet, for the "In Taverna" and "Court of Love" sections, after all these groups have come and gone, Cong's attention turns to his four main dancers (Martin, Bergman, Yi, and Olivier) and the stage picture is simplified and intensified. (It moves indoors, as it were, to the tavern and the bedroom.) The Tulsa Oratorio Chorus soloists -- Jenni Olson (soprano), Andrew Skoog (tenor), and the extraordinary Gerald Dolter (baritone) -- lead the chorus and dancers through these most extreme and most emotionally delicate parts of Orff's score, filled with intoxication of myriad sorts. The chorus stands on angled bleachers on either side of the proscenium (men stage left, women stage right), so that, visually, the music frames the dance. During the vocal solos, the singer walks out onto the corner of the stage so that he or she actually appears to be participating in the stage action.

It's a clever arrangement which, in the "Ego sum abbas" section in particular, makes for an extremely dramatic effect. This passage brings again something seen at the center of every Ma Cong ballet thus far: a blow-the-roof-off masterpiece of a male solo. While Dolter sings his crazed, punchy, wildly drunken song, Yi -- dancing just behind the baritone (who's dancing too, in his way) -- leaps halfway up to the catwalk, does tours en l'air like a tornado, and whirls and thrusts his body into space like a man possessed. Cong is able to make his very best dance ideas come alive in these solos; they're becoming more evident in his group choreography, and especially in his duets, but I would still love to see more of them through more of the ballet. In any case, this solo for Yi is a blockbuster, and the synergy between him and Dolter is truly electric.

The "In taverna" passage (you may remember the hilariously staccato choral music: "Bibit hera, bibit herus, bibit miles, bibit clerus," translated "The mistress drinks, the master drinks, the soldier drinks, the priest drinks," and so on) extends the energy of Yi's solo to a group of 16 dynamic dancers. The energy is calmed somewhat in the sections that follow, in which a long and gorgeously sensual double duet for the principals is interspersed with more group dances. It's a sumptuous melange, and I found myself happy to let my eye wander from chorus (with the children now standing far upstage) to dancers to vocal soloists and back again.

Jo Wimer's costumes -- and there are many! -- are simply luscious, featuring long flowing skirts in warm peach and yellow and what looks like chocolate-streaked silk, as well as bare-backed, subtly sexy bodysuits, leather vests, and a red-hot dress for Olivier. And the black robes the dancers wear to open the ballet reappear at the end, but with a twist: in a brilliantly surprising moment, the dancers rip off the robes to reveal their sunset-colored costumes once again, and the robes become their partners in the reprise of "O Fortuna." They're flung to the ground and wrapped around arms and legs and finally thrown aside altogether in favor of a shimmering swath of gold silk which the dancers pull from an opening at the lip of the stage to cover themselves as they run to the back. It's a stunning finale to this very rich theater piece, in which all three artistic elements -- music, dance, and mise en scene -- work together brilliantly to illuminate the vast range of human passion.

Tulsa Ballet's next program, which opens November 10, will celebrate Oklahoma's centennial with Agnes de Mille's "Rodeo," Daniel Pelzig's "Nine Lives," and a world premiere suite from the musical "Oklahoma!" International as it is under Angelini's direction, both in make-up and in scope, Tulsa Ballet is still Tulsa, Oklahoma's very own company, after all. Angelini not only acknowledges that, he honors and encourages it in his programming, his outreach, and his education initiatives. His company is quite simply making ballet part of life once more in this city, and it's a beautiful thing.

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