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Letter from New York, 9-3: Tall in Tulsa
Serious Ballet from America's Heartland

By Gus Solomons jr
Copyright 2009 Gus Solomons jr

NEW YORK -- An impressive array of dignitaries -- including Oklahoma governor Brad Henry with beefy bodyguards in tow, first lady Kim Henry, Tulsa mayor Kathy Taylor and her husband Bill Lobeck, secretary of state Susan Savage, chamber of commerce president Mike Neal, and even the president of the Women's National Basketball Association Donna Orender -- attended the opening of Tulsa Ballet's debut run at the Joyce Theater on Monday, August 10, its first New York appearance in 25 years. An out-of-town contingent of Sooners squealed with delight when the curtain rose on 25 dancers, clad in Ian Spurling's dazzling costumes.

Kenneth MacMillan's "Elite Syncopations" (1974), a shrewdly buoyant opener staged snappily by Julie Lincoln, concocts rhythmically obvious steps that borrow freely from music hall routines and sets them to a selection of ragtime tunes by Scott Joplin, Paul Pratt, James Scott, and others. Spurling's colorful body suits, elaborately embroidered with faux vests, buttons and bows, and gaudily striped and checked limbs, are as wittily cartoonish as MacMillan's giddy physical shenanigans.

The syncopated rags and waltzes are packed with familiar sight gags that keep a smile on your face. In "Alaskan Rag," puppy-perky Mugen Kazama buries his head in lanky Marit van der Wolde's bosom and keeps getting tangled in her rangy limbs. In "The Golden Hours," Ma Cong manipulates his heartthrob Ashley Blade-Martin into precarious poses that manage not to collapse into a heap.

Although some of the company's 27 listed dancers have danced with Tulsa for as long as a decade, they perform with youthful resilience. They represent a united nations of origins -- Venezuela, Colombia, China, Korea, Sweden, Jamaica -- and they have studied with and danced for companies world wide, from St. Petersburg to Kansas City, Zurich to Beijing, Stuttgart to Des Moines, Houston to Dayton. The dancers are uniformly skilled, toned, and attractive, and they intrepidly negotiate the Joyce stage's comparatively cramped dimensions in perilous proximity without batting a false eyelash.

Artistic director since 1995, Marcello Angelini chose for his Joyce program an ambitious, two-and-a-half hour, your-money's-worth-and-more trio of big ballets by Englishman MacMillan, Spaniard Nacho Duato, and Korean Young Soon Hue. The troupe did Tulsa proud with astute training, assiduous rehearsal, and confident performing that earned a standing ovation from the packed house. Only the final ballet, Hue's "This is Your Life" -- an excruciatingly hokey olio, taking its title from a '50s TV show -- falls flat choreographically, failing to weave any coherence or insight into one-dimensional depictions of adultery, sexual infatuation, career frustration, and an egregiously stereotyped gay hairdresser.

I would die for you: Tulsa Ballet's Serena Chu and Ma Cong in Nacho Duato's "Por Vos Muero." Photo copyright Christopher Jean Richard and courtesy Tulsa Ballet.

The middle work, Duato's "Por Vos Muero" (For You, I Die), begins with a dozen dancers in flesh-colored leotards facing upstage, where crimson drapes hang above a row of gray panels, between which dancers enter and exit. Subsequently, the women don long dresses and the men, doublets over black shorts. Fifteenth and sixteenth-century Spanish songs and dances provide atmospheric accompaniment for duets, trios, a women's sextet in which the performers manipulate identical face masks on rods, and a passage for the men, in flowing cloaks and carrying smoking censers.

Duato blends ballet and Spanish folk motifs with a weighted, modern dance sensibility; emotional tension hovers but never lands. In the final passage, the dancers return to their nude look. Only Karina Gonzalez -- the company's star dancer, whose dynamic clarity and fluent grace illuminate all three ballets -- remains in her gown, passing among the others, before reposing with a partner in a lighted, upstage niche.

Spanish text and lyrics imply a dark narrative about love and loss, although us non-polyglots remain in the dark about its specifics. But the choreography is rich in intriguing kinetic and visual imagery that keep us engaged, nonetheless.

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