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Metropolitan Classical Ballet guest artists Vilia Putruis and Mindaugas Bauzys in Paul Mejia's "Cafe Victoria." Photos by, copyright, and courtesy Marty Sohl.

Text copyright 2010 Paul Ben-Itzak
Photography copyright Marty Sohl

(Like the photos below? For more see Marty Sohl's Dance Insider Photo Album on Metropolitan Classical Ballet.)

The text of this article was originally commissioned and published in slightly different form by, and is reprinted with permission.

ARLINGTON, Texas -- Three ballets into the one-night only season of Metropolitan Classical Ballet July 17 at Texas Hall, I approached Paul Mejia, the company's co-director and the author of all three dances, and posed the rhetorical question: "What I don't understand, purely from an artistic standpoint, is what Peter Martins is doing in New York and you're doing here." "Well, my family's here," Mejia answered, but the question persists: After seeing Mejia succeed brilliantly in three different formats -- a group piece and a duet to classical music, then a spicey contemporary work to Astor Piazzolla -- in which New York City Ballet chief Martins has consistently failed, one has to ask: How has it come to pass that the house that Balanchine built continues to be maintained by an incompetent architect when there is clearly other Balanchine-bred talent out there that actually understands and is able to perpetuate the Balanchine aesthetic in a way that lives up to his legacy?

As Balanchine so often did, let's start with the music. Several years ago, Martins premiered a ballet -- at an anniversary gala, no less -- to an Astor Piazzolla composition. The result, which may even have been called "Tango," insulted the music and embarassed the dancers. To the voluptuous sensuality of tango music, Martins responded with a rail-thin Wendy Whelan in a classic tutu. Now take Mejia's 1992 "Cafe Victoria." Set to Piazzolla ("Contrabajisimo"), notwithstanding that virtuoso and droll pianist Gleb Ivanov toted a cigar with one hand while tickling the ivories with the other (as part of an onstage ensemble rounded out by the equally virtuosic Eric Grossman on violin and New York tango heavy-weight Hector Tito Castro on bandoneon), this was not a neo-classical take on 'tango' -- as it should not have been, considering that Piazzolla himself didn't think of his music as (social) 'dance music.' If anything, the work offered striking tributes to Balanchine's "Prodigal Son," with guest artist Vilia Putrius's red-leotarded vamp wielding scissory whipping black-stockinged preying-mantis like legs that would make any Siren proud. Her victim in this case is a prodigal tango wolf (guest Mindaugas Bauzys), who will indeed be drained before she gets through with him and he's hurtled off the stage and out of the cafe. In the meantime, besides the Siren-like legs around his neck, there are also complicated supports, as when he bends his knees just a tad to scrunch behind her, holding her waist as she, leaning against him and reaching back her arms to hold on, sits in the air and arches her feet on perfect tight points. Putrius is so dominating and clearly in charge that she manages to be sexy without being a sex object, equal parts beauty and independent force from the moment she winds her legs around an upstage left stand-alone barre, where three corps women (Brittany Bollinger, Kayla Giard, and Ekaterina Ostroven) have been executing matching Busby Berkeley-like moves supported by the barre and red bar stools, many ending in spread-legged V's. Perhaps because they were less deft than Putrius, this section sometimes bordered on cheesiness.

On the grand scale, Mejia's achievement in "Cafe Victoria" is the way the dance scales the music. This particular Piazzolla composition (not easy to play, but the trio here matches any recording I've heard) comes with high scales of the violin and thumps (on the piano? the violin? not sure), and it all seems tailor-made for Mejia's choreography, which finds specific moves and moods for even the merest sliver of a note.

Metropolitan Classical Ballet guest artists Vilia Putruis and Mindaugas Bauzys in Paul Mejia's "Cafe Victoria." Photos by, copyright, and courtesy Marty Sohl.

Under Martins's hands, an ensemble ballet like "Brahms Watlzes," for 14 dancers to waltzes from the composer's Opus 39, might have devolved into an insipid procession of quaint and harmless duets intersected by generic corps interstices. Mejia, though, actually uses the music, and dancers, in true Balanchinian fashion -- not just paying surface attention to the music, as Martins might do, but returning to the forgotten arm. Balanchine can be so fleet that sometimes the arms are neglected, particularly by younger dancers. But here Mejia uses them to open a whole 'nother plane -- and, important to Balanchine -- lateral vista. While the romanticism of duets between Putrius and Bauzys is stirring -- all the more when cast in perfectly lowered tones by lighting designer Tony Tucci, who apparently had just a day and a half to set the grid -- the tour de force here was delivered by Bollinger and Sunni Wright, who managed to keep up with Ivanov's rapid but deft playing not only without losing a single phrase, but defining each, as well as their interplay.

Metropolitan Classical Ballet in Paul Mejia's "Brahms Waltzes." Photo by, copyright, and courtesy Marty Sohl.

Every company has, or should have, its anchoring couple, and for MCB it's Marina Goshko and Andrey Prikhodko, and Mejia and co-director Alexander Vetrov couldn't have found a more welcoming set of principals. Here's why I use the term 'welcoming': Goshko and Prikhodko, a couple in real life, are elegant without being aloof, pristine without being prissy, as they demonstrated with their clean lines and eloquent partnering in the premiere of Mejia's "Valse-Scherzo," to Tchaikovsky. Often such classical duets can become cold parlor dances, seemingly removed even in intimate settings. Here though, thanks largely to the dancers, it was open. In fact, if I have any feedback for Prikhodko, it would be that while his easy, free style of dancing is endearing, what appears to be a fixed, slightly open-mouth, even rigid grin adds a degree of wooden-ness that he'd do well to lose if he can. Goshko is absolutely silken.

Metropolitan Classical Ballet's Marina Goshko and Andrey Prikhodko in Paul Mejia's "Valse-Scherzo." Photo by, copyright, and courtesy Marty Sohl.

Up to this point in the program -- which began with with 'Brahms,' followed by the duet, and then "Cafe Victoria"-- the mood had been tightly controlled. With "Walpurgis Night," the dancers cut loose in a ribald Bacchanalia, at the heart of which was Prikhodko as a sort of spell-casting Pan. Now, this is not Balanchine's "Walpurgisnacht" mispelled. No, this is a real chestnut of a reconstruction of sorts of what started as a ballet divertissement in the last act of Charles Gounod's opera "Faust," premiered March 3, 1869 at the Paris Opera House. That version was by Henri Justament. Then Leonid Lavrovsky, he of "Romeo & Juliet" fame, got ahold of it. It's this version that Vetrov staged and, as he puts it, 'renewed' in 2001 for Metropolitan Classical Ballet. What I loved about the inclusion of a lavish work like this on the program was that it tapped into a first half of the 20th-century ballet treasury trove which is so rich yet which ballet companies rarely mine, preferring to lay on us the same handful of (often) tired evening-length story ballets -- as if because it's ballet we don't mind seeing the same thing over and over again. (Tell me American Ballet Theatre followers: Did you REALLY need to see Kenneth MacMillan's "Romeo & Juliet" one more time this season? Wouldn't you have preferred to see, in its place, three or four one-act rarities from the ABT archive?) "Walpurgis Night" is your basic lavish, extravagant Bacchanalia. Prikhodko does all the goofy, wrist turned things with his hands and fingers, often to finish off elfin jumps as he exits flying with a goofy grin. The corps here also cut loose. Goshko was a graceful anchor, a dose of the sublime to keep the ballet from going off the silly deep end. A clear audience favorite was Maiko Abe. It's easy to see why. She has that rare and enthusiastic lack of emotional restraint which can't help but be infectious. Physically she also seems to have no restraints. Dressed in a bright red top over tights, Abe flies about a lot, turns, executes willowy extensions, is carried around as she arches back and flings her legs out, and flicks her hands at a bevy of supporting guys, also in Pan-like skimpy attire. She's also breathtakingly beautiful. My only suggestion would be that her formidable dexterity and awe-inspiring flexibility could use some punctuation and some languor. This is a goofy extravagant ballet, and to not seem just silly, the ballerina here needs to bring a poise that's not evident in the choreography. (To see a contrasting example, take a look at this You Tube video featuring Bolshoi legend Ekaterina Maximova.)

What was particularly brave about this choice of repertoire on Vetrov's part was that it would inevitably have to be done to a recording, a live orchestra being beyond MCB's means. While this was indeed a bit jarring after an evening of live music, it was still a commendable risk because instead of standing pat, Vetrov had actually shown us something new, in the sense of being so rarely seen. In fact none of the creative works, or work by the dancers, stood pat, starting from from Mejia's understanding that living by the Balanchine credo means not just using the same type of music and presenting the shell of what Balanchine did -- as Martins so often does -- but really working the music, working the arms and torso and not just the legs, working the relationships in duets and in general working the dancers, who in this case were primed for it, amazingly so as, believe it or not, this obviously rigorously prepared evening was just a one-off.

Incredibly, the July 17 show was the first performance by the company in six months. The auditorium on the University of Arlington campus can accomodate 2,800 spectators; there were probably less than 1,000 there for this evening. It would be too easy to dismiss this light attendance as a product of summer, or even snobbishly say, "Well, this is Arlington, Texas, not New York." But if there's enough arts support in the Arlington-Dallas-Fort Worth area for a brand spanking new multi-million dollar arts complex, there's probably enough to *at least* pack one 2,800-seat theater for one night.... But for the people to come, they need to know about it. A couple of days after the performance, I heard from a colleague who has lived here for years and is ensconced in the local dance community; she only happened to hear about the performance by accident the afternoon of the show. When you've got a jewel like Metropolitan Classical Ballet, directed by major-league talent like Mejia and Vetrov, and with dancers who pour their hearts out, including top-level national talent like the ballerina Vilia Putrius (yet another treasure that Boston Ballet's Mikko Nissenen let slip through his fingers) you have to hire professional staff to adequately promote and exploit what they're doing. Otherwise, the company won't develope. It will continue -- as far as number of performances -- to shrink, and that will ultimately have its effect on the artistic product, making it harder to attract quality dancers without significant performance opportunities. And this is before we even get to exposure on a larger scale.

As far as the level of the choreography and dancing, this is a company that should be playing on the national level, and yet I, too, only happened to hear about it thanks to a friend and colleague who works with MCB. Joseph Pulitzer once said that without adequate publicity, all efforts fail. On an artistic level, Metropolitan Classical Ballet's July 17 one-off was hardly a failure, but it would have had a lot more impact if the program was not kept to one night, and if it was better promoted (which would lead to more sales, which would defer the cost of an extended run). The company's website describes it as 'one of the most successful ballet companies in Texas.' For Texans, I don't think they're thinking big enough.

Top photo: Andrey Prikhodko and the Metropolitan Classical Ballet in Alexander Vetrov's staging of Leonid Lavrovsky's "Walpurgis Night"; bottom two images: MCB's Maiko Abe and David Barocio in "Walpurgis Night." Photos by, copyright, and courtesy Marty Sohl.

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