The spring concerts of the Harid Conservatory in Boca Raton always begin with an introduction of the graduating class of dancers, who come to the mic, tell the audience who they are and where they’re from, and reveal their future plans, which are always very impressive.
It’s a charming tradition that gives the audience an immediate familial buy-in for the show they’re about to see, and May 28 at Spanish River High School, that show amounted to the usual mix of classical works and modern dance, all of it enlightening and entertaining in varied degree.
But that weekend’s three shows were extra-special in that they provided the world premiere of a modern ballet that surely should be a regular repertory piece in companies across the country. Renaissance Way, choreographed by Mark Godden, an instructor at Harid who has created more than 50 ballets for numerous companies and who was a featured soloist with Canada’s Royal Winnipeg Ballet, is a beautiful, brilliant work that gives us everything we hope for from contemporary dance: A wide variety of virtuoso movement of every kind, a compelling scenario set to engaging music, and a story whose arcs can be communicated with telling gesture.
Planned in five movements and set to late-medieval and Renaissance music played by the peerless Spanish early-music ensemble Hespèrion XXI, Godden’s work is set for five couples, two of whom are the central soloists, marvelously embodied here by Rebecca Trionfo of Georgia and Alexander Sargent of Fairfax, Va., a senior heading for the Juilliard School. Trionfo and Sargent, dressed in flesh-colored costumes for the opening movement, an elaborate duet accompanied by the anonymous 14th-century “Lamento di Tristano,” gave arresting expression to a courtship with restless, exciting movement; Sargent in particular moves with exceptional fluidity, never appearing stiff or awkward.
Indeed, that was perfect for Godden’s remarkable sense of invention; parts of the body are constantly in motion. Hands were almost as important as trunk and legs here, with dancers making rapid, rustling-flowers movements over their heads at one point, but what struck the viewer overall was its joyful energy, even to a stately, somber sarabande by the 16th-century Spanish composer Diego Ortiz, in which Trionfo and Sargent, at the back of the stage, enacted a slow counterpoint to the elegant, formal dancing of the four couples in Renaissance garb upstage.
Julia Vinez, Kristine Wiggins, Natalia Lascano and Tiffany Chatfield in Renaissance Way. (Photo by Alex Srb)
It was a lovely conception, as was the finale, set to an anonymous version of the familiar English song “Greensleeves,” in which Trionfo appears as Lady Greensleeves opposite a courtier-garbed Sargent, who then disrobe each other to reveal the flesh-colored costumes of the opening. There also was a charming bit of business involving red and white flowers and the proper giving of them, which added another humorous touch to a vivid, enchanting ballet with a message of love.
The 10 Harid dancers were clearly enjoying every bit of this dance, giving it a kind of commitment that you only see when artists are working hard on a premiere they believe in. In its beauty, its variety, its canny setting to wonderful ancient music, and its immediate appeal to audiences, Renaissance Way deserves to be a repertory piece, and not just for dance academies, but for major ballet companies looking for something fresh and inviting to add to their programs.
A scene from On the Town. (Photo by Alex Srb)
Palm Beach Gardens choreographer Maria Konrad, who runs the Reach Dance company, contributed a lively setting of Leonard Bernstein’s music for On the Town, itself drawn from a ballet (Fancy Free) he wrote for the young Jerome Robbins. The story of sailors on 24 hours of shore leave in the Big Apple during World War II, it’s well-known from its movie version as well as its musical incarnation, and this staging took the viewer through the high points of the score, from “New York, New York (a Helluva Town)” to the pensive ballad “Lonely Town.”
Konrad is a jazz dance choreographer, and like her Reach work, this staging of Bernstein’s music had high energy and plenty of busy routines with an emphasis on high-stepping, including leaps for the men and big extensions for the women. The difference here was that the Harid dancers added a stronger formal sense to the movement, so that even as they were moving across stage in a modified conga line, their footwork had an extra layer of elegance, with feet pointed balletically instead of casually.
Simone Messmer as Aurora. (Photo by Alex Srb)
In addition to the Godden and Konrad pieces, there was a short guest appearance by Harid alumna Simone Messmer, now a soloist with the Miami City Ballet. She danced “Aurora’s Variation” from Tchaikovsky’s Sleeping Beauty as spotlessly as you could wish; it would have been good to see some more of her, or perhaps in something a little showier for a special-guest spot.
The first and last pieces on the program were extensive excerpts from two Petipa ballets: Raymonda, with music by Alexander Glazunov, and La Bayadère, to music by Ludwig Minkus. In both cases, these were attractive vehicles for displaying the breadth of the Harid dancers’ talents.
In the Raymonda excerpts, which opened the program, Tiffany Chatfield was a fine Raymonda, Julia Vinez gave a good performance of the “Vision Variation,” and the members of the “Men’s Dance” — Bela Erlandson, Gabriel Hileman, Cody Maggiore and Patrick Mihm — showed the kind of power and forcefulness that should make them effective princes and knights in the classical repertory.
A scene from La Bayadère. (Photo by Alex Srb)
The Bayadère excerpts, all drawn from Act III, were more interesting, particularly a well-handled “Parrot Dance” by Anna Gonzalez, Mya Kresnyak, Madeleine Kuebler, Hui-Wen Peng, Ana Vega and Shelby Wierman. Also standing out were Humberto dos Reis, a Brazilian senior bound for the Charlotte Ballet, as the Golden Idol, and the Gamzatti-Solor pairing of Ingrid Thoms and Henry Grey, a very tall senior from New Zealand who will be joining the Bavarian State Ballet.
The Harid spring recitals usually leave one feeling good about the level of dance talent making its way in the world now, and if we cannot have fully staged, live-orchestra productions of major classical ballets at Harid, that’s more than compensated for by the arrival of new pieces, particularly when they are as delightful as Mark Godden’s Renaissance Way.