I caught the Fall Mix performances by Miami City Ballet at the Kravis Center for the Performing Arts on Nov. 5 and it was a satisfying starter for what is being offering up for the 2023-24 season.
On display was the most beautiful of “plotless” ballets, the most dynamic of “crossover” ballets, as well as a brand-new work by a most promising choreographer.
There was a host of new faces to be seen onstage dancing new roles. The company has been turning over in the last few years and though it is sad to see favorite dancers no longer on the roster, it is very exciting to see talented young dancers given the opportunity to dance new roles and move up in the ranks of the company. These changes bring not only a freshness to the established repertory but also to the new works that are being created on them in the studio during the rehearsal process.
At the Sunday matinee Nov. 5, the company dancers looked invigorated, moving with confidence and finesse through the range of different dance styles required to perform George Balanchine’s classic Serenade, Twyla Tharp’s explosive In The Upper Room and the torso-undulating modern movement of Jamar Roberts’ Sea Change.
Artistic Director Lourdes Lopez continues the tradition of honoring the legacy of George Balanchine, acknowledging that without Balanchine, there would be no Miami City Ballet. The company’s 38th season marks not only the 75th anniversary of New York City Ballet (which Balanchine cofounded in 1948), but also the 40th anniversary of his death, and what more appropriate way is there to usher in the season than to open the first of its four programs with Balanchine’s most iconic work, Serenade?
Choreographed in 1934, this timeless ballet was the first original work that Balanchine created in the United States. The opening image of 17 women, dressed simply in long, pale blue tulle, spread across the stage motionless with one arm raised, is etched in the memory of everyone who has seen this ballet. Right from the beginning, the mysterious, motionless gesture (as well as the many other hauntingly suggestive images scattered throughout the work) challenge the idea that it is a dance without a story, as Balanchine had always claimed.
For most, when thinking of this prolific choreographer, Serenade is the first work that comes to mind and it is every ballerina’s dream to dance in it. In this performance it was Ashley Knox, Taylor Naturkas and Petra Love who danced the lead female roles leading the corps of women through Tchaikovsky’s expressive and melodic Serenade for Strings (in C, Op. 48), which was beautifully played by the Miami City Ballet Orchestra/Opus One Orchestra under the baton of MCB’s music director, Gary Sheldon.
Naturkas, recently promoted to soloist, is certainly marking her mark as an outstanding performer. She is an articulate, quick-footed dancer with a lovely clarity of line and she radiated an elegant ease in her role, especially in her beautiful airborne grand jetés.
In her role debut, Love looked especially confident and glowing in “Elegy” as she piquéd into her lovely arabesque for the difficult partnering where she is rotated from her ankle by her partner who is hidden on the floor behind her. For a moment, she is the epitome of a ballerina turning on top of a music box.
Another iconic dance on the program — but in genre of the “crossover” ballets — was In The Upper Room, the ultra-high-stamina work by Twyla Tharp choreographed in 1986. In this 39-minute work with its driving score by Philip Glass, the dancers are introduced as two different “teams” — the stompers and the bomb squad (originally called the bunheads). Footwear and movement style distinguished the two groups. Wearing white sneakers, the stompers were free and loose movers while the bomb squad, wearing pointe and ballet shoes, used ballet vocabulary as their movement idiom.
Tharp, who had her own company from 1971 until it merged with American Ballet Theatre in 1988, is known for her free-wheeling, fun movement style and many ballet companies over the years have performed her works. She is also known for her success as a choreographer on Broadway. When I first saw this work in the late 1980s, the roles of the stompers were danced by Tharp’s company dancers and the bomb squad roles were danced by ABT dancers. It is an enduring memory because at that time, the training for the different style of dance was still quite separate and that kinetic playful competition between those particular dancers onstage was so incredibly palpable.
In the Upper Room, which is known to test the very boundaries of a dancer’s capabilities, is another work that many dancers dream to have the opportunity to dance. Surely, its biggest challenge is having the stamina to survive to end of the finale, dancing full-out.
MCB dancers met the challenge of the choreography even though some looked as if they were not enjoying it as much as others were. Standouts in this performance were Nathalia Arja and Alaina Andersen, the two stompers who bookended each other as they set the dance in motion, seasoning the entire work with their lively entrances and exits until they closed the dance down. Also adding their own distinct spice to the mix was the bomb squad duo, Knox and Naturkas, who were dazzling in their side-by-side, minutely synchronized, rapid-fire crossings.
The driving dancing was amplified by the magical lighting design by Jennifer Tipton, where dancers miraculously appeared and disappeared into the upstage blackness of in a mist of fog. The vertical black-and-white striped costumes added a wacky look and were reminiscent of a jailbird. Designed by the fashion designer of the time, Norma Kamali, they evolved from monochromatic loose pajamas with small accents of red to body-revealing, tomato-red dancewear.
The music, like the choreography, notched up, gear by gear, during the nine sections of the work like a well-oiled machine to the finale, where all 13 dancers danced onstage together for the first time in full rev, now with bare arms and legs exposed, skin glistening in the sidelights.
Settled in between these two major works by two major choreographers was the world premiere of Sea Change, a contemporary work by Bessie Award-winning artist Jamar Roberts, which was set to Phrygian Gates (1977), by the post-minimalist composer John Adams. The challenging piano score was performed by guest pianist Ciro Foderé, who was born in Uruguay and is a regular guest artist for numerous orchestras as well as a professor at the New World School of the Arts in Miami.
Foderé, who is know for his versatile and fiery playing, handled the difficult score — which never holds a count for more than 10 seconds — with a masterful flair.
Choreographer Roberts, who is Miami-born and raised, has spent the last 20 years traveling and dancing with the Alvin Ailey Dance Theatre and became the company’s first resident choreographer. Roberts, who has created many works that are theme-based, says that Sea Change has little to do with a water theme and more to do with the mood of where we are today in the world. It is reflection on the collective turning point we are now at after COVID — an uncertain time filled with undercurrents of change.
The curtain opened on a projection of the lulling movement of the sea’s surface. The ensemble of 12 dancers, silhouetted in front of the screen, mimicked the undulating movement of waves. Torsos curving, arms rippling as dancers pooled together and dispersed as if caught in an irregular current. Focus turned to the tall and sinewy Hannah Fisher, who danced her solo under a single downward ray of light. Alexander Kaden was a fury of energy and Arja was a delight of dynamics in her solo.
Also a strong highlight was Francisco Schilereff’s dancing, which was followed by a strong solo performed by Steven Loch. Fischer joined Loch and together in partnership they connected, and small unexpected moments were created in their continuous flow of movement set against the dramatic rolling chords of the music.
Though the action/reaction connections between the dancers could have been more fulfilled and authentic, it was rewarding to see the quiet intensity that the dancers showed in their focus as they worked to get Roberts’ torso-centered movement just right.
Costume designer Jermaine Terry opted to have the costumes evolve, shedding blue batiked pants to reveal bare legs and glowing skin. Projection designer Camilla Tassi also evolved the visuals from photos of water to colored abstract images by artist Rebecca Stenn. The last projection looked reminiscent of sand dunes, bereft of even a drop of water.
My after-reaction to Robert’s work is that there was more depth to the work than one can absorb in first viewing. Roberts had successfully caught the essence of the uneasiness. Lying beneath the calm surface is the unknown and that is where change forms.
Then the work just ended. There really wasn’t an ending. Was there a message in that?
Miami City Ballet will present Program Two (Winter Mix) at the Kravis Center on Feb. 3-4.