Anyone hoping for solid technique, showmanship and gut-wrenching drama will have the prayers answered in Texas Ballet Theater’s first mixed repertory program of the 2013-14 season, “Epic Masterpieces,” which opened Friday at Bass Hall.
It began with the best-known work on the program, George Balanchine’s 1934 Serenade, the first ballet he choreographed in America. Set to Tchaikovsky’s Serenade for Strings in C, the ballet is presented in four movements, mostly using a cast of women dressed uniformly in pale blue, diaphanous tutus. Balanchine’s signature use of arms in specific formations — mirroring each other in port de bras positions — dominate the work, and the women often form various lines across the stage, in one scene reminiscent of the willis in Giselle.
Balanchine said the work was about dancers in the moonlight, and the ensemble captures that (Tony Tucci’s lighting and the costume colors — the men are in pale blue unitards to add to that concept); the lead women (Carolyn Judson, Leticia Oliveira, Betsy McBride), literally let down their hair and dance marvelously.
The work is a hint of things to come for Balanchine, and the TBT dancers keep it from being a stuffy museum piece.
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Next up is Ben Stevenson’s L, created in tribute to Liza Minnelli, featuring three onstage musicians from the Fort Worth Symphony (John Bryant, Drew Ferraro, Drew Lang) playing Don Lawson’s all-percussion score, which was commissioned for the Houston Ballet, Stevenson’s previous post.
Danced by an all-male ensemble, the eight movements put the men to the kind of dancing that creates sweat. Sometimes they saunter across the stage with long, outstretched legs; other times there are audience-thrilling fouettes, grand jete leaps and other showy moves. It all has a jazzy, improvisational feel. In musical theater, Minnelli may have been best_known for her work in Bob Fosse-choreographed shows, but Stevenson’s has a free-spirited Jerome Robbins feel. Dancers Philip Slocki and Thomas Kilps are among the standouts, and this work is clearly the audience favorite as it ends with an explosion of dancers furiously showing their skills in bursts across the stage.
Things turn dour in Sir Kenneth MacMillan’s 1980 masterwork, Gloria, set to Poulenc’s Gloria in G. An elegy about the losses caused by war, the dancers are clad in tattered leotards of darker tones, with hoods or helmets, performing in front of a set piece of a platform with a steep rake. Sometimes dancers are silhouetted on its edge (Tucci’s poetic lighting is particularly powerful here), or lie on the ground, victims of battle.
There are absolutely stunning poses by the four main dancers (Carl Coomer, Lucas Priolo, Judson and Oliveira) such as when the man holds a woman, back to back, but with her legs stretched out behind her, pointing him in a direction he may not want to proceed. It’s gorgeous for its stillness, with slow, methodical movement and geometric lifts. Combined with the music, the dance’s haunting meditation on loss, for the women and the men, is palpable.
If you don’t leave the show with a shiver up your spine, you may not have a soul. It’s the most emotional performance by TBT this season, arguably in several.
The program will be repeated March 28-30 at Dallas City Performance Hall, except for Gloria, which will be replaced with a world premiere of Clann, by Coomer.