Tag Archives: New York City Ballet

Review: Nutcracker, LakeCities Ballet Theatre

LakeCities Ballet Theatre offer up a visual feast of vibrant dancing and stellar guest artists in honor of its 25th production of The Nutcracker.

LBT-NUT
LakeCities Ballet Theatre’s 25th annual presentation of The Nutcracker. Photo: Nancy Loch

Flower Mound — With stunning sets, exquisite dancing and live musical accompaniment provided by the Lewisville Lake Symphony, it’s no wonder LakeCities Ballet Theatre’s (LBT) annual production of the Nutcracker is one of the top items on people’s to do list every holiday season. This year’s Nutcracker performance was especially festive as it not only marked the company’s 25th anniversary of the holiday classic but was also the first time LBT sold out both showings at Marcus High School in Flower Mound this past weekend. This Nutcracker production also marks a transitional year for the company as many of its senior members graduated last spring, including Sydney Greene, Ali Honchell and Mackenna Pieper, giving members the opportunity to set up to the plate.

For those needing a refresher, the Nutcracker ballet is divided into two acts. The first includes a large party scene where our heroine Clara receives a Nutcracker doll from her Uncle Drosselmeyer. When Clara goes to sleep that night she dreams of a battle between the Rat King and her Nutcracker Prince and also the Kingdom of Sweets where couple’s from different nationalities, including Russia, China and Spain perform for the reigning couple. After the climactic Sugar Plum Fairy and Cavalier pas de deux, Clara returns to her bed where she awakens from this wondrous dream.

Sarah Lane and Daniel Ulbricht in the grand pas de deux in The Nutcracker at LakeCities Ballet Theatre. Photo: Nancy Loch

In LBT’s version, audiences are immediately pulled into the story as families heading to the Silberhaus’ annual Christmas party marched down the aisles and up onto the stage. Former English National Ballet dancer Kenn Wells (Herr Drosselmeyer) keeps the audience connected as he gestures to us to help him find the location of the party. Artistic Director Kelly Lannin’s fine eye for details, imaginative choreography and quirky sense of humor are on display throughout the party scene from the inventive adult and children dance sequences to Wells’ well-timed practical jokes and Mayor Silberhaus’ (Chuck Denton) over-the-top facial expressions especially after he ingests one too many holiday spirits. Not everyone may have noticed, but Denton also smoothly orchestrated almost every transition in the party scene from the lighting of the tree and the puppet show to the presentation of the Ballerina and Cadet dolls. Madeline Hanly and guest artist Ruben Gerding perfectly captured the doll’s unyielding forms with their pursed lips, angular arm gestures and jerky upper body movements.

Carly Greene shone in the role of Clara. Her natural grace and infectious personality were enhanced by her poignant pointe work and passionate character portrayal. Unlike other productions where Clara does very little after the first half, Lannin gives Greene many opportunities to flex her technical muscles throughout the show, much to the viewers delight. The only instance I am on the fence about is Lannin’s decision to feature Greene and guest artist Jack Wolff (Nutcracker Prince) at the beginning of the Snow Scene, a spot that is typically reserved for the Snow Queen and King pas de deux. Don’t misunderstand, Greene and Wolff nailed every singlearabesque hold, assisted pirouette and various sustained body movements, but their performance just couldn’t match up to the exciting lifts and complex pointe work that Mackenna Pieper and Shannon Beacham have perfected over the years in their roles of Snow Queen and King. Pieper, who graduated last year, has left some hard shoes to fill and it will be interesting to see who rises to the challenge. Adult member Faith Jones’ super long legs and penchant for beautifully controlled movements would fit the role nicely as would Carley Denton’s commanding stage presence and regal posturing.

The cast carried the party vibe over into the second half with more lively and technically brilliant performances by both LBT company members and special guests Sarah Lane (American Ballet Theatre) and Daniel Ulbricht (New York City Ballet) as the Sugar Plum Fairy and her Cavalier. Denton was fun and flirty as the lead of the Spanish dancers, deftly guiding the rest of the corp, including Chloe Davis, Ashleigh Eaton, Kelsey Rhinehelder and Mikaela Seale through a series of rhythmic hands claps and fast foot work. Jones and Beacham displayed amazing control and dexterity in the Arabian dance especially when Jones bent backwards and held onto her foot while Beacham rotated her in a circle. Guest Artist Andre Harrington got the audience up and cheering with his consecutive back handsprings, while a surprise appearance by former Dallas Cowboys player Isaiah Stanback in the role of Mother Ginger sporting a Cowboys jersey and helmet on top of the large colorful skirt housing eight tiny dancers had the audience in stitches.

Lane and Ulbricht were sublime in the grand pas de deux at the end of the show. They executed the controlledpromenades, ponche arabesques and shifting epaulement phrases in a calm and fluid manner. Lane’s breathy exhales during her multiple pirouettes and various jumping sequences made her moves appear bigger and bolder. Ulbricht’s incredible artistry and athleticism are well known in the ballet world. He eats up the space with his gravity defying jetes and barely makes a sound when he drops to his knee after performing consecutive tours en l’air.

Lannin and her team should be proud of the whimsical and welcoming Nutcracker production they have diligently fostered over the last 25 years. I’m looking forward to seeing how the younger dancers progress into the ballet’s more challenging roles in the coming years.

This review was originally posted  on TheaterJones.com.

 

Advertisements

Review: Chamberlain Performing Arts’ Nutcracker

Chamberlain Performing Arts delivers strong technique and spectacular guest artists at the company’s 31st Nutcracker production this weekend.

CPA-NUT
Tiler Peck and Tyler Angle in Chamberlain’s Nutcracker. Photo Ryan Williams

Richardson — Oh, the weather outside was definitely frightful last Friday evening, but the mood inside the Eisemann Center for Performing Arts was festive as audiences eagerly took their seats for the Chamberlain Performing Arts’ (CPA) 31st showing of The Nutcracker. What sets this company’s Nutcracker apart from other productions in the area is Artistic Director Kathy Chamberlain and her team’s minimalist, yet effective approach to the stage design and movement choices, thus turning the typically cumbersome party scene into an exciting dance narrative filled with nonstop action and clean choreography.

The simple set design in the party scene, which included a handful of gifts, a large grandfather clock, a couch and a chair enabled the audience to focus more on the children and adult dances as well as the subplots taking place around the room. Choreographers Chamberlain, Richard Condon, Lynne Short and Catherine Turocy combined rudimentary ballet steps i.e. chasses, balances, relieve plie and bourrees with various regimented formation changes and even some boy/girl partnering walks in the children’s dances, creating an effect that was both clean and captivating. By intermingling the adults and children into one waltz section, the choreographers successfully kept the energy and storyline moving at a chipper pace.

Katherine Patterson (Clara) perfectly captured a child’s innocence and wonder when it comes to Christmas with her endless energy and shining stage presence. And while Patterson had a tendency to cut her movements short, when she did complete her line in an arabesque hold or sous-sus in fifth, it rivaled the lines of the older company members. With more time and training she will be a force to be reckoned with in coming years. Clara’s friends (Madison Cox, Emily DeMotte, Annika Haynes and Mary Rose Vining) displayed beautiful musicality and body control in their petit adagio section, which featured alternating leg extensions and arm placements and deliberatepique steps, all the while holding baby dolls. Guest artist Joshua Coleman really played to the younger audience members in his role as Herr Drosselmeyer with his over-the-top facial expressions and well-executed magical illusions, which included an impressive disappearing act.

CPA Senior Company Member Bethany Greenho did a commendable job as the Snow Queen. Even her sometimes stiff back arches and locked hip joints in her battements couldn’t take away from her swan-like arms and nimble pointe work nor the way she fearlessly went for the pas de deux’s momentous lifts.  Dallas native Travis Morrison, who performed with the Colorado Ballet from 2006 to 2012, inspired Greenho’s confidence with his unwavering strength and razor-sharp focus during the lifts and tricky counterbalance body positions spread throughout the dance. The snowflake dance lacked some of the elasticity demanded by Tchaikovsky’s score, which falls more on the choreographer’s shoulders than the dancers as the movement in the section catered toward more gliding steps and sustained body positions rather than constant spritely jumps and steps. The hand-held fan-like props with tiny snowballs attached at the ends drew attention to the dancers’ strong body lines and made for a memorable ending to the first half of the show.

The second half in which Clara and her Prince entered the land of sweets gave the whole company the opportunity to show off their artistic growth and technical versatility and also featured some amazing performances by special guests, including Harry Feril (Bruce Wood Dance Project) in the Arabian section and Tiler Peck (New York City Ballet) and Tyler Angle (New York City Ballet) as the Sugar Plum Fairy and her Cavalier.

Peck and Angle’s chemistry was undeniable as they executed the complex reverse promenades into a ponche arabesque and the multiple over-the-head lifts including the dynamic fish bowl dip at the end with expressive abandonment. Their luminous auras and technical finesse portrayed at the end of each move, especially after the lightening-quick seven assisted pirouettes into a sustained back arch, is not something that can be taught. Their magnetism as a couple didn’t fade in their solo sections, which featured impressive jumps and controlled landings by Angle and bold lines and unwavering confidence from Tiler in the infamous diagonal chaine, pique turn combination in time to the changing rhythm of the music.

Lisa Hess Jones’ clever choreography in the second half played to each group’s specific skill level from the synchronized walking patterns of the itty bitty angels and the simple soft shoe work of the intermediate bakers and bon bon’s to the more technically advanced pointe work of the marzipans and the Waltz of the Flowers. The end result was one of the most well-rehearsed and lively second acts of the Nutcracker I have had the pleasure to see this season.

Senior dancer Luke Yee wowed audiences with multiple toes touches in the Chinese dance as well as in the Russian dance where he performed alongside Southern Methodist University dance major Alex Druzbanski. Henry Feril showed off his modern background with his hinged-back body layouts and swooping arm movements before assisting Katherine Lambert in a number of shoulder lifts and body dips in the Arabian section. Greenho, Breanna Mitchell, Raquel Dominguez, Aidan Leslie and Serena Press enthralled viewers with their beautiful lyricism and solid pointe work while playing their flutes in the marzipan dance. The whole senior company returned for the Waltz of the Flowers in which they effortlessly captured the nuances in the music with their constant weight shifts on pointe and dynamic crisscrossing jumping sequences. Definitely, a Nutcracker worth seeing again next season!

This review was originally posted on TheaterJones.com.

 

Q&A: David Parsons, Parsons Dance

UGH! I am behind in posting some articles here. Parsons Dance was in town last weekend and they were simply amazing. You can find out more about the man behind the company, David Parsons, below. Even over the phone the man has a commanding presence.

David Parsons. Photo: Lois Greenfield
David Parsons. Photo: Lois Greenfield

The contemporary choreographer on his inspirations, his famous solo Caught, and performing for TITAS.

Dallas — David Parsons is no stranger to Dallas. In fact, his solo work Caught which uses strobe lights to create the illusion that the dancer is flying has been featured at the annual TITAS Command Performance twice in the last five years. It’s one of those pieces you never get tired of seeing which is great since it will be making its third appearance in Dallas this weekend as TITAS presents Parsons Dance at the Winspear Opera House. This company is known for its physical and visual prowess so you definitely don’t want to miss them.

Raised in Kansas City, Parsons moved to New York City at 17 to begin his dancing career. He joined the Paul Taylor Dance Company in 1978 where he danced many leading roles in works such as Arden Court, Last Look andRoses. Parsons has also appeared as a guest artist with the Berlin Opera, MOMIX, New York City Ballet and the White Oak Dance Project. He founded Parsons Dance in 1985 with lighting designer Howell Binkley who went on to win a Tony Award for best lighting design of a musical for Jersey Boys in 2006. Parsons and Binkley are currently working on a new project together which they will premiere in Kansas City this June.

Over the last three decades Parsons Dance has toured 30 countries and five continents and has performed in world class venues, including the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, Maison de la Danse, Teatro La Fenice and Teatro Muncipal. His works have also been performed by Batsheva Dance Company of Irsael, Hubbard Street Dance Company, Nederlands Dans Theatre and Paris Opera Ballet just to name a few. Parsons is also a recipient of the 2000 Dance Magazine Award, the 2001 American Choreography Award and the 2011 Dance Master of America Award.

Parsons Dance will be in Dallas at 8 p.m. Saturday, April 25 at the AT&T Performing Arts Center’s Winspear Opera House. The evening’s program includes Parsons’ Caught(1982) Bachiana (1993) and Whirlaway (2014) as well as pieces by Robert Battle, Trey McIntyre and Natalie Lomonte.

TheaterJones asks David Parsons about breaking into the world of contempororay dance, developing his choreographic voice and the creative process for his phenomenal work, Caught.

TheaterJones: How did you enter the realm of contemporary dance?

David Parsons: I started out as a gymnast and I specialized in trampoline. So you can see where Caughtcomes from. Basically my mom didn’t know what to do with me during the summer so she would put me in arts camp and that’s where I was introduced to contemporary dance. In my mind it was incredibly challenging because dance isn’t just about moving around. It’s colors, lights, choreography, costumes and business, and it was a huge revelation for me. Then I started learning technique and you find freedom in technique. I then saw the Paul Taylor Dance Company and I knew I wanted to be in that company. I actually went to New York because I received a scholarship from Alvin Ailey, but once I got into Paul’s studio and he said I could hang around and understudy I knew I wasn’t going to leave.

What did you discover about your artistic self while dancing with Paul Taylor?

Paul Taylor is a genius and he was a great teacher for me. His work is so profound and I was totally attracted to the physicality of his work. I mean that is dance and we do the same thing at Parsons. You can’t come into this company and not be able to do a mild sprint I can assure you. It was probably a year after I joined Paul’s company that I knew I wanted to be a choreographer. I had done trampoline routines and other choreographic ventures, but I knew I needed to learn about music and lighting design and so I studied Paul like a sponge. I would study the tools and structures he used in his choreography as well as his business model. The experience turned out to be Taylor University for me.

The Dallas program includes Caught (1982), Bachiana (1993) and Whirlaway (2014). Looking back at what point would you say you found your choreographic voice and how does your work reflect this?

I really found my voice when I made three pieces within two years. They were Caught; The Envelope, set to Rossini, which was a comedy; and Brothers, which was done to Stravinsky and looked at sibling rivalry. Those three pieces kind of set the pace for me because they were all so different. I am somebody who pushes to have a huge variety in my program. Brevity is important too. But for me it was really about making the audience feel like they are on an emotional rollercoaster. Meaning that we would do humorous and dark works all in one evening. So it’s like your day. You wake up and throughout the day you’ll laugh or maybe cry or be sad. We really like to take the audience through an emotional, visual and physical roller coaster. We also communicate well with the audience. I like to touch things that we’ve all experienced like The Envelope for instance. It’s about an envelope and the performers just can’t get rid of it. It keeps coming back on stage. Then there’s Sleep Study which is done with only the movement of sleeping and then Caught which connects you with flying and that inner dream that we all have. Then there’s just beautiful pieces like Whirlaway which connects you to New Orleans. It takes you on an actual trip somewhere.

Caught is always a crowd pleaser wherever you go. Can you talk me through the process you went through to put this work together?

I created the solo at a very young age. When I first came to New York at age 17 I worked a lot of odd jobs including being a stunt model. And on these jobs I worked a lot with photography and that’s how I found out that Caught could be done. That there was a way for me to connect with people’s primitive need to fly. We all dream of flying and that’s the connection I was interested in. Again, when I make dances I’m interested in touching everybody in personal way. I look for those things that we all have in common. So, once I understood that I could catch myself in the air on a dark stage and take the same shape and move it around it’s really like looking at a live photo shoot all, of course, hovering over the ground. It really was just trial and error and fun to put together this journey of a man who starts in a room in conventional lightening preparing himself to fly and then he takes flight. This is a little contemporary gem that people love to see over and over again with different casts, sometimes it’s a woman, and it’s quite an astounding piece.

Eric Bourne in David Parsons' Caught. Photo: Angelo Redaelli
Eric Bourne in David Parsons’ Caught. Photo: Angelo Redaelli

From the get-go did you know you wanted to use strobe lights?

Yes, the whole piece was wrapped around me finding the idea of working with a strobe light like that. Some people say it’s a gimmick, but I say it’s a darn good one.

Do you have to adjust the timing of the strobe lights or the dancer based on the size of the venue you are using?

Yes, depending on the size of the stage the dancer does have to change his timing. I mean this is millisecond timing we are talking about here. We also do this piece outside and sometimes there is extraneous light like there was in Rome and I went around and put garbage bags over every lamp on this pedestrian walkway. In this instance you have to flash the strobe lights a little bit faster when there is ambient light so that the audience can’t see the dancer moving in between shots. On a totally dark stage we don’t have that problem. So, there are a lot of things we have to do for an outdoor venue compared to indoor venue compared to a small stage or an Opera house. It’s all constantly changing.

You and your lighting director, Howell Binkley, have known each other for more than 30 years. How did you two meet?

Howell was brought in as the lighting supervisor for Paul Taylor so we toured together and became buddies. And one time when we were sitting on a bench in France I told him I was thinking about starting a company once we got back to New York and he said he was right there with me. Now he is one of the major lighting designers on the planet. He did the lighting design for Jersey Boys and [Lin-Manuel Miranda’s] Hamilton. We are currently working on a piece that will premiere in Kansas City at the [Kauffman Center] this June.

Review: LakeCities Ballet Theatre, 2014 Nutcracker

Nutty Glee

Sarah Lane (ABT) and Daniel Ulbricht (NYCB) as the Sugar Plum Fairy and Cavalier in LBT's version of The Nutcracker. Photo: Nancy Loch
Sarah Lane (ABT) and Daniel Ulbricht (NYCB) as the Sugar Plum Fairy and Cavalier in LBT’s version of The Nutcracker. Photo: Nancy Loch

LakeCities Ballet Theatre delights audiences with its whimiscal rendition of The Nutcracker accompanied with live music.

Lewisville — As critics sometimes it seems like we are always looking for the weak links in a performance. So it’s always a pleasant surprise when that task proves difficult, as it did Saturday night at LakeCities Ballet Theatre’s (LBT) 24th annual production of The Nutcracker to a sold-out audience at Marcus High School in Flower Mound. In keeping with its family-focused tradition, LBT’s Nutcracker weaved intricate storytelling with spectacular set designs and fanciful choreography that all audience types could appreciate.

The audience was instantly pulled into the action as the families attending Mayor Silberhaus’ Christmas party entered the scene through the aisles acknowledging us as they passed by. Our eyes were then drawn to the richly-decorated stage where the Silberhaus family (Mayor, Frau, Clara and Fritz) are preparing for the festivities. Artistic Director Kelly Lannin’s quick wit and discerning eye kept the story moving and prevented clutter on stage. Traffic jams were avoided with subtle stage entrances/exits and regimented formations. With so many performers onstage, movement was kept to clean chaines, piques and traveling triplets. The adult couples performed tricky waltz steps and nuanced arm movements with a grace you don’t typically see from these characters. Special Guest Ken Wells (Herr Drosselmeyer) got the audience involved as he almost fell into the orchestra pit while seeking out the Silberhaus’ house. He was more senile than mysterious in his actions which suited the younger audience just fine. The festive atmosphere in the auditorium was heightened by Adron Ming and the Lewisville Lake Symphony’s competent rendering of Pyotr Ilyrich Tchaikovsky’s classic score.

What stood out in the first act was the performers’ commitment to their roles. While Claire (Julie Fenske) and her friends danced a sweet adagio number with their dolls the adults stood in the background gesturing to one another while the maids discreetly drank from the wine glasses and the nanny chased Fritz and his friends. Mayor Silberhaus’ (Chuck Denton) over-the-top facial expressions and spirited gesturing set the bar for the other individuals on stage. However, while the heavily layered petticoats and colorful dresses were authentic of the time period, they also made it difficult to see the young dancers’ feet.

LBT’s battle scene is one of the best in the area. Cheeky mice carrying wounded comrades off in stretchers, Drosselmeyer chasing a mouse with rodent repellant and a diva Rat King (Robert Stewart) requiring a plush couch for his death bed are just a few memorable moments. Newcomer Jack Wolff as the Nutcracker Prince was another pleasant surprise. This 14-year-old from Houston is the whole package. Great flexibility, stamina and a commanding stage presence, Wolff is definitely going places. He and Fenske also made a darling couple.

Julie Fenske and Jack Wolff as Clara and the Nutcracker Prince. Photo: Nancy Loch
Julie Fenske and Jack Wolff as Clara and the Nutcracker Prince. Photo: Nancy Loch

With extremely supple feet, pliable back and innate body movements it’s hard to believe Mackenna Pieper (Snow Queen) is only 15 years old. The energy exuding from her fingertips in a ponche arabesque and the ease in which she executes a one-arm assisted slow pirouette is not something you expect from one so young. With a trusting partner such as Shannon Beacham the Snow pas de deux processed seamlessly. And while the snowflakes fast pointe work was exacting and exciting it was sometimes overshadowed by the powerful sounds of the orchestra chimes.

Guest Artists Sarah Lane (American Ballet Theatre) and Daniel Ulbricht (New York City Ballet) breathed new life into the roles of the Sugarplum Fairy and Cavalier which has previously been performed by ABT’s Julie Kent and Sascha Radetsky. Lane and Ulbricht executed movement with a powerful punch that kept audiences in suspense. Lane’s incredible control and meticulous arm placement made her lines and spins appear unending. Ulbricht is a fireball on stage. His exploding grande jetes are unworldly and his double tour en l’air into a double pirouette down to the knee was perfection.

The other LBT couples in the second half did a commendable job of matching Lane and Ulbricht’s energy and poise. Ali Honchell and Guest Artist Ruben Gerding (Spanish Chocolate) were a whirlwind of petite jumps, spins and assisted lifts. The Arabian dance was everything viewers have come to expect. Beacham contorted Faith Jones into various shapes before slowly rotating her in a circle. Jones’ Gumby-like frame enabled her to pull her extensions behind her head and practically bend her body in half when arching back in Beacham’s arms. Andre Harrington once again displayed his acrobatic prowess in a number of back handsprings and forward tucks as the Russian Baba. The Chinese were sassy and forceful with their pointe work while Mother Ginger (George Redford) and the Polichinelles were lighthearted as they danced rudimentary steps in soft shoes.

The Walt of the Flowers coupled delicate pointe work with continuously shifting patterns and lively performances by three pairs; Julia Tiller and Beacham, Michelle Lawyer and Blaine Quine and Honchell and Gerding. The group’s movements appeared blurry at some points due to the red lighting reflecting off their pink costumes, but that can be adjusted. The overall effect was still dreamy and ornamental.

This review was originally posted on TheaterJones.com.

The Comeback Kid

Photo: Rachel Neville Gabrielle Salvatta and Anthony Savoy of Dance Theatre of Harlem
Photo: Rachel Neville
Gabrielle Salvatta and Anthony Savoy of Dance Theatre of Harlem

The revitalized Dance Theatre of Harlem brings its resillient and versatile classical movement to North Texas.

Fort Worth — Dance Theatre of Harlem (DTH) has experienced some hard knocks across its expansive 44-year history, but in the end it has only made the company stronger. Founded in 1969 by Arthur Mitchell, the first African-American dancer with the New York City Ballet, and his teacher Karel Shook, DTH quickly became known throughout the U.S. as the first black classical ballet company. Since its official debut in 1971 at the New York Guggenheim Museum, DTH has shown audiences all over the world that ballet is accessible to all races.

As the story goes, Mitchell was on his way to the airport in 1968 when he heard the news of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination. Instead of going to Brazil where he was to create a ballet company, he returned home to Harlem where he created a school to provide the children of the community opportunities in dance. DTH Artistic Director Virginia Johnson says the idea for starting the company came to Mitchell after he realized these young dancers didn’t have anyone to look up to in the world of classical ballet. So, he created the DTH Company to be a series of role models for these children.

“I was really fortunate in that I was a young dancer who had been told I couldn’t do ballet, even though I had trained my whole life in it, and I came to New York just at the moment Arthur Mitchell decided he was going to have a company,” Johnson says. “So, I was able to be part of that first group of dancers who were embodying the principle that given access and opportunity any human being can do anything.” During her 28 years dancing with DTH Johnson has performed most of the company’s repertoire, including principal roles in Concerto BaroccoAllegro BrillanteAgonA Streetcar Named DesireFall River LegendSwan LakeGiselle and Voluntaries just to name a few.

Unfortunately, the company was forced to take a hiatus in 2004 due to budgetary constraints. However, DTH returned to the stage, under the direction of Johnson, in 2012 and was met with great acclaim and encouragement especially from the Harlem community. “One of the best things about bringing back the company was the enthusiasm we got from all kinds of corners. It was tremendously difficult to put together the pieces that enabled us to do this and it was a lot of hard work, but the response and encouragement from people who really wanted to see DTH again made it worth it.”

Over the past couple of decades DTH’s message of empowerment has struck a chord within many aspiring black ballerinas, including DTH company member and Allen, Texas, native Stephanie Rae Williams. “I remember the first time I saw Dance Theatre of Harlem perform. I was 16 and my mom drove me to Tyler, Texas, on a school night to see them. I remember how shocking it was because I had never seen so many dancers of color onstage doing ballet before. It was a beautiful experience.” Williams began her career with Texas Ballet Theater in 2006 and since then has dance with the Francesca Harper Project and Ballet Black before joining the restored DTH in 2012.

“When I first came to the company I was so intimated by Virginia,” Williams says. “I had been so many different places and finally felt like DTH could be my home, and I so wanted her to be that next mentor figure in my life. I would constantly push myself to my breaking point, and she has really taught me to calm down and go back to the basics of ballet.”

Johnson admits that today’s dancers, like Williams, are physically and technically stronger than the dancers of her generation. “Their physical embodiment of dance is so powerful. They’re technically strong, flexible and very hungry. In my day I was at the end of that generation where you were either a modern dancer or ballet dancer, but because we have such a diverse repertoire today this generation of dancers has got to be able to do all kinds of movement.”

Today, DTH consists of 18 dancers and currently has 16 pieces in its repertoire. In its first season DTH produced 12 works, which Johnson says was pretty exhausting, but also gave the dancers a real challenge. “It gave them diversity in style and gave them opportunities to perform many different pieces,” she says.

In regards to its second season Johnson says DTH remains committed to carrying forth this message of empowerment through the arts. “We are working in classical ballet, which is an incredibly demanding art form and you are always trying to reach new heights. I think dancers are the most powerful people in the world because we have such focus and attention to detail, and we don’t settle for second best.”

Williams adds, “We had a really great first year, but there is still a lot more growth and a lot more work to be done.”

DTH’s tenacity and talent will be on display for North Texas audiences Jan. 26 at Bass Performance Hall in Fort Worth and Jan. 30 at the Irving Arts Center. The Fort Worth program includes the Act III pas de deux from Swan Lake, Ulysses Dove’s Dancing on the Front Porch of Heaven and Robert Garland’s Gloria and Return. The Irving program includes George Balanchine’s Agon, Donald Byrd’sContested Space and Garland’s Gloria. 

Williams will be dancing in both Gloria and Return in the Fort Worth performance and all three pieces in Irving. “I haven’t toured back to Texas since I moved away when I was 18 so, this will be the first time that a lot of my friends and family will see me perform. I am very excited!”

This feature was originally posted on TheaterJones.com.

American Classics

Stars of American Ballet dazzle in famed works by George Balanchine and Jerome Robbins at the Eisemann Center.

Stars of American Ballet Robert Fairchild and Tiler Peck. Photo: Erin Baiano
Stars of American Ballet Robert Fairchild and Tiler Peck. Photo: Erin Baiano

Richardson — Those who say ballet is a dying art form would have had to bite their tongue Tuesday night as the Stars of American Ballet performed to a packed house at the Eisemann Center for the Performing Arts in Richardson. Ballet celebs Daniel Ulbricht, Sascha Radetsky, Robert Fairchild, Jared Angle, Lauren Lovette, Stella Abrera, Rebecca Krohn and Tiler Peck took the stage to loud applause, performing in some of ballet’s most beloved works, including George Balanchine’s Stars and Stripes Pas de Deux and Jerome Robbins’ Fancy Free.

The program opened with Balanchine’s saucy Rubies Pas de Deux (excerpted from Jewels) to music by Igor Stravinsky. Balanchine preferred his ballerinas long and slender, but he made an exception with the female lead role in this piece, performed by Lovette. Lovette’s beautiful curves only enhanced the sultry hip twists and shoulder rolls the piece demanded. Her point work was also clean and fouette turns flawless. Ulbricht oozed confidence, but was also a very giving partner.

The second Balanchine piece, Stars and Stripes, was a big crowd pleaser. This ode to America was a nonstop movement marathon that tested both Peck and Fairchild’s stamina. Fairchild commanded our attention with his gravity defying toe touches, double tour en l’airs and quadruple pirouettes. Peck was equally captivating with her rapid chaine turns and playful personality. John Philip Sousa’s patriotic composition added to the uplifting tone of the piece.

Antony Tudor’s The Leaves Are Fading Pas de Deux featured classical lines, clean technique and beautiful partnering between Abrera and Radetsky. Abrera was the epitome of grace with her willowy frame and supple feet. Radetsky was everything you expect in a male lead: strong, supportive and sensual. Then, in Servy Gallardo’s Piazzolla Tango, Ulbricht’s performance was an explosion of athleticism and artistry. It is extremely difficult to execute multiple pirouettes into a front forward roll into a slow slinky walk, but Ulbricht did it with ease.

Christopher Wheeldon’s Liturgy showed just how much ballet has evolved over the last

Daniel Ulbricht and Lauren Lovette in George Balanchine's Rubies. Photo: Christopher Duggan
Daniel Ulbricht and Lauren Lovette in George Balanchine’s Rubies. Photo: Christopher Duggan

couple of decades. Gone are the tutus and men’s white tights. Gone is the featured female role. In Liturgy Krohn and Angle were equally matched in terms of strength and control. They had to be in order to pull off some of the contortion movements and counter-balance shapes featured in the piece. Liturgy begins with Krohn in the foreground and Angle a couple of steps behind performing a series of hand gestures and upper body rotations to the staccato sounds of composer Arvo Part. As the music changes to a smoother melody the dancers come together in a number of edgy and unexpected partnering skills. One minute Krohn and Angle are locked in an embrace and the next Krohn’s head is inches from the ground in a reverse ponche arabesque.

The second half of the show was dedicated to Robbins’ Fancy Free, with music by Leonard Bernstein. This theatrical ballet follows three sailors on shore leave in New York City and was the inspiration for the movie On The Town with Gene Kelly and Frank Sinatra. Robbins’ choreography is very character-driven. Every movement down to the way the dancers lifted their eyebrows was meticulously choreographed. Fairchild depicted the bad boy, frequently swirling his hips and slapping his knees. Radetsky played the sensitive guy, with softer, more balletic movements. Ulbricht was the clown. His movements were extremely athletic and grandiose. They meet two ladies (Peck and Abrera) and take them to club where the sailors battle for their affections with three technically brilliant solos. In the end the ladies walk out and the pals are on the prowl again.

The audience was wowed by these notable professionals performing a diverse, well-thought-out repertoire that really encompassed ballet’s evolution over the last 50 years.

This review was originally posted on TheaterJones.com.

Q&A: Daniel Ulbricht of Stars of American Ballet

Stars of American Ballet Robert Fairchild and Tiler Peck. Photo: Erin Baiano
Stars of American Ballet Robert Fairchild and Tiler Peck. Photo: Erin Baiano

The director of Stars of American Ballet on the male role in ballet and the company’s upcoming performance at Richardson’s Eisemann Center.

Richardson — Very rarely do we get the opportunity to see ballet stars like Stella Abrera, Rebecca Krohn, Robert Fairchild and Sascha Radetsky on the same stage. Thanks to Daniel Ulbricht and his company, Stars of American Ballet, the Dallas dance community will get its chance to see these dynamic dancers perform on Tuesday, Aug. 20, at the Eisemann Center for Performing Arts.

The evening’s program includes the pas de deux from George Balanchine’s Rubies and Stars & Stripes, Servy Gallardo’s Tango, Christopher Wheeldon’s Liturgy, Antony Tudor’s The Leaves are Fading and Jerome Robbins’ beloved production of Fancy Free. In addition to the performance Ulbricht and Radetsky will be conducting a series of master classes for students in the area.

Originally from St. Petersburg, Fla., Daniel Ulbricht began his dance training at the age of 11 at the Judith Lee Johnson Studio of Dance, studying with Lenny Holmes. He was invited to continue his training at the School of American Ballet in 1999 and joined the corps de ballet of the New York City Ballet in 2001. He was promoted to the rank of principal dancer in 2007. Ulbricht is also the artistic advisor to the Manhattan Youth Ballet, the associate artistic director of the New York State Summer School for the Arts in Saratoga Springs and also conducts workshops and master classes around the country.

TheaterJones asks Daniel Ulbricht about his motivation for starting Stars of American Ballet, the challenges of working with so many different personalities and how the male role in ballet has evolved over the last several decades.

TheaterJones: What motivated you to start Stars of American Ballet?

Daniel Ulbricht: I started this group about five years ago. My mother was diagnosed with cancer. Because of her treatments, she couldn’t make it up or have the energy to so, I decided to bring the show to her. I rounded up six dancers mostly from New York City Ballet and a dancer from Houston Ballet and brought the show to her. I said to myself that I would only do this once, but I fell in love with the entire process. It was truly a learning experience. The responsibilities that come with this kind of opportunity are endless but I really thrived on the challenge. So, the following year, I brought another show home to my mom and added a new city, Buffalo. Since then I have been blessed to bring shows to St. Petersburg, Fla; Buffalo, N.Y.; Pittsburgh; Santa Fe; Ulaan Baator, Mongolia; and now Dallas. In November, we go to Mobile, Ala; Jackson, Miss; and Longview, Texas.

The mission of the show is to provide education and accessibility to the art form. I have found that most people are hesitant for two reasons when it comes to ballet. Either they don’t know anything [and/or] are afraid of it or it is too expensive. So, along with the performance we also offer master classes as well as a pre-performance talks about the program. The U.S. is such a vast country, but you have to live in a big metropolitan area to have an opportunity to see these amazing dancers and timeless masterpieces. Our goal is to bring it to your front door.

How does it differ from other ballet companies?

In terms of differences, there are a few. Certainly, we aren’t bringing the same scale of what most companies can present. We can’t mount the entire production of a full-length ballet like Swan Lake with eight people. I also don’t want the programming or dancers to be exclusive to one particular company like New York City Ballet or American Ballet Theatre. In other words, these companies tend to only perform the repertory that is in their own collection. With Stars of American Ballet we are able to include dancers and repertory from various companies which allows us the opportunity to put together a balanced and exciting program. The idea is to continue to bring out other companies around the country as well as collaborate with other regional companies to promote or give a platform for them in their own community. Most other companies have a one mission mind for their own company. We are more concerned about educating and inspiring the next generation to appreciate the arts.

What challenges have you encountered working with so many different personalities?

Thankfully, I haven’t run into too many. I run more into scheduling issues with various dancers than personality issues. Sometimes, I will ask a dancer to suggest what they’d like to perform and another dancer may have already selected that so I have to figure out who does what role and keep the program balanced. Regarding the dancers, I spend as much time scrutinizing the dancers off stage as I do on stage. Not only are these dancers phenomenal artists, they are also the kind of people who will help me inspire students, meet with the audience, take photos, sign posters, etc.  You need great artists and people to make a lasting impression. I have been tremendously successful in that respect, but I always try to do my homework to get the best of both worlds.

How did you go about selecting the pieces we will be seeing?

Daniel Ulbricht and Lauren Lovette in George Balanchine's Rubies. Photo: Christopher Duggan
Daniel Ulbricht and Lauren Lovette in George Balanchine’s Rubies. Photo: Christopher Duggan

The program is always crucial to the show. The hard part of directing is that you are in charge of creating the audience’s experience. So, I try to think about it as a menu. Not everyone likes the same dish. You need to have something that has sweet for one, salty for another and gluten free. You get the picture. The tough thing with eight people is how to close a program. Most of the dancers will dance twice so you also get to see a different element in their dancing which is fascinating to watch. So, finding a group or ensemble piece is difficult. But after doing some homework I found Jerome Robbins’ Fancy Free to close. I believe it fulfills our artistry and athleticism undertone for the show. It is very American and it is a true masterpiece that many people don’t get the opportunity to see.

What is it like to be a part of one of America’s oldest and most prestigious ballet companies?

It is truly a blessing to be a part of a company like New York City Ballet. I have been a dancer there for 13 years and it has been one of the most amazing rides I have ever been on. The repertory, the music and the talent is just so vast that I am in awe every day. Also, I have learned so much from my director, Peter Martins. He runs a great organization. He knows how to program. The benefit is that I have been able to learn a lot as a dancer there. Peter got his start in directing while still dancing, like me. So, it has been nice to have his blessing and encouragement to explore that. We have talked about it a few times. This country is so big that you need to do whatever you can to reach out to new audiences.

How has the male role in ballet evolved over the last several decades?

The male role in dance is getting a second wind now. The first wave came with the likes of Edward Villella, Peter Martins and Mikhail Baryshnikov. Not to say that generation has dwindled, but I feel this crop now wants to really push the dance world forward. I think this generation has to fight harder to show the artistry and athleticism of dance though. I think every genre in art has someone who can champion their art form. I feel that there is a team now who is trying to do that. That is what I am aiming to do. For today though, my goal is to show how tough dance is. That dance can really compete with football, baseball, etc. Strength, balance, control, and speed all of those fields share, but musicality and artistry, that is what makes the dance world tough. Who said you have to smile and play football to music?

How do the male roles in works by newer choreographers like Christopher Wheeldon differ from those of their predecessors such as Balanchine?

Great question. I feel the male role is sort of the same in the partnering sense. Christopher is taking the shapes further, pushing the boundaries where Balanchine may have been a little more subtle. The beauty of Balanchine’s work is that you just have to dance them. You don’t have to sell what he has crafted so beautifully. That is the mastery of course. But Wheeldon has really done wonders in the fact that he takes his audience somewhere when you watch his work. That is what any choreographer would want to do. We are lucky to have his work on the bill as well as the Robbins and Balanchine masterpieces.

What advice do you have for dancers looking to pursue a career in ballet?

If you want to pursue it, go all the way. This profession is truly about dedication and commitment. Perfection is not going to happen, but you can always better yourself. Drive and push forward. No one ever made progress by keeping their car in neutral. Work with other dancers and take master classes. They open your eyes and ears. There is so much to learn and I am still learning after all the years I have put in. Dance is a progression, so don’t give up on the hard days. The pro will keep going!

What are your hopes for the company’s future?

My future ambitions for the group are to tour around the country and abroad to bring high caliber dance and programs to places that can’t afford to go to New York or other big cities. Everyone should be able to experience dance at least once in their life and not just The Nutcracker. The education and outreach is really about creating that opportunity for any one at any age to appreciate the arts. Ballet can do it and Stars of American Ballet will bring it to you.

This Q&A was originally posted on TheaterJones.com.