Daniel Ulbricht was wonderful in Jerome Robbins' "A Suite of Dances" at Jacob's Pillow.
New York City Ballet dancers are big movers who are used to devouring space on big stages.
Thus, when members of the company appear at Jacob’s Pillow in the intimate Ted Shawn Theatre, they have to restrain themselves or off the stage they will fly. That’s why this group of dancers from all ranks, led by Principal Daniel Ulbricht, was wise to bring smaller pieces – solos, duets and trios – to their welcomed return to the Berkshire dance camp.
Appearing under the name of Stars of the American Ballet, the ensemble of 14, including Principals Anthony Huxley, Teresa Reichlen and Andrew Veyette, are currently paying tribute to choreographer Jerome Robbins. It’s apropos as it’s the centennial of Robbins’ birth and celebrations honoring the dance genius are happening throughout the U.S. and Europe. This is the Pillow’s contribution to the hoopla.
In the first half of the program, Ulbricht and company selected three of Robbins’ lesser known works – “Andantino” to music by Tchaikovsky, “Concertino” to music by Stravinsky and “A Suite of Dances” to music by Bach. As the program progressed, Robbins’ talent for showing dancers as people – not just taut bodies honed to perform amazing feats – slowly emerges.
It’s not so clear in the Tchaikovsky work with Veyette and Indiana Woodward. This romantic duet came out rather cold and pedestrian, bringing to mind Robbins’ concern for proving to the classical world – George Balanchine and his devotees in particular --- that he wasn’t just a Broadway gypsy. He was serious ballet contender.
Robbins’ strivings are evident too in “Concertino,” the Stravinsky work in which Reichlen is ushered by Daniel Applebaum and Andrew Scordato. Here, Robbins goes for the abstract – dancers twisting and turning to the music in surprising syncopated ways. Reichlen, on Thursday night, was fantastic. Her attack was a revelation, choreographically and artistically. But still Robbins, the man who could disclose the person behind the every step, remained hidden.
The Robbins I love finally comes out in “A Suite of Dances,” performed by the incomparable Ulbricht. Dancing along with cellist Ann Kim who is playing Bach’s “Six Suites for Solo Cello,” the solo is a playful tour de force. Here, Ulbricht does not only unleash is strong technical talents as a jumper and turner extraordinaire, but as a soulful and generous performer. In “A Suite of Dances,” Ulbricht could reveal his deeper, thoughtful side, which is not seen in the jaunty roles that he is most often cast.
Ulbricht is equally wonderful with Huxley in “Chopin Dances,” a sequel to Robbins’ “Dances at a Gathering” and “Other Dances.” Set to Chopin piano pieces, played expertly by Susan Walters, the Russian flavored dance is a sporty competition between the two. But they remain in check as the stage was small for a grand piano and two bold and expansive dancers.
The Stars of American Ballet topped off the night with “Interplay,” an octet that again showed Robbins at his best. The ballet is a romp for four men and four women who appear to be on an outing at the park. Again, the dancers hold back for fear of crashing into each other (there was a minor brush). It was worthwhile as “Interplay” creates a carefree, happy place where all is possible.
Stars of the American Ballet will dance through Sunday, Aug. 26 at Jacob's Pillow. I recommend you go.
The dream sequence in Ajkun Ballet Theatre's "Don Quixote" at The Egg.
Every summer ballerina Chiara Ajkun pulls together band of 20 dancers from all over the globe for an intensive in Albany that aims to make a cohesive troupe out of them. For 19 years, the results have been mixed, mostly hovering at mediocre.
This year, with the Ajkun Ballet Theatre’s staging of excerpts from “Don Quixote,” which will be performed later this month in New York City, I could see an improvement. The change is that this year’s crop of dancers are more competent. Yet a few able dancers does not a company make. And watching Ajkun’s scaled back rendering of “Don Quixote” at The Egg proves that it takes more than adequate technique to stage an enchanting production.
It’s disappointing because “Don Quixote” is a favorite among ballet fans, It is fanciful and funny and chock full of fiery Spanish dances for gypsies and matadors. The story centers on one episode in the Cervantes' book in which lovers Kitri and Basil elope to evade Kitri’s mother who wishes to marry her off to an old, ugly, but rich fop. The wistful Don makes only cameo appearances, but is key to the happy ending.
Much of the story is lost because Ajkun zeros in on the dancing highlights of the ballet – mostly pas de deux for the main characters – and throws out the rest. This is a fine idea if the dancers are on the level with the world’s greatest. If not, the story is necessary to keep the audience engaged. Without all of the story details, the vital narrative is lost.
There were things that Ajkun could have done choreographically to help the audience to follow along. For example, the Don’s dream sequence seems to come out of the blue. Without seeing the Don in repose, asleep, no one can understand where these angelic ballerina came from and why the Don becomes obsessed with pursuing and ultimately helping Kitri.
There are also no sets or backdrops. The Spanish countryside must be imagined through the Ludwig Minkus score and the Spanish-style costumes – colorful red and black wear, fluttering fans and flamenco-like skirts. But without production trappings, the ballet forfeits another important captivating aspect.
Also diluted was the actual choreography, which is known for its tricks that bedazzle the audience. The dancing is better than normal. Yet Kylie Brown as Kitri and Kelvis Tafaj as Basil could not show off the ballet's fireworks because they have yet to reach its caliber.
Still, they were pleasant to watch as they poured passion into their duets. Both looked sharp, Brown in particular who nailed all the footwork flourishes. Tafaj’s all-important jumps hardly got off the ground, but his landings and poses were grand.
Analia Farfan and Alejandro Ulloa as Mercedes and Espada stood out among all the couples for their attack and confidence. Natalie Young as the Gypsy Queen was equally enchanting.
But in the end, Ajkun Ballet Theatre’s 2018 dancers look like a group of soloists trying to make an savory meal without all of the ingredients.