Saturday, March 20, 2010

'Beat of America' holds strong work

Jasmina Wellinghoff - Special to the Express-News For its winter performance, titled "The Beat of America," the Alamo Arts Ballet Theater (AABT) decided to mix ballet – classical and otherwise -- with patriotic and military themes, throwing in a dose of Big Band jazziness for good measure.

The show premiered Saturday at the Carver Community Cultural Center and will be repeated at 2 p.m. Sunday.

Saturday's performance was for the most part an enjoyable experience despite some last minute changes in the program which substituted the pas de deux from "Sleeping Beauty" for Balanchine's "Star and Stripes." The latter was supposed to be danced by the big stars of the night, guest artists Michele Gifford and Andrey Prikhodka, who instead starred in the "Beauty" number.

Both rose to the occasion, of course, though more so as soloists than as partners, but the Balanchine piece would have been more relevant to the theme and more interesting for local audiences to see.

Fortunately no one canceled the other piece featuring Gifford, "Lorelei," choreographed by Elizabeth Gillaspy to music by Brahms. Inspired by romantic poems about the bewitching siren of the Rhine, Lorelei, the dance was visually stunning, the choreography fresh and eloquent and Gifford's charged performance spellbinding. The final moment when the ballerina stood still and alone in the center with only one of her arms gently undulating by her side as if animated by a departing breeze, was the kind of image that's likely to stay with you for a long while.

The program held other riches as well. Guest choreographer Bill Coleman created a much more modern but also poignantly eloquent piece called "Letting Go" set to Sarah MacLachlan's "Let You Go." Ccompany member Marcie Miller portrayed a woman receiving the letter that every military wife dreads. After an anguished "no!" she threw herself with abandon into Coleman's choreography, struggling with her pain and with letting go.

Partner Jorge Villafana was basically there to support her. Their moves were more naturalistic and positively rough by ballet standards. He would lift her like a child, for instance, with her back against his chest, her knees tightly folded under her, or she would jump into his arms only to be lifted and hugged with her legs sticking straight out by his sides. She also repeatedly ran and grabbed him from behind and he carried her semi-limp body on his back for a while.

On a more cheerful front, there were two big numbers Artistic Director Julie Morton-Simpson set to military marches and big band sounds, respectively. The former opened the program with simple but pleasing choreography cleanly executed by company dancers and the very capable guest artist Preston Patterson. In one segment he partnered the graceful Felicia McBride, who is currently with Ballet Austin II but grew up and learned her craft in San Antonio. All the "marchers" wore military caps and cute white gloves, moved briskly and did a lot of charming saluting.

The big band showpiece closed the proceeding in great style. Consisting of six sections, several of which were choreographed by Morton-Simpson -- with Judith Gani and Jennifer Buchheit contributing one each -- the work was flirtatious, jazzy, humorous and entertaining. It also did a nice job of incorporating showbiz and social dancing moves into ballet.

Patterson again stood out with his powerful leaps but the entire ensemble caught the spirit of the piece, including McBride, Miller, Meghan Oswald, Michelle Becken, Samantha Canedy, Ivy Newell, Leah Brown, Eres Gomez and others.

The one wrong note in the show was the kids' number "4th of July Picnic." The need to encourage young dancers is understandable, but they would shine a lot more in a school recital than they did last night. In addition, the concept and execution of the piece needed a bit of cleaning up and tightening.

As if all of this weren't enough, the evening also held two very brief dances adapted for this occasion by former Houston Ballet prima ballerina Lauren Anderson, and Coleman's "In the Night," a dance that wasn't quite in sync with its music, namely George Benson's highly expressive interpretation of "Here Comes the Sun."

Tickets cost $11 - $21 and can be purchased at the Carver's box office before the show

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