Richardson — The smell of sweat is pungent in the room where Avant Chamber Ballet (ACB) is rehearsing for its fall performance, Carnival of Animals, at Park Cities Dance Studio in Dallas. Staggered around the room are about 12 dancers stretching, chatting and checking their pointe shoes. Everyone is attired in colorful leotards and snug-fitting bottoms with their hair swept up into secure buns. When ACB Artistic Director Katie Puder says, “Ok, guys let’s run through the show,” the dancers rise and take their places. It’s obvious these dancers mean business and it’s not just about having fun. “These are professional dancers,” Puder says. “Everyone has either graduated from a college dance program or danced with a professional company. Some of the girls and I danced together at Metropolitan Classical Ballet.”
Having known many of the dancers for many years’ works to Puder’s advantage especially when it comes to the company’s newest character-driven work, Carnival of Animals, set to the Saint-Saëns suite The Carnival of the Animals. The ballet has two performances this weekend at the Eisemann Center for the Arts in Richardson.
Carnival of Animals is set up like a circus show with the dancers portraying the various animals. Each dancer shares similar traits with her animal adding humor to the otherwise classical number. Sarah Grace Austin is the ferocious lion; her movement a mix of slow, elongated walks and explosive jetes. She and her lion tamer (Tagir Galimov) play a flirty game of cat and mouse before one of them is finally tricked into jumping through a hoop. As the cuckoo Kirsten Conrad bourrées rapidly across the room with her arms fluttering and executes a number of entrechats, soubersauts and royales with boundless energy. Natalie Anton’s elegant zebra is depicted through a series of prancing steps and traveling spins. And, of course, Yulia Illina is the quintessential peacock with her majestic lines and slow, controlled body movements.
Most of the animals perform solo acts while others, including the fish, elephants and birds, perform in pairs or small groups. Then everyone comes together for the big finale. Here Puder plays with contingent movements and weaving jumping passes. Her George Balanchine roots come through the dancers’ body positions and linear formations, but the tricky point work and constant directional changes are all Puder. “I’ve always had a short attention span. I have to keep changing things up so I don’t get bored watching the piece. I am not a fan of posing. I like it when everyone on stage, including the corps, is always moving.”
Watching Puder’s movement is like watching an expert work a Rubik’s cube. The speed and exactness of the steps keeps viewers in suspense, but if the steps aren’t executed correctly the end product won’t come out right. Puder understands this and its one of the reasons she no longer performs with the company. “I just couldn’t wear all those different hats. With ballet especially it’s hard to check spacing and alignment when you are also dancing. This way I can really focus on the details.” During rehearsal Puder would sometimes call out a correction in the middle of a section, but more often than not she’s waits till the end of said section. The dancers and Puder are so in tune with one another that they usually know what she is going to say before she says it. With the show only days away the corrections are minor such as where the height of an arm should be or if the hips should be more croise. It’s these little details that elevates a ballet from good to great.