Richardson — Simplicity seems to be the best policy for Avant Chamber Ballet, and that artistic choice has given dance what it sorely needs these days. In foregoing the lavish (and expensive) displays typical of ballets, they're able to focus on consistently bringing live music to the dancing stage, even if on a small scale. Such is the case with their season-opener Carnival of Animals, presented at the Charles W. Eisemann Center in Richardson.
Three musicians at most grace the edge of the stage in the smaller theater, but no matter the size of the ensemble, the effect of live music is gloriously the same. Whether it's tender strings, tinkling pianos, thundering percussion or any other manner of instrument, the sounds seem to glide off the dancers themselves rather than be heaped upon them from outside.
Artistic director Katie Puder created all works on the program, which begins with Ravel Sonata. Accompanied by Anastasia Markina on piano and Eliron Czeiger on the violin to music by Maurice Ravel, the dance begins with Kirsten Conrad on stage in a short black dress against a brilliant blue background. Her solo consists of classical vocabulary with light, introspective maneuvers. Madelaine Boyce enters the stage for her turn in the spotlight with a more somber tone, then Christy Martin breezes in to provide a happier experience for her solo.
The Balanchine and neoclassical influence can be felt throughout this first section, but they really come into play for the second. The background changes to a dazzling pink to match the dancers’ flirtatious movements. Cheeky smiles abound as Conrad and Martin sway and flit across the stage with cutesy weight shifts, hip isolations, and flicks of the leg. Boyce rejoins them in the end to finish on a high note.
Puder takes that contemporary essence and knits it even more throughout Exactly Woven. Markina continues as pianist and is joined by Yuan Yuan on violin and Jennifer Humphreys on cello. The three masterfully perform music from Dmitri Shostakovich, as they play through a range of sounds available to each instrument.
The modern quality of the work speaks from the moment the curtain opens to reveal three dancers in spotlights against a darkened background. Rachel Meador snakes her torso, floats her arms, and maneuvers in and out of various ballet shapes, then the other two perform that same sequence in canon. Warmer lights and hopeful music signal a more cheerful tone for dance, as the performers explore a greater range of movement through allegro and floor work.
Yulia Ilina opens the third section with a flirtatious style. The rhythm of her hip and rib isolations creates a sensual, tango-like mood for the section accompanied by mischievous sounding music. The other nine dancers return to the stage to end with a unison segment that could use more rehearsal to clean up timing issues. Overall, though, the skills of the 13 artists on stage combine nicely for an enjoyable end to the first act.
After intermission, the dancers transform the stage into a circus with the premiere of Carnival of the Animals. Saule Garcia joins Markina on the piano, the only instrument used for this version. Camille Saint-Saëns’ 19th century composition has served as inspiration for many dance works because of its variety and the appeal to children. The short musical segments allude to certain animals, but the suite allows for unlimited visual interpretations. As with the earlier pieces, Puder goes for simplicity and designs a charming but creative work. Costumes are somewhat austere compared to other versions, yet very straightforward.
Sarah Grace Austin as the Lion enters the stage with the Lion Tamer, Tagir Galimov. He commands her to do some tricks, and after a humorous pas de deux and some chasing, she becomes the tamer. Blue and purple signify all manner of birds, and Kaitlyn McDermitt flutters out as the Little Bird for a short but animated segment.
Natalie Anton (who also created the costumes) prances on stage as the zebra. With black point shoes, black gloves, and a zebra-print short dress, she comes across as somewhat aloof at first with her precise point work, but later opens up. It’s not surprising that Ilina’s character is the peacock. Clad in a blue unitard with a wispy tail, she majestically strolls across the floor and execute a ceremonious adagio with enviable penchés and amazing flexibility.
Kayla Giard and Emily Igoe prove to be graceful and well-dressed elephants, as they use their rights arms as “trunks.” Conrad displays a spirited Cuckoo bird, dressed similarly to McDermitt. The fish costumes are by far the finest. With silver dresses and a chiffon train that runs from head to wrists, the mysterious music and delicate choreography cast a wonderful spell. The remaining birds skitter around the stage, then Juliann Hyde executes a magnificently precise segment as the High-wire Ballerina. A grand finale with all the animals brings a lively end to the performance.