Fort Worth — When I finally got to Trinity Park Pavilion Thursday night, the party was already underway—a lively Irish number with three leaping boys and eight lithe girls in rainbow colored skirts dancing a jig and then a maypole dance, all very jaunty.
So I knew immediately that everything about Ballet Concerto’s Summer Dance Concert 2016 would be the same: the outdoor setting could only put you in a good mood, there would be a slight breeze, the sound system would be terrible, the very deep stage so high up that your vantage point is to look up, not down, and the lighting would be serviceable. There would be kinks, to be sure—in this case, the sound system went out at the beginning of Othello and stayed out for an uncomfortably long time.
As for the program, that too had no surprises, as artistic director Margo Dean long ago decided every summer the company would offer something Spanish, something neoclassical, something jolly. Many of the dancers, too, were familiar.
But the big difference was that after 13 years of being the star in the summer concert, we would be seeing Michele Gifford for the last time—here or anywhere else. So yes, this was Gifford’s night Thursday, a sad and happy night: sad because Sunday will be her last time to dance professionally; happy because she is eager to venture into new territory.
And she will be missed. After 12 years with New York City Ballet she returned to Texas in 2000, and once back on her home turf she has been seen everywhere—Texas Ballet Theater, Bruce Wood Dance Company, Chamberlain Performing Arts, Texas Christian University, Austin-based American Repertory Ensemble, Avant Chamber Ballet, and of course, Ballet Concerto.
An allegro dancer by temperament and body type, known for her darting, dashing, daring manner, Gifford likes to take risks—leaving no doubt why Jerome Robbins, Peter Martins, Christopher Wheeldon, David Parsons, and locally, Elizabeth Gillaspy, have created roles for her.
But she has a softer, more vulnerable side, evident in the two works she performed Thursday: Paul Mejia’s Inspiration and Luis Montero’s Othello.
Mejia originally created Inspiration for Olga Pavlova and Alexander Vetrov, and Gifford is only the second ballerina to dance it. Set to the music of Franz Schubert, Inspiration starts out dreamy and slow as Ms. Gifford, in long gauzy white dress, bourrées backward onto Shea Johnson’s kneeling body. He rises and with both hands gently touches her face. Many lifts and swirls follow, smooth as rippling water. But suddenly the mood changes, and now they are running at each other, he catches her and swings her high and around in that daring, Bolshoi way, the ultimate show of trust.
Like José Limón’s The Moor’s Pavane, Montero’s Othello cuts to the chase but employs more of Shakespeare's characters. We watch how tenderly Othello (Johnson) caresses and lifts Desdemona, how Iago (Brandon Nguyen) insinuates poison into Othello’s mind with the simple ploy of a handkerchief, and how quickly love turns to mistrust and death.
The music is serviceable; the acting and dancing dramatic, with a sultry pas de deux between Bianca (Lea Zablocki) and Cassio (Jordan Nelson), five flittering little girls in silky scarves bigger than butterfly wings, Othello’s proud leaps and Iago’s sinister prowl. It soon comes to a speedy and terrifying end, given great power by a half-mad, stricken Johnson and Nguyen’s look of triumph.
The program included a pretty flamenco La Vida Breve danced by Margarita Bruce and Perla Montoya and ended with Elise Lavallee’s roaring ‘20s- inspired Retro Motion. Coming in and out of a moving door are call girls in skimpy outfits who wiggle and prance on pointe while gangsters slip between them. For some reason, chairs are forever being moved around (to create a hint of mayhem)? It’s all a bit silly.
» Margaret Putnam has been writing about dance since 1980, with works published by D Magazine, The Dallas Observer, The Dallas Times Herald, The Dallas Morning News, The New York Times, Playbill, Stagebill, Pointe Magazine and Dance Magazine.