Dallas — Judging from Avant Chamber Ballet’s recent show Rhythm & Romance, artistic director Katie Cooper’s motto seemed to have been “Go big or go home.”
Presented at Dallas City Performance Hall on April 20-21, the show included larger casts, more musicians and continued Cooper’s successful Women’s Choreography Project.
First on the program was an entry from last year’s WCP, Janie Richard’s L’Inverno, set to music by Max Richter and Antonio Vivaldi. Eleanor Dunbar on violin and Anastasia Markina on piano delivered a rich accompaniment to the white-clad dancers on stage. Remarkable moments came from Yulia Ilina and Shea Johnson in their exquisite duet, but the dancers overall displayed an impressive handling of the choreography, executing the dance with a greater ease and flow than last year. One element from the previous viewing that did not transfer over, however, was the ensemble precision.
Kaitlyn McDermitt (commissioned through the WCP) presented her premiere of First Look, a whimsical lyrical contemporary danced to music by Yann Tiersen and Ludovico Einaudi played by Markina. Flirtatious spring dresses matched the delicate choreography, and the dancers gradually covered the stage with flower petals. As her first work for ACB, it’s a nice start, although the beautiful visuals were a bit disrupted by the type of socks used.
The show overall contained many lovely points, but Walpurgisnacht Ballet was the best work and illustrated the aforementioned theme—it’s big. The company’s third George Balanchine work staged by Michele Gifford featured a 25-member cast (many of them guests for the performance) and an 11-piece chamber orchestra conducted by Brad Cawyer. Bryan English provided the musical arrangement for Charles Gounod’s lively composition. Although Ballet Ensemble of Texas performed this work in Irving in 2013, ACB gave the piece its Dallas premiere.
Elegant purple dresses with just the right amount of shimmer added to the delightful visual that the keenly timed ensemble displayed. Although unison precision has frequently been a struggle for the company, that was almost nonexistent for this piece. In the Friday night performance, the dancers delivered one of the best ensemble segments I’ve seen of the company.
ACB typically boasts stellar dancers with great individual talent, and fortunately Walpurgisnacht has a place for them to shine, as well. Soloist Juliann McAloon demonstrated a careful attention to technique with a vibrant air, and Johnson splendidly partners a stunning Emily Dixon.
After intermission, Hailey von Schlehenried’s Yin & Yang (this year’s WCP application selection) lit up the stage—literally. Handheld light bulbs helped convey the balance between light and dark, a key theme of the work. Some dancers wore black, while others donned white. Nine dancers en pointe and guest artist Tyler Rhoads maneuvered through smooth contemporary vocabulary with the right amount of classical steps and lines. Rhoads and Dixon transition through lifts and partnering with ease.
Ironically, for a piece about light and dark, the only drawback was the lighting. In the opening, the dancers entered the stage with only the light bulbs to illuminate them, and while it created a neat effect, the same could have been achieved with a bit of side lighting to illuminate their movements more. Later, the haze grew so thick, it slightly obstructed the view of the choreography.
The Balanchine piece of Act I wasn’t the only one to prove ACB’s large ambitions. Closing the program was Cooper’s Persuasion, a spicy world premiere with 17 dancers and a varied 4-piece musical ensemble. Although the work contained some fire, much of it was actually quite subtle. Costumes changed from long black skirts to an intricately designed black leotard trimmed in white. It’s another one of those pieces that has great potential but still needs time to simmer. Again, it’s mostly in the ensemble precision.
Dixon and Rhoads demonstrated another lovely duet, and bright moments came from Natalie Anton and Madelaine Boyce. Also impressive were the occasions when the entire cast timing clicked, a beautiful sight given the number of dancers on stage.
The musicians were as equally entertaining to watch as the dancers. Playing an Astor Piazzolla work, they covered much of the downstage area rather than being tucked away towards the wings, and when internationally-acclaimed violinist Chee-Yun Kim began to play, it’s easy to see why they were in so much of the spotlight. From her first note, she captivated the audience with her passionate playing and commanding stage presence. The rest of the ensemble (Markina on piano, Jonah Kim on cello, and Miguel Antonio on guitar) fed off her infectious energy, and at times, even upstaged the dancers.
Overall, ACB’s season closer proved to be a wonderfully varied performance that was a feast for the ears as well as the eyes.