Fort Worth — Ballet Frontier of Texas takes on an ambitious season every year. They typically have an earlier season opener than most other companies, deliver the first Nutcracker of the year, launch an established youth ballet festival, then close out the season with some premieres, possibly a full-length ballet.
Of all their endeavors, the season opener has become my favorite. While it may not look as polished as other performances, it contains a unique spark that isn’t found later in the season and is the perfect snapshot for the dancers to show off artistic progress. Many of them likely attended summer intensives, and a concentrated rehearsal process mostly free of the pressures of school-year obligations inspire a fresh zeal for Tchaikovsky, Chopin, & Pinocchio, presented at the Scott Theatre in Fort Worth.
Many of the dancers look like completely different artists, and my reactions mimic the family members you only saw once a year as they exclaim at the family reunion, “My, how you’ve grown!”
Dan Westfield’s technical execution grows more precise and virtuosic each time he’s on stage and his acting skills equally mature. Cayce Diggs demonstrates a greater range in her movement, and Elizabeth Villarreal’s performance quality hits a maturity not seen in previous shows. Even though Anastacia Snyder portrays the child-like Pinocchio during the evening’s performance, she proves in the first work that she’s artistically and technically ready for greater things.
A remarkable lineup of guest dancers always provides a nice complement and boost to the work of the pre-professional artists, but this show’s group stands out more than most. An exquisite Kathryn Boren of American Ballet Theater astonishes us in the second work, and the first piece of the evening, Andate, brings the skills of Shannon Beacham, Shea Johnson, Kenta Taniguchi, Nathan Vendt, and Westfield to the forefront.
Created by artistic director Chung-Lin Tseng in 2005, the piece mainly consists of pas de deux and small ensemble work. His usual Balanchine-inspired neo-classical vocabulary takes on a new flavor with more virtuosic pops and intricate floor patterns. Bodies weave in and out of each other in lovely harmony, and changes in timing dynamics provides nice moments of contrast. The use of spotlight at the beginning proves distracting and inconsistent, and the picture on stage greatly improves when a more uniform lighting scheme fades in.
The piece overall is one of the more impressive works I’ve seen from Tseng. He definitely doesn’t let the men off easy for this one, as they effortlessly maneuver through complex partnering, endless leaps, and one of the more expansive uses of space I’ve seen from the company.
The ladies keep up nicely, and although the company had a short rehearsal period in which to prepare for the one-evening production, no signs of jitters are found. The main company dancers as a whole prove stronger, more precise, and simply more comfortable with the choreography. The level of confidence exuded for the first work is something that’s been missing from the previous years. Of all the pieces, it’s the best of the evening and garners the most praise from my seven-year-old daughter.
After a short intermission, the company brings back Lady of the Camellias, an adaptation of Alexandre Dumas’ 1848 novel. Set in 19th century Paris, the story follows well-known courtesan Marguerite (Boren) and Armand (Westfield), a young gentleman who falls in love with her, as they try to have a relationship and discover the consequences of attempting true love with a woman of Marguerite’s station.
Tseng premiered his ballet in 2011, and the cast then fared pretty well with it. This showing takes a nice step forward, as the story overall feels more cohesive and the characters more believable. This could be due to a different cast, as the leading lady this time is danced by a more experienced artist and Westfield has grown leaps and bounds since he first performed Armand. It could also be because the rehearsal process likely had a focus of refinement, without the added pressures of the choreographic process when premiering a new work.
Boren’s strengths here lie in her articulation and luxurious quality. Movements simply melt from one to the next, and she portrays newfound love, heartbreak, and the sadness of death all with equal devotion. The vigor of the men’s cast continues here, and Sofia Yarbrough captivates with a minimal yet powerful portrayal of Fate.
Pinocchio ends the performance, and while it’s a cute story with creative use of visual elements, the energy seems tempered from its last showing. Individual performances don’t feel any less hesitant, so it might be because it comes after the virtuosic Andate and heavy emotions of Camellias. The show runs a tad long, and my daughter began to lose interest after Pinocchio started.
As a whole, though, the performance works. All the elements (guest artists, casting, choreography) come together in a way I haven’t seen in a while from this company. Keep it up.