Fort Worth — After a nine-year break, Texas Ballet Theater’s artistic director Ben Stevenson brings back one of his more unique story ballets, Cleopatra, presented at Bass Performance Hall in Fort Worth. Created in 2000, its story and setting offer unique aesthetics not typically found in his other ballets of more traditional origin. Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s sweeping score (arranged by John Lanchberry) delivers dramatic escapism in the hands of the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Michael Moricz. Lavish sets by Thomas Boyd and intricate costumes by Judanna Lynn prove one of the main draws of the production.
Stevenson packs a great deal of narrative in a relatively short time. Total length is two hours including intermission, which is a nice change from some of more long-winded Petipa ballets. Patrons will likely benefit from a glance at the synopsis beforehand, as the story quickly changes scenes.
The ballet opens in Cleopatra’s (Carolyn Judson) chambers, where her handmaidens help her prepare for the day. With a large opening ensemble segment, Stevenson sets up the vocabulary, qualities, and motifs of the Egyptian ladies, including those of Cleopatra. Utilizing the two-dimensional, angular poses found on the artwork of the time and frequently associated with ancient Egypt seems cliché at first and is slightly overused at times during the evening. Fortunately, he melds it with more fluid qualities and creates an appealing movement aesthetic that mixes maneuvers typically found in contemporary ballet with the formality of classical story ballets.
Judson’s delivery of the titular character is a most pleasant surprise. Due to pop culture, many might see Cleopatra as simply a seductive temptress, a quality that doesn’t fit Judson’s artistry. She opts instead to emphasize regality, out of which flows a sensuality that enthralls.
Scene two takes audiences to the throne room where her sibling Ptolemy (who can only be described as a brat of a brother due to Drake Humphrey’s persuasive acting) and his friend Pothinus (Alexander Kotelenets, giving his usual grand performance) plot Cleopatra’s end. A lengthy duet with powerful lifts and a typical yet powerful display of male athleticism seems to serve only as a show-off, but it’s enjoyable nonetheless.
To celebrate what he thinks is his newfound royal stature, he throws a bacchanalian jubilee. The large ensemble choreography finds bodies intertwining in an overt display of sensuality (bringing to mind the age-appropriate guidelines advertised by the company), but the scene also contains precision spatial patterns, impeccable timing, and partnering maneuvers that maintain the elegance of a story ballet.
The entrance of Julius Caesar (danced by a commanding Carl Coomer) interrupts the festivities, but Cleopatra’s grand arrival proves more shocking to the scene. Pothinus attempts to finish the execution, but finds an untimely end at the queen’s hand. A duet between the two powerful rulers ensues, with magnificent lifts and majestic passion. Thus ends Act I—nice, intriguing, but still a little underwhelming given the hype surrounding the ballet.
Act II amps it up. The change in setting gives a nice surprise, as the action moves to Rome, with softer tones and lines, yet still stunning. Another indication that the company’s artists know how to enhance a visual and find unique methods of collaboration comes with the inclusion of shirtless athletes from Grapevine Crossfit as Cleopatra’s slaves.
The action hereafter hinges on a well-known historical event, the death of Caesar at the hands of his heir Octavian (Jiyan Dai), Brutus (Riley Moyano), Cassius (David Schrenk), and the senators. His wife Calpurnia (Paige Nyman) foresees this in a dream, and dances out her vision with exquisite execution, displaying a quality and vocabulary different from Cleopatra yet indicative of her station.
After Caesar’s death, Calpurnia blames the Egyptian queen, who escapes back to her home. Caesar’s ally Marc Antony (Andre Silva) follows her to demand justice but instead falls in love. Silva’s technical display proves as much of a highlight as Judson’s portrayal of Cleopatra, and the two of them together makes the production worth the trip. Silva’s ability to end lighting-fast turns with a gradual stop and explosive jumps with a deft landing is jaw-dropping.
But the happiness doesn’t last long. Octavian and the others are furious about the events and show it with an aggressive ensemble segment before they attack Egypt. Rather than fall under the brutal new Roman leader, Marc Antony and Cleopatra end their lives with a passionate and drawn-out death scene.
Why TBT waited so long to bring this back is a mystery, but it absolutely works. It’s a pleasant departure from the typical story ballet but still offers the grandeur and appeal of a narrative production.