The Vail International Dance Festival opened on Sunday evening with a debut. Not just the debut of a performer, mind you, but the debut of an entirely new company. The New York City Ballet Moves is a new performance group, made up of dancers from the main company, and is the brainchild of Peter Martins, the Ballet Master in Chief. The goal of this offshoot is to tour a hand-picked group of dancers around the world so as to bring the NYCB to new audiences. It was an auspicious debut and should be wildly successful.
The program at the Gerald R. Ford Amphitheater in Vail featured 17 dancers, three musicians and a program of ballets by the three choreographers that have run the company: Jerome Robbins, George Balanchine and Peter Martins. All three ballets were danced on a bare stage, assisted only by excellent lighting design by Mark Stanley and Jennifer Tipton.
These three ballets could not have been more different.
Robbins Dances at a Gathering was all lyrical movements that would not be out of place in Swan Lake, which was quite a surprise to an audience that might have expected something more along the lines of his creations for West Side Story. The work occupied the entire first half of the program and was based on the piano music of Chopin, which was beautifully played by Susan Walters. Ten dancers were costumed simply in pairs of colors. All of them were terrific, and many are soloists familiar to followers of the company. They ranged in age to very young to veterans. Chase Finlay was still an apprentice with NYCB in 2008, only joining the corps de ballet in 2009 and a soloist in 2011. On the other hand, Wendy Whelan, who joined the company in 1986 and was promoted to Principal in 1991. But you would never know it─she still dances as though she was in her 20s.
The surprise was the Bronx-born Amar Ramasar, who joined the company in 2001, and was made a principal in 2009. Armed with impressive technique combined, a killer smile and the shear force of his personality, he communicated directly with the audience. He was a joy to watch whenever he was onstage. A number of the devotees of the NYCB in the audience were all abuzz at the intermission about his performance.
Balanchine's Duo Concertant, based on Stravinsky's work by the same name for violin and piano, was typical of the choreographer's style, classic ballet modernized with a sharpening of the motions and extended technique. This dance is really a study in partnering and Sterling Hyltin and Robert Fairchild were absolutely superb. Violinist Kurt Nikkanen and pianist Cameron played Stravinsky's music with sensitivity and just the right combination of the rough and the refined. One coup de theatre was accomplished single-handedly by Stanley's lighting. Only the hands of the dancers were visible in a pin spotlight which grew into two follow spots when the dancers separated. It was a memorable moment.
The entire company participated in Peter Martins' jazzy A Fool for You, danced to recorded music by Ray Charles. Charles performed the music live when the ballet debuted in 1988. This is a high-energy, nonstop, challenging and exhausting workout. Near the end, some of the dancers threw off a visible spray of sweat as they aggressively tossed off triple pirouettes and other difficult moves. Once again, all of the dancers turned in stellar performance and there were too many of them to discuss individually. However, there were three impressive pas de deux combinations: Tilar Peck and Taylor Stanley, Brittany Pollack and Chase Finlay, and Rebecca Krohn and the aforementioned Amar Ramasar. Also, mention must be made of Joaquin De Luz's dazzling solo to the song "It Should've Been Me." He combined athleticism, jaw-dropping jumps and gymnastics with other technical wizardry. He frequently garnered gasps and applause from the delighted audience during his solos.
The Vail International Dance Festival continues through Aug. 13. Find out more here.
Editor's Note: Gregory Sullivan Isaacs spent a weekend in Vail, and caught the end of the Bravo! Vail Valley Music Festival, and other events. Look for his takes on the summer destination in the coming days.