Fresh off a successful showing at the regional Youth America Grand Prix back in February, Ballet Ensemble of Texas gives audiences an exquisite treat with Spring Performance at the Irving Arts Center. As the official company of the Ballet Academy of Texas, which won “Outstanding School” at the YAGP regional, BETX once again brings a slam dunk concert with the technical and performance excellence worthy of its reputation.
First on the bill is Walpurgisnacht Ballet by George Balanchine, which was originally choreographed for a Paris Opera performance of Faust but now stands as an independent ballet. The 25-member cast, including guest artist Dallas Blagg, beautifully fills the large stage of the IAC’s Carpenter Performance Hall with sweeping floor patterns and pleasing symmetrical patterns. The best part about the work (completed in several movements) is the appropriate casting. Blagg and his partner Katie Cheng exhibit an elegant combination of sustained control and dynamic athleticism for their duets. Soloist Courtlyn Hanson and a sextet show off their quick, precise footwork in an intricate petit allegro.
The remaining 16 dancers don’t just act as the scenery, though. While they do create some splendid pictures with a still presence on stage or delicate port de bras sequences, they prove that they can keep up with the rest of the ensemble in the unison parts. Timing is pretty spot-on, for the most part, and the performance qualities never falter.
That high level of performance continues after an intermission for Gordon Peirce Schmidt’s American Portrait, which is by far the best work of the evening. Inspired by Winslow Homer’s painting “Snap the Whip” and set to music by Aaron Copland, the piece not only captures the winsome youthfulness of the painting but instills a joyful serenity in the viewer. As the delicate strains of Copland’s music fill the auditorium, a small projection appears in the corner of a white scrim placed in the downstage area. Little by little, the projection grows into Homer’s painting, revealed in perfect timing with the music. The scrim rises to reveal twelve children engaging in various recreational activities.
Boys dressed in rolled-up pants and various semi-dressy shirts leap and gallop about (including guests artists from Texas Ballet Theater), while girls (minus one tomboy who insists on being one of the guys) donning long prairie-style dresses frolic about. The ballet moves through a series of vignettes depicting playfulness and innocent romances, including a sweet duet between Blagg and Cheng who portray a farmer and teacher, respectively. In an ending that comes too soon, the scrim returns and the dancers finish with a tableau recreating the image in the painting.
In this work, Schmidt more than accomplishes his goal of creating emotional experiences for audiences. Copland’s score is a sizeable part of that encounter, but Schmidt interprets the music is such an intricate way that each lift of the arm or extension of the leg seems to complete each musical note. Everything about the choreography, from the movements to the transitions to the character gestures, makes the ballet vocabulary completely organic, as if that’s how everyone living on a 19th century countryside naturally moved.
The company is a perfect choice for the piece. Because of their ages, the dancers naturally exemplify the youthful zeal of the painting, and they have the technical and performance capacity to make the choreography seamless. One can’t help but remain captivated throughout. At the close of the piece, many in the audience were in tears, including this reviewer.
It’s hard to top that one. The widely-publicized work of the evening, Margo Sappington’s Plaza del Fuego, comes close but doesn’t quite match up. Twelve ladies dressed in sassy red dresses and two men in pants and shirts of matching colors, twist, wind and explode through this jazzy ballet set to music by Santana. The first two sections interpret the calmer, low-key sounds of the Mexican-born guitar legend, while the third brings a heavier rhythm and spicier mood.
Sappington’s intricate maneuvers and patterns fit well with the skills of the dancers, but they still need time to fully embody the sultriness of the music. Timing and precision has improved greatly since they previewed it at January’s Youth Dance Festival, so if that level of progress continues, it should be in top condition when they take it to the Young Tanzsommer Festival in Austria this summer.
Closing out the evening is the whimsical No Pressure by resident choreographer Tammie Reinsch. Breanne Granlund humorously portrays a young lady trying to find her place among her peers. Jocks, cheerleaders, and nerds all seem appealing, and peer pressure pulls her every which way. In the end, however, she discovers that she must be herself. Brightly-colored pointe shoes and character-specific costumes contribute to the hilarity of the choreography. While timing and precision aren’t as tight as the other three works, the performance aspect is what’s important, and all 23 dancers nail it to round out an exceptional evening.