Miami City Ballet Triumphs with Theatrical West Side Story

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Miami City Ballet dancers sing and dance to Jerome Robbins’ “West Side Story Suite,” based on the award-winning choreography of the Broadway musical and film.

Last year, when she announced the 2013-14 season, Miami City Ballet Artistic Director Lourdes Lopez promised she would challenge her dancers in ways they had never imagined. Challenging new works have consistently peppered her programs, but this Saturday in Program III: Triple Threat, her company not only danced, but provided audiences with a thrilling theatrical experience that included acting and singing.

Jerome Robbins’ “West Side Story Suite” is an extended ballet based on his Tony Award-winning choreography for the iconic 1957 Broadway musical about rival gangs in Manhattan. Retaining Leonard Bernstein’s signature melodies, the basic plot and lyrics from Stephen Sondheim, this 40-minute work is a “Cliff’s Notes” version of the classic.

The forlorn lovers, Tony (Jovani Fulan, in this performance) and Maria (Emily Bromberg, in this performance), are there, along with the Jets and the Sharks, setting the tension in the “Prologue” and exploding in Latin rhythms to “Mambo” at the dance in the school gym. But, it is Jets leader Riff (Jeremy Cox, who capably sings “Cool”) and Sharks boss Bernardo (Reyneris Reyes) who dominate Robbins’ fiery choreography, leaping and turning effortlessly from one meticulously staged gang brawl to another.

And Sara Estey, in this performance as Bernardo’s girlfriend Anita (the role made famous on Broadway by Chita Rivera, who visited Miami City Ballet last fall), steals the show, sassily leading the “Puerto Rican” girls in “America,” and eliciting cheers from the audience.

In every way, the performance was outstanding, concluding with a touching moment as all the dancers gather on stage to sing the hopeful, final words of “Somewhere,” in four-part harmony.

While West Side Story Suite offered new challenges for the dancers, in the case of Balanchine’s “Episodes,” the opening ballet proved to be an unexpected challenge for the audience.

“Episodes,” a company premiere, is set to the atonal music of serialist composer Anton Webern, a member of a small school of early 20th century Viennese composers who responded drastically to the indulgent romanticism of the previous generation. These composers reduced traditional melodies and harmonies to mathematically computed sequences of tones that would sound like musical gibberish to the uninitiated.

Balanchine recognized the logical approach to the Webern works and choreographed an equally systemic series of movements that repeated and evolved as the music moved to each permutation. Simple costumes of black and white leotards and tights accentuate the harmonic coldness of the music and the almost mechanical movements of the dancers.

Maya Collins and Chase Swatosh shined in a pas de deux set to the Five Pieces, Op. 10. Seemingly finding their balance on a constantly moving high wire, they physically reinforced the lack of a tonal or metrical foundation to the music.

Neil Marshall, dressed in simple white leotard and tights, offered a solo to Variations, Op 30, eliciting the struggle of life emerging from the primordial soup of Webern’s music, which seemed to seek order from chaos.

Ironically, “Episodes” suitably concludes with Webern’s interpretation of Bach’s Ricercata in Six Voices from “A Musical Offering.” The contrapuntal approach of the Baroque composer was his generation’s answer to Webern’s attempt to systematically control every nuance of his music and Balanchine’s choreography brings the conceptual nature of the ballet full circle with a large ensemble divided into smaller groups, each dancing to one of the musical lines weaved throughout the work.

The Opus One Orchestra, under the baton of Gary Sheldon, deserves congratulations for such an evocative performance of perhaps the most technically difficult work they will tackle this season — or perhaps any other.

The “Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux,” set to long forgotten music from “Swan Lake,” is not great music and there’s little question why it was omitted from the original production. But, after 40-minutes of atonal serialism, its lilting, however trite, melodies and traditional dance tempi were welcomed by the audience.

While Tchaikovsky’s music is certainly not remarkable, it’s Balanchine’s beautiful choreography, arguably among his best, that makes this pas de deux so remarkable. Together, the ballerino and ballerina, danced with gusto tonight by Renato Penteado and Mary Carmen Catoya, engage in a series of innovative lifts and spins that cement the movement’s place in the repertoire.

If you go:

What: Miami City Ballet

Program III: Triple Threat

When: Feb. 21 – 23, Broward Center, Fort Lauderdale

Feb. 28 – March 2, Kravis Center, West Palm Beach

Info: Tickets at MiamiCityBallet.org


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