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Playtime: Ben Munisteri Dance Projects.

By Mae G. Banner

New York City Ballet

Saratoga Performing Arts Center, July 5

The New York City Ballet and the Saratoga Performing Arts Center renewed their marriage vows on their 40th anniversary with laudatory speeches by new SPAC president Marcia White and balletmaster-in-chief Peter Martins. Both thanked the grassroots organization Save the Ballet for advocating to keep this marriage alive, and promised years of magical performances to come—though, as yet, there’s been no announcement of a contract for 2006 and beyond. Before the overture, conductor Maurice Kaplow led the NYCB orchestra in Anniversary Fanfare, composed for the occasion by Ron Wasserman, principal double bassist with the orchestra.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the Balanchine charmer that inaugurated the house in July 1966, was the perfect choice for this anniversary, not least because the ballet ends with a grand triple-wedding celebration. The silvery woodland setting, framed by SPAC’s tall pines, provided a fairy-tale atmosphere for Balanchine’s transmutation of Shakespeare’s comedy set to Mendelssohn’s tantalizing music.

The story unreels in the seamless first act that flows without pause from the quarrel of Titania and Oberon, rulers of the fairy kingdom, to the confused wanderings in the woods of two mismatched pairs of lovers, to the barreling dance of Bottom and his friends, who have met in the woods to rehearse a play for the wedding of the earthly royals, Theseus and Amazon Queen Hippolyta. Of course, there are throngs of fairies, the tall slim retinue of Titania, who guard their sleeping queen, and the flashing flickering fireflies and beetles, danced neatly by a corps of youngsters who circle around Oberon.

Weaving through these intersecting worlds is Puck, Oberon’s mischief-making sprite. Adam Hendrickson brought out the comedy of the role, miming his mortification at applying the magic flower to the wrong lover. He was a swift runner and cunning jumper, girdling the world in a minute at Oberon’s command.

Joaquin De Luz (a recent addition to the company from American Ballet Theater) was a regal leader who skimmed the stage, while Darci Kistler as Titania danced heavily at first, but found the character’s light spirit in her sweet dance with Bottom, now crowned with a donkey’s head. James Fayette was an endearing Bottom, bemused to find himself the object of Titania’s attentions, but so full of self-love that he rose to the occasion. His lumbering folk dance with the airy Titania and his pretty bourree across the stage were delightful moments.

The crisscrossed lovers, dark-haired Alexandra Ansanelli and Arch Higgins (dressed in wine-red) and fair Rachel Rutherford and Jared Angle (in blue) darted and fled through the woods or sank in despair. The transparent choreography made all their shifting emotions clear. Even those unacquainted with Shakespeare could have no problem understanding the lovers’ plight, which is sometimes sad, sometimes comical.

Dream reveals new insights with every viewing. Hippolyta’s midnight hunt with her hounds, for example, was not an interruption of the action, but a vigorous restatement in another key of the foolish fight of the two men who are led through the misty woods by Puck’s tricks. Teresa Reichlen, quite the firebrand, danced an exciting set of fouettes and sprang offstage with a grand jete.

Amanda Edge distinguished herself as Butterfly, the chief of Oberon’s retinue. She was swift and sharp, with a lovely extension and musical phrasing, setting the tone for the enchantments to follow.

Though new balletgoers may be content with the story, seasoned viewers were transported by the divertissement duet in the second act’s wedding celebration. Wendy Whelan and Philip Neal were sublime in this twining duet that embodies the essence of love and joy. Their partnering—Neal’s flawless support allowed Whelan to become a wisp in his arms—elevated the duet to its rightful place as the crowning point of the whole ballet, the very reason for its existence.

Kinetic Beauty

Ben Munisteri Dance Projects

Jacob’s Pillow, Becket, Mass., July 17

Everything counts in a Ben Munisteri dance. Even the goofiest-looking moves, like dancers crawling on all fours or a dancer pulling her partner’s leg up into a high extension, are part of a clear, if quirky structure. There’s no improvising in this choreography.

Munisteri and his six dancers performed last week in the Doris Duke Studio Theatre at Jacob’s Pillow, the “second stage” reserved for experimental dance made by emerging choreographers. Their program included a world premiere, Thunderblood, to a commissioned score by composer-violinist Evren Celimli. Celimli and bassist Mike Rivard were set to provide live music, but the third player—identified as “Mac e-book”—crashed, so the dancers performed to a CD of the score instead.

This mishap turned out to carry a benefit. While the musicians tried to revive the their ailing tech partner, Munisteri popped out of his seat in the audience to take questions. He proved to be quite disarming, funny and ironic.

The choreographer’s character was reflected in Thunderblood, which juxtaposed long, still poses against spirited traveling passages. The dancers, dressed in a crayon box of red, purple, orange, and teal unitards, moved in unison, then split into pairs, making off-center constructions that were often surprising.

Munisteri, ballet-trained but a habitué of dance clubs, founded his company in 1994. Like Mark Morris, he remains in touch with the games we played as children, when we bopped around the yard, flying like an airplane or prowling like a jungle cat. In Thunderblood, the dancers built a tower of three people, like a human erector set. Later, a woman stood on the butts of two kneeling and turning men in a circuslike trick.

Celimli’s music had a Middle Eastern sound, and, indeed, the dancers made angled Egyptian arms, then blocked together as one massive sculpture. In another play-yard invention, a woman settled her back onto the back of a kneeling man, locked her legs around him, and, thus laden, he crawled offstage. Much later, the two reappeared in the same locked position, entering from the opposite side of the stage.

For all its bulkiness, Thunderblood was filled with the beauty of odd angular poses and quick shifts between movement and stillness.

The other dances, Not Human (2005), Turbine Mines (2004), and a Retrospective Portfolio (2004) pieced together from bits of four earlier dances, all shared Munisteri’s kinetic collage-making propensities. Arrowy balletic jetes collapsed into crouching club dance moves. We saw semaphore arms, backward skips, lightly tripping toes and lovely lifted arms followed by bopping an elbow on the dancer’s knee.

Would these dancers put their elbow in their ear? Sure, if they could do it. The important thing is, however abrupt and off-the-wall Munisteri’s moves may look, every position feels right, even lyrical. This choreography, with its touch of the vulgar, is simply beautiful.

—Mae G. Banner

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