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Sexual feeling: Grupo Corpo.

George Would Be Honored
By Mae G. Banner

New York City Ballet
Saratoga Performing Arts Center, July 9-13

New York City Ballet stepped into its 37th summer at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center with an all- Balanchine program last Tuesday that satisfied loyal devotees and showed newcomers the best of the company’s repertoire. The week also included nods to a lighthearted Jerome Robbins (Fancy Free and In G Major) and a heavy-handed Peter Martins (Jeu de Cartes), plus Haiku, a clean and insinuating new Diamond Project work by principal dancer/now-choreographer Albert Evans.

Andrea Quinn, in her first full summer as musical director, conducted Agon (1957) with the lively clarity this masterful black-and-white ballet requires. The dance, a collaboration between Balanchine and Stravinsky, is inspired by sketches from a 16th-century French dancing-master’s manual. It’s performed in a set of spare, architecturally open turns that illuminate the inner beats of the music.

Wendy Whelan and Jock Soto danced the central duet, which is both courtly and carnal, with delicate leg beats and extreme contortions. Whelan is fearless, doing musically smooth splits, swivels and stretches as if her body had no bones. When she touches Soto with her leg, it’s like a kiss.

The first-night program opened with Serenade (1934), which suffered at first because the underrehearsed corps sped through the steps so fast they had no time to make Tchaikovsky’s music meaningful. Balanchine claimed Serenade had no story, but his lyrical choreography suggests a romantic tale of 17 sisters who spin in a froth of ice-blue tulle and who lose one to unrequited love.

The corps didn’t become true sisters until their wonderful repeat performances Thursday and Saturday; but, from the moment Yvonne Borree flew through her first solo on opening night, Serenade found its footing.

Darci Kistler was the “Waltz Girl” on Tuesday, taking risks as she turned in James Fayette’s arms and sank to the floor, while the winged figure of Kathleen Tracey led Fayette offstage, covering his eyes as if he were Orpheus. Kistler marred the dance’s soulful ending, breaking character as she was borne aloft and carried like a saintly effigy in a mournful procession offstage. Philip Neal, who continues to dance at a peak of elegant strength, was her ideal partner.

Jenifer Ringer was a perfect “Waltz Girl” in Thursday’s Serenade, supported by Maria Kowroski as Fayette’s winged guide.

A dazzling Who Cares? closed the first-night program. Here is Balanchine in showbiz mode, saluting George and Ira Gershwin in a fast-paced revue that blends chorine kicks with pirouettes and fouettes. The audience might think Who Cares? is a throwaway, but a close look shows that it keeps all the ballet conventions, yet never misses a syncopated beat. Ringer, Jennie Somogyi and Janie Taylor—the romantic, the flirtatious, and the sexy, respectively—were Nikolaj Hubbe’s three muses in duets to “The Man I Love,” “Embraceable You,” and the lesser-known title song.

Corps dancer Henry Seth, tall and full of personality, made himself the one to watch, giving every move in the five quick corps duets an extra pizzazz.

Albert Evans, an admired principal dancer since 1995, is now also a choreographer to watch. Evans’ Haiku, his first foray as a dancemaker, drew four curtain calls in its SPAC premiere Thursday night. City Ballet is celebrating 10 years of the Diamond Project, an intermittent mini-festival of works by new choreographers, by presenting four new and three older Diamonds during its three-week SPAC run.

Haiku is a great choice. A modern ballet for three couples, set to John Cage’s short pieces for percussion or prepared piano, the dance is sleek as satin and full of invention. Evans’ choreography honors the classical ballet vocabulary with elegant uplifted carriage and neat leaps and turns, but goes off in startling, satisfying new directions. Evans uses every dimension of a deliberately narrowed stage space and sets his dancers at every imaginable level, from lying flat on their backs to circling together like a merry-go-round, the women perching with crossed knees on the men’s linked arms.

Faye Arthurs with Stephen Hanna, Aesha Ash with newly promoted principal Sebastian Marcovici, and Carla Korbes with Seth Orza, wind their ways through a set of small displays that are intriguing and contained, like the lines of a haiku. Dressed in shiny skirts or pants the color of glowing embers, they begin in unison, but soon unfold into a series of eye-catching duets, full of unexpected entrances and exits, sometimes continuing beyond the music into a reverberating silence.

Some of the lifts and carry-offs are quietly amazing, like the last line of a haiku. In silence, Hanna lifts Arthurs in an upside-down split, then sets her down gently to move slowly, backward, offstage. Korbes is queenly in her duet with Orza. He lies flat and she steps deftly over him, a move that morphs into a seated embrace, then unwinds into a Mobius strip of endless, sinuous challenges.

Ash and Marcovici spun like tops in a continuing embrace. She made shapes in the air with fluid arms, and he squatted like a grasshopper, then sped as if dancing on hot coals. Their exit was a heart-stopping lift. Her legs wound around him, her back arched, Ash bent Marcovici’s free arm to her chest.

The dance gained extra interest from the onstage presence of Essential Music, a percussion quartet who specialize in Cage’s works. Their small orchestra of gongs, drums, chimes, timbales, rattles, scrapers, whistles, and kitchen gadgets sounded like an Indonesian gamelan in its assertive, yet soothing polyrhythms.

Haiku is sure to remain in City Ballet’s repertoire, but you’ll have to wait until another year to see it. The same is true for Balanchine’s Firebird, a highlight of Friday night’s program.

Kowroski was a darting, fluttering Firebird in this folkloric tale set to Stravinsky’s so-Russian music and danced before Marc Chagall’s color-drenched backdrops painted with mammoth upside-down bouquets of roses and floating figures of a princess bride, lurking monsters and forest creatures. Children and grown-ups were delighted with the dancing princesses, the weird-funny monsters, and the lavish wedding with the palace walls draped in swashes of beet red.

Monique Meunier, one of the company’s most exciting principals, has left to join American Ballet Theater; and principal Kathleen Tracey planned to retire after her July 16 performance. If you haven’t made your way to the ballet, let this be a lesson to you.

Hot, Hot, Hot

Grupo Corpo
Jacob’s Pillow, July 14

Grupo Corpo bypasses the brain and goes straight for the groin. I am still hot from watching the climactic sequence of the Brazilian dance company’s Sanatagustin, a world premiere danced Sunday at Jacob’s Pillow.

Late in the dance, the 10 couples cross the boundary from sensuous to erotic, moving across the stage, butt locked to crotch. In all permutations—woman-man, woman-woman, man-man—they hold tight. Then, a man snaps his arm, jerks his partner away from him and flings her outward. She keeps her grip on his hand and pulls back in. Repeat. Again. Then, in a neat switch, she lifts him.

The dance becomes a study in who’s on top and who is on whose back. The dancers rise and the action swells into a wonderful group section with active heads and hips. You see an impulse start in the pelvis and move up through the head, as the couples do individual variations of the group move on slightly different planes.

Two females wrap their arms around each other, facing front and giving the audience a knowing eye that says, “We’re here. Deal with it.” A male couple, still butt to crotch, goes horizontal, making a four-legged bridge that sways orgiastically in a transport to nirvana.

This sequence ends with the couples lying side by side, then easing into a lyrical duet to cool down themselves and the audience before the joyous finale.

My notes say: “Why is this art and not porn?” Answer: Because it’s danced in high style with technical excellence. Because the dancers are counting. Above all, because Grupo Corpo’s dancers take our cultural stereotypes about the “hot Latin people” and reclaim them through political/erotic statements that are simply knockout dance.

Founded in 1975 in Belo Horizonte, the company is directed by choreographer Rodrigo Pedemeiras. His brother, Paulo Pederneiras, is artistic director. A color photo of the dancers would show the full range of Brazillian skin tones, from cream to café au lait to chocolate.

Their name means “group body,” and all their choreography is ensemble work, usually done by couples moving along the stage in a horizontal path, like an escuela de samba dancing down the street at Carnival. A soloist or a couple may step forward to do a virtuosic turn, but they soon blend back into the ever-moving group. The music, whether it’s by Philip Glass or the indigenous group UAKTI, is minimalist, insistently repeating a line that changes incrementally as the dance goes on and on.

The dancers’ names are on the program, but no bios, perhaps to emphasize the precedence of group over individual in this company. Still, the choreography makes clear that these dancers are equally trained in ballet, modern dance and samba. Beneath it all is a strong West African influence.

All this comes out in Seven or Eight Pieces for a Ballet, (1994) which combines elegant balletic arms with funky stuck-out butts and smooth samba action in the hips. This cultural swirl is similar to Garth Fagan’s choreography, which stirs together Africa, Jamaica, ballet and jazz. The differences: Grupo Corpo doesn’t do much with still points and balances or with abrupt changes in speed and direction. These dances are vivid atoms in a pulsating group molecule. Their energy, sophisticated, primal, and always self-aware, is of the whole.


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