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Miami ballet casts spell

The company's magical version of Jerome Robbins' `Dances at a Gathering' is paired with lesser Balanchine.

July 04, 2006|Lewis Segal | Times Staff Writer

"Dances at a Gathering" wasn't Jerome Robbins' first -- or last -- choreography to piano pieces by Chopin, but it's surely the most intuitive, full of dances that develop out of a single gesture or refuse to develop at all and are abandoned like half-considered ideas. When you fall under its spell -- which was easy to do in the Miami City Ballet performance Sunday afternoon in the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion -- you wish that all ballet were like this plotless, mercurial 1969 suite: full of mysteries, surprises and moments of wondrous lyric invention.

There are Slavic gestures and steps galore, but Russians dance like this only in their dreams; the assimilation of every step, passage and performance into a sensual flow is the great triumph of Robbins' all-American style. Whatever ballet can do or be is reexamined here, incorporated and transformed. Sometimes Robbins presents polished showpieces for your enjoyment. Elsewhere the focus shifts to relationships among the 10 cast members, and periodically the work grows private and contemplative, as if the person you're watching is remembering dance rather than actually dancing.

Staged by Susan Hendl and Ben Huys, the Miami production cultivates a dreamlike aura, as if the dancers were presenting some heightened fantasy of themselves. There's Renato Penteado, poetic and intense -- maybe a surrogate for Robbins himself. (He "invents" the first dance move in the piece.) Katia Carranza is supremely gracious, but sudden flashes of passion pull her body into iconic classical shapes, as if there's a dynamic ballerina hidden behind her mask of passive sweetness.

Kenta Shimizu seems unfailingly warm and stalwart, but he abandons the thoughtful, independent Jennifer Kronenberg a moment after they connect, and she can't understand why. Everybody likes the vivacious Deanna Seay, but nobody dances with her for long....

We spend an hour in the company of these people -- and with the marathon pianism of Francisco Renno -- and by the end we think we know them, how they feel about themselves, one another, Chopin. Pure illusion, of course, but also pure magic: Robbins pulls you and his dancers deep into the heart of movement expression and leaves everyone with a sense that something different has taken place than just another performance.

Unfortunately, it would take a greater ballet than George Balanchine's "Western Symphony" to hold its own on the same program. Some people will tell you there's no such thing as minor Balanchine -- but this 1954 showpiece to Hershy Kay's symphonic arrangement of folk ditties comes awfully close. The music (heard Sunday on a cheesy tape) elicits no original response, and the choreography aims for nothing more than slick, flashy entertainment.

In concept, the work Americanizes the approach to national dances familiar from 19th century ballets by Marius Petipa. Act 3 of "Swan Lake," for instance, features a classical vocabulary seasoned with gestures, poses and even some steps drawn from the folklore of Italy, Hungary, Spain and what is now the Czech Republic. In the same way, "Western Symphony" adds the characteristic moves of cowboys and dance-hall girls to pure academic ballet.

In the final section, the delectably sassy Andrea Spiridonakos and the impressively virtuosic Shimizu look perfectly at home on the range -- but Jeremy Cox as the lovelorn cowpoke in Part 2 brings a special danseur noble elegance to his partnership with the overly jokey Haiyan Wu. The Miami production (staged by Hendl) features the seldom-seen Scherzo (Part 3), once a specialty of former New York City Ballet star Edward Villella (Miami's artistic director) and now entrusted to the buoyant Alex Wong.

Like the music tape, the well-worn scenery by John Boyt and costumes by Haydee Morales (after Karinska) undermine the distinction and special sheen that Miami City Ballet makes indelible in "Dances at a Gathering." The company is always worth seeing, but its rep-for-export needs to be more carefully chosen.

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