Opus Colorado

Colorado’s 50 Years of Ballet Art

There were several poignant moments Thursday night at the Colorado Ballet’s 50 Year Celebration event. I say event is because it was more than a party, and yet, more than a ballet. It was a history of the Colorado Ballet in honor of the Lillian Covillo and the late Freidann Parker. These two women were the founding members of the Colorado Ballet, and they both shared a vision of ballet and dance to fulfill that need here in the city of Denver. 

The program began at seven o’clock with opening remarks by the Colorado Ballet’s Artistic Director, Gil Boggs. Mr. Boggs introduced Lillian Cavillo who was in the audience, and who was greeted with a hearty round of applause. He gave a short synopsis of the history of the ballet and the audience then presented a video showing excerpts of past performances and wonderful pictures of Lillian Cavillo and Friedann Parker. The guest speakers  included Denise Sanderson, Board Chair, Carin Higgins Goodson and Martin Leuthauser former members of the Colorado Ballet who had danced under the direction of the Lillian Covillo and Friedann Parker. Patricia Renzetti, a former Colorado Ballet Principal was also a speaker. These three individuals discussed what it was like to be members of the company and to see the kind of leadership that the two founders provided. The three of them described an amazing development over the years carefully watched by two individuals, Covillo and Parker, who were so totally dedicated to their art and the artistic excellence that they wished to instill in all of the dancers. Some of the remembrances were humorous, some were statistical, some were quite emotional, and all were occasionally interrupted by rounds of applause from the audience. It was abundantly clear that Patricia Renzetti was very moved by her memories of the Colorado Ballet and dancing with such a marvelous ballet company. Jesse Marks, who is currently dancing Renfield in the Colorado Ballet’s production of Dracula also spoke. He pointed out something that I have often suspected about this ballet company and that I have mentioned in past reviews. Mr. Marks said that all of the dancers help each other when it was needed – perhaps a little technical advice, a little moral support, and sometimes some emotional support when the day was not going as one would hope. Every rehearsal that I have attended, and the way the dancers performed with each other on stage, have indicated to me that there are no professional jealousies in this company as I have seen in other companies. Perhaps part of that is becase all the dancers are so equally skilled, and I can assure you that that fact makes this company so thrilling to watch when they are on stage. 

Last but not least of the speakers was the new Executive Director, Marie Belew Wheatley. I have been in charge of several arts organizations in my life, as well as a university department. It must be an incredible experience to step into a position of Executive Director where the organization is so good that one does not have to get rid of deadwood on the board, set up a new accounting system, or try to fire up a lackadaisical staff. Granted, she certainly has much work ahead of her when it comes to fundraising, but she strikes me as being someone who is not only quite charming, but someone who really knows how her position works, how to succeed, and also is willing to allow those under her to succeed. I am confident that the Colorado Ballet has found an Executive Director who knows and agrees with one aesthetic that absolutely everyone from the office staff to all of the dancers believes in: good is the enemy of excellence. 

In the second half of the program, excerpts from ballets and a choreographed poem were presented. The first ballet excerpt was from Giselle. This is one of the most famous ballets and it is a favorite of Ms. Lillian Covillo. The ballet tells the story of a peasant girl named Giselle whose ghost, after her death at a young age, protects her lover from the vengeance of a group of evil female spirits called the Wilis. The score was composed by Adolphe Adam and the choreography was originally done by Jean Coralli and Jules Perrot, though I’m fairly sure that modern productions of this ballet use the choreography by Marius Petipa. This excerpt was danced by Sharon Wehner and Alexei Tyukov, and even if one did not know the story behind this ballet, one could sense the bond between the two characters. It is remarkable to me, at least, how two such expressive dancers can fill their motions with such grace and such an amazing strength. It is always easy to see, for example, a violinist or a pianist fill their performance with the emotion that the composer intended. But I still believe that the dancers in the Colorado Ballet are exceptional in bringing that kind of emotion to the way they dance. I might add that Ms. Wehner never lost her presence – even when she came out for her final bow she was full of grace in her curtsy to the audience. 

Following the Giselle excerpt was a choreographed poem entitled Lightning Chain (no, that is not a misspelling). The poem was choreographed by Andrew Thompson, a former Principal with the Colorado Ballet, per the request of Lillian Covillo. This piece was originally performed in honor of Friedann Parker at her Celebration of Life Memorial Serivce in 2002. The poem was written by Friedann Parker and was read by Andrew Thompson. It was absolutely wonderful to see this danced by Janelle Cooke who returned for this performance. Ms. Cooke is now in California and her dancing is sorely missed. The poem tells of Calamity Jane and her encounter with Wild Bill Hickok. It is a humorous poem and Janelle Cooke danced the role in Levi’s, western shirt, and western boots. While she danced, I looked around at the audience, and even in the semi-dark, one could see the smiles of recognition and appreciation on the faces in the audience. It was clear that they miss Janelle Cooke as much as they admire her artistic ability. 

Next, came the pas de deux from Swan Lake danced by the incomparable Maria Mosina and Igor Vassine. These two are extraordinary and absolutely beyond compare. Simply put, I would willingly match them with any other dancers in the country. Their ability to anticipate each other’s moves, their trust in each other’s ability, and their concentration on the smallest of artistic details absolutely boggles the mind. Toward the end of their pas de deux, Maria Mosina executed a dance step that I don’t recall seeing ever before. Keep in mind that she is a swan in this pas de deux. She moved her right foot (with her back to the audience while she was embracing Igor Vassine) in a rapid trembling motion which was at once very animalistic and yet full of incredible passion. It resembled a petit battement, but I am not at all sure that’s what one would call it. It was stunningly effective, and I might add that I could hear gasps from those sitting around me. It was very sensuous. 

The final excerpt of the evening was comprised of The Faraway. The music for this ballet was taken from the compositions of Dmitri Shostakovich. Use was made of his first piano concerto and his first jazz suite. The choreographer is Matthew Neenan. This was a premier danced for the first time by the Colorado Ballet when they performed their opening at the Newman Center on the DU campus at the beginning of the season. The dancers in this excerpt were Dana Benton, Cara Cooper, Casey Dalton, Shelby Dyer, Chandra Kuykendall, Asuka Sasaki,  Caitlin Valentine-Ellis, Sharon Wehner, Christopher Ellis, Jesse Marks, Sean Omandam, Rylan Schwab, Adam Still, Kevin Gaël Thomas, Dmitry Trubchanov, and Luis Valdes. This is a wonderful ballet with tinges of poignancy and a little darkness, but by and large it seems like a celebration. And why not? For the whole evening was a celebration for the remarkable Colorado Ballet. 

I use the word remarkable very carefully and with its full meaning. This semester, I am teaching a course on the history of ballet at the Academy For Lifelong Learning. And I point out with fervent thanks, that the Colorado Ballet has been essential in my presentation of this course. Anne  O’Connor, Director of Education and Outreach, Marlene Strang, Education Programs Manager, Katrina Tamminga, Public Relations Manager, and two  members of the ballet corps, Morgan Buchanan and Gregory DeSantis, were instrumental in assisting me with this class. I also point out that we were invited to rehearsal for Dracula, where the Artistic Director, Gil Boggs, took time out from his busy rehearsal schedule and addressed my class. This organization is so accessible and so dedicated to their art that we in Colorado must make every effort to preserve their longevity. In honor of the founders of the Colorado Ballet, Lillian Covillo and Freidann Parker, the Colorado Ballet has established a Founders Fund. I encourage you to donate to this fund so that we can be sure that this organization is around for another 50 years. Simply call 303-399-1629, or on the web go to development@coloradoballet.org

The Colorado Ballet is an organization which, as it becomes more widely known, and I guarantee you that it will, will be the envy of the entire country. They are that good and they are that committed to the art. We must help them celebrate.

1 Comment so far
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We miss Janelle Cooke!! It was a real pleasure to see her perform once more.

She is the BEST!!

Comment by Shirley Udd

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