Opus Colorado

“Traveling” through beauty with the Colorado Ballet

I always look forward to the Colorado Ballet’s series, which they have entitled Ballet Director’s Choice. Instead of one ballet being performed, the Colorado Ballet performs three short ballets, usually thirty minutes for each work, that have, for various reasons, caught the attention of the Colorado Ballet’s Artistic Director, Maestro Gil Boggs. The performance of these three ballets, in the last few years, has been done at Gates Hall in the Newman Center on the DU campus. While I certainly enjoy going to see the Colorado Ballet at the Ellie Caulkins Opera House, I truly enjoy seeing the Ballet Director’s Choice done at Gates, because the three short ballets seem more personal and intimate. In addition, there are no sets or scenery, so it gives the audience the opportunity to concentrate on just the dancing, and that is a real joy because everyone in this ballet company is a true artist.

The Ballet Director’s Choice opened with the ballet Feast of the Gods, choreographed by Edwaard Liang, and music by the Italian composer, Ottorino Respighi (1879-1936). This particular short ballet was inspired by the history of the band of traveling Gypsies, which certainly reminded me of Respighi’s travels around the Italian Peninsula on a bicycle in his youth. The particular composition of his that Liang used for the ballet is Ancient Aires and Dances, which resulted from Respighi’s interest and knowledge in sixteenth and seventeenth century Italian music. Respighi was also a noted musicologist, linguist, and conductor.

The choreographer Edwaard Liang joined the New York City ballet in the spring of 1993. He has won many awards for his ballet work as a dancer, and after he became a member of the well-known Nederlands Dans Theater 1, he choreographed and staged ballets as well as dancing in them. He has danced and choreographed ballets for many companies: the Kirov Ballet, Pacific Northwest Ballet, the Joffrey Ballet, and many others. I truly believe he is one of the most imaginative choreographers that I have had the pleasure to see.

His choreography in Feast of the Gods is absolutely sensational. It is remarkably fast-paced and extremely complex, and that carries throughout the entire work and applies to all of the dancers onstage. I have never been so aware of how the choreography of a ballet can unify the work as a whole. Chandra Kuykendall and Alexi Tyukov danced a spectacular pas de deux Friday evening. It required so much energy that Liang, through his demanding choreography, gave a very clear demonstration of not only the artistry of these two individuals, but their athletic ability as well. And that certainly applies to Sharon Wehner, Dmitry Trubchanov, Shelby Dyer, Luis Valdes, Dana Benton, Christopher Ellis, the wonderful Asuka Sasaki, Klara Houdet, and certainly, Jesse Marks. The point of mentioning all those names is not just that they deserve it, but to help explain to you readers who have not seen the Colorado Ballet, that this company is comprised of stellar performers, every one of whom is an artist. The movements choreographed by Liang require so much attention to detail from the dancers that it is astounding to watch. It made me wonder if there is not an entirely new vocabulary to describe the new contemporary movements. For example, is the term “de Côté” still used to indicate a sideways movement, when there is so much other movement combined with it?

The next work on the program was entitled Traveling Alone, choreographed by Amy Seiwert, who used music written by Max Richter. Ms. Seiwert danced with the Smuin, Los Angeles Chamber and Sacramento Ballet’s, and she eventually became the Choreographer in Residence with the Smuin after she retired from dancing in 2008. “She also directs Imagery, which is a contemporary ballet company that collaborates with artists of other disciplines” (Quoted from the program notes). She often receives commissions from other ballet companies in the United States.

Max Richter, whose music was used for this ballet was born in Germany in 1966, and studied at the Royal Academy of Music in England, as well as studying at the University of Edinburgh. He also had composition lessons with the famed Italian composer, Luciano Berio in Florence, Italy.

Dana Benton and Jesse Marks were the soloists in Traveling Alone. Dana Benton has danced this role before, and she has a great dramatic sense in portraying someone who is totally alone. Both Dana Benton and Jesse Marks were sensational Friday evening, but after the curtain went down, I sat for a moment wondering if I had ever seen Jesse Marks perform as well as he did Friday evening. He was absolutely stunning. He seemed thoroughly comfortable in everything that he did, and it was also clear that Dana Benton was treating this ballet as an old, and well remembered, friend. The choreography in this ballet was just as fast-paced as in Feast of the Gods, but not quite as complex as the Liang. Chandra Kuykendall, Christopher Ellis, Shelby Dyer, Sean Omandam, Caitlin Valentine-Ellis, and Sharon Wehner, were also in this production. All of these dancers imbued their movements with a searing intensity that was absolutely startling. It seemed that they filled their performance with a sense of irrevocability, so that if anyone got in their way, the dancers would simply run them down. I could not help but notice that during this performance, the audience never made a sound, so rapt was their attention.

The third work on the program was entitled The Last Beat, and it was choreographed by the Colorado Ballet’s own Sandra Brown. She has vast dancing experience, and a great deal of choreography experience. For the American Ballet Theater, she choreographed her own ballet, Synchronicity, and she has assisted in choreographing The Nutcracker, Coppélia, Swan Lake, and she was chosen by Mikhail Baryshnikov to choreograph for the American Ballet Theater Choreographic Workshop. And, as all you readers know in 2006 she joined her husband, Gil Boggs, to work with the Colorado Ballet as a Ballet Mistress.

Her ballet, The Last Beat, is, as the program notes state, “Dedicated to those who are serving our country and for those who are waiting for them to come home.” One has the distinct feeling that the title of Brown’s ballet refers to the last beat of a dying soldier’s heart, rather than have anything to do with the inherent rhythm of the ballet. The music that she chose for her work was by DeVotchKa. DeVotchKa is, of course, a four-piece multi-instrumental and vocal ensemble. They take their name from the Russian word meaning “girl”. Based in Denver, Colorado, the quartet is made up of Nick Urata, who sings and plays theremin, guitar, bouzouki, piano, and trumpet; Tom Hagerman, who plays violin, accordion, and piano; Jeanie Schroder, who sings and plays sousaphone, double bass, and flute; and Shawn King, who plays percussion and trumpet.

The male dancers were dressed in camouflage, while the female dancers wore translucent skirts with an underskirt of a different color. There were five movements to this work, which sometimes used different dancers in each movement. Appearing for the first time Friday evening were Maria Mosina, Domenico Luciano, Kevin Wilson, Tracy Jones, Francisco Estevez, Kevin Gaël Thomas, Morgan Buchanan, and Lesley Allred. I apologize if I have left out anyone’s name, but this ballet required a very large cast, all of whom appeared together in the last movement. The name of the first movement was The Alley; movement two, All the Sand in the Sea; movement three, How It Ends; the fourth movement, Exhaustible; and movement five, The Last Beat of My Heart.

I was again taken by surprise at the drama and emotion that every dancer onstage communicated to the audience. For sheer impact, Maria Mosina, Domenico Luciano, and Asuka Sasaki were startling. But you must understand that the Colorado Ballet, as I have said so many times before, has such incredible depth that it is very difficult to say one is better than the other. However, Friday evening, in this ballet, it was Mosina, Luciano, and Sasaki who made me take notice. They were fluid, dramatic, and yet very graceful in their drama.

The one thing that I question about The Last Beat was the choice of music. Clearly, a choreographer chooses music to work with because of its rhythmic element, and because it must suggest something specific to the choreographer. Keep in mind that quite often music used by a choreographer has not necessarily been written for use in a ballet unless it was specifically commissioned for that purpose. The music by DeVotchKa made use of Nick Urata’s singing, and I found myself wondering if it was the text that helped Sandra Brown’s choice in using DeVotchKa. I, for one, could not understand anything that was being sung except for scattered words and phrases here and there. Therefore, the text of the song had no meaning for me. The rest of the music used, perhaps, three or four chords, which lent itself to a kind of minimalist feel, but did not carry the subtleties and complexities found in the music of Phillip Glass or Arvo Pärt. Certainly, there was a steady beat and constant rhythmic pattern. And, certainly, the dancers onstage had no difficulty following that beat. The choreography in this ballet was so excellent and imaginative, that I was left wondering about the choice of music.

The Colorado Ballet once more demonstrated that they are one of the best ballet companies in the United States. Their depth, their excellence, and the inherent art in everything they do are remarkable. Their dedication shows, and the audience reaps the rewards.

Depth, Excellence, Emotion: The Colorado Ballet

On Friday night, September 10th, I attended the opening performance of the Colorado Ballet’s 50th Anniversary Season. In the last couple of years, the Colorado Ballet has attracted a great deal of attention, particularly because they just keep getting better and better. I must tell you that the opening performance Friday night can be summarized with two words: excellence and emotion. I hasten to point out that those two words apply to every single dancer who was onstage in this performance, and to the onstage musicians led by the Colorado Ballet Associate Conductor, Catherine Sailer. It also contained a world première. But let us delve into one thing at a time. 

This opening performance of their 50th Season was dedicated to the cofounders of the Colorado ballet, Lillian Covillo and Friedann Parker. As Artistic Director, Gil Boggs, pointed out this splendid ballet company would not be in existence had it not been for the vision of these two individuals. This 50th season also marks the appointment of the new Executive Director of the Colorado Ballet,  Ms. Marie Belew Wheatley. Wheatley is being hired after a 10-month restructuring effort at the Colorado Ballet, led by the Board of Trustees. She was selected primarily because of her proven successes in fund raising and turnaround efforts and her extensive management experience, all skills the Board of Trustees sought throughout their search. 

Along with an established executive record, Wheatley also has an affinity for the arts, having served on the boards of the Junior Symphony Guild, Opera Colorado Guild and the Denver Art Museum’s Alliance of Contemporary Art. 

“Her executive style along with her deep appreciation for the arts will serve Colorado Ballet in many ways,” said Colorado Ballet Artistic Director Gil Boggs. “She has an unflappable senior executive presence, a calm and wise approach to balancing challenges and the ability to strongly collaborate. I look forward to working with her.” 

I can guess, with a great deal of accuracy, that Ms. Wheatley is looking forward to working with Gil Boggs. In the last few years since he has been the Artistic Director, he has put together a company that is amazing in the consistency of its excellence. And judging by the performances they have given, including this particular opening performance, the entire company is consistent in the excitement caused by their ability to work together to produce such fine artistic programs. 

Friday’s program consisted of three separate ballets. The first, entitled “Feast of the Gods,” was performed in 2009, and returned to the stage in this Anniversary Triple Bill. Choreographed by Edwaard Liang, “Feast of the Gods” was inspired by the history of a band of traveling gypsies. The ballet is set to Italian composer Ottorino Respighi’s Ancient Aires and Dances, and features intricate choreography and a fast-paced pas de deux. Respighi (1879-1936) was not only a composer, he was also a musicologist and linguist. Ancient Airs And Dances was a result of his enthusiasm (there is that word again) over 16th – 18th century Italian music, perhaps fathered by a long bicycle trip that he took around the Italian peninsula as a young man. As a matter of fact, many of his compositions could be classified as neo-Baroque or, in some cases neo-Renaissance. 

I do not think I have ever seen a ballet performance where the choreography was so remarkably fast-paced. It was not just the pas de deux. All of the dancers on stage had difficult and very rapid changes of position which were constant throughout the performance. And I would like to point out something that is very unusual in other ballet companies that I have seen. Chandra Kuykendall was a soloist Friday, and is listed as a principal dancer in the program (and yes, there are new photographs of the entire company in the program). She and Travis Morrison were the soloists in this opening ballet. Travis Morrison is listed in the program as a member of the corps de ballet. Now, readers, that says something about this company. That the members of the Corps can dance with the principles on an equal footing (please excuse the pun) is something that you don’t see in other companies. That speaks volumes to the work that the dancers have done, and it also speaks volumes to the ability of Gil Boggs in assembling a ballet company where virtually everybody in the company has the capacity to give an incredibly artistic performance. And it also speaks volumes in the trust that each member of the company has in each other. When I say trust, I am talking about trust in each other’s artistic integrity. Sayaka Karasugi and Luis Valdes; Dana Benton and Christopher Ellis; Asuka Sasaki and Adam Still were the other performers Friday night. It is frustrating that in the last few years, I have not been able to pick a favorite performer from this company. I have seen ballets in New York, and Chicago, St. Louis, and at the Jacobs School of Music in Bloomington, Indiana, where I did my undergraduate work. In these locations, and in these companies, there were always dancers who were clearly superior to the others: favorites were easy. This is simply not the case in the Colorado Ballet where everyone is so equal. I can promise you that this is the result of some incredibly hard work and love of the art. It is my understanding that the choreographer, Edwaard Liang, was in attendance Friday night. I regret that I was not able to meet him. In 2002, Liang was invited by Jiri Kylian to join the acclaimed Nederlands Dans Theater. While dancing with Nederlands Dans Theater, Liang discovered his passion for choreography and since then, has gone on to establish himself as a freelance choreographer. Over the last eight years, Liang has created works for companies around the world and his choreography is noted to be distinct and highly imaginative with intricate techniques and sequences. 

The second ballet Friday night was entitled “… smile with my heart.” This was choreographed by Lar Lubovitch. Known throughout the world for his rhapsodic style and his technical structure and choreography, Lubovitch’s work is also recognized for its modern-dance undertones. Lubovitch was educated at The Julliard School by Antony Tudor and many other top dance professionals of the time, and became one of the most popular, versatile, and widely viewed choreographers in the United States. 

The music for this second ballet of the evening was based on a “Fantasie on Themes by Richard Rodgers.” This Fantasie was done by Marvin Laird. I hasten to point out that it was originally done for Sandra Brown when she was a soloist with the American ballet Theatre. Of course, Sandra Brown is one of the two excellent Ballet Mistresses with the Colorado Ballet. There were four movements to this second ballet: 1) “Do I hear a waltz?” and “It might as well be Spring,” 2) “The Sweetest Sounds,” 3) ” I Didn’t Know What Time It Was” and “Where Or When,” and, 4) “My Funny Valentine.” 

If anyone doubts how the music of Richard Rodgers could be used for a ballet, then I stress that those doubts would have been assuaged by simply seeing this performance. It was absolutely wonderful. The dancers were Maria Mosina, Sayaka Karasugi, Sharon Wehner, Jesse Marks, Dmitry Trubchanov, and Igor Vassine. Surely, all of you ballet goers must remember that it was Maria Mosina who brought tears to everyone’s eyes last year in the devastatingly emotional “Echoing of Trumpets.” But of course, you simply have to understand, that everyone in this company is capable of doing just that. All four parts of this second ballet were outstanding. Of the four parts, “The Sweetest Sounds,” truly caught my attention because it was, by comparison, so Art Deco in its choreography. The third movement of this second ballet, was incredibly sad in contrast to the fourth movement, which was an absolute triumph. 

This ballet was accompanied by a live on stage chamber group led by Catherine Sailer, the Associate Conductor of the Colorado Ballet. Ms. Sailer, who conducted from the piano bench, led the chamber ensemble of cello, Jeffrey Watson, Cedra Kuehn, and Evan Orman; flute, Paul Nagem; and oboe, Kathryn Dupuy Cooper. It has long been known that Sailer is an accomplished conductor, but it may come as a surprise to some that she is also such a fine pianist. She simply must do some solo piano work. It would be wonderful to hear. 

The third, and final, ballet of the evening was entitled “The Faraway.” Choreographed by Matthew Neenan, it was inspired by Georgia O’Keeffe’s life and work, wherein she described the land of northern New Mexico as the “far away.” Neenan is currently the choreographer-in-residence at the Pennsylvania Ballet, and this new work is a much anticipated world premiere, created specifically to end the Anniversary Triple Bill. Neenan’s choreography is recognized as a fresh, imaginative, and stylish twist to classical ballet, as well as technically challenging and full of life. 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. There were other compositions as well, but I am chagrined to admit that I could not name them. 

The dancers in this final ballet came from the entire company, and included Dmitry Trubchanov, Sharon Wehner, Jesse Marks , Dana Benton , Kevin Gael Thomas, Sean Omandam, Adam Still, Cara Cooper, Shelby Dyer, Christopher Ellis, Luis Valdes, Rylan Schwab, Casey Dalton, Asuka Sasaki, and Caitlin Valentine-Ellis. Every one of these individuals is a consummate artist and performer. Please do not think that the order in which they are named indicates their level of skill. There are so many companies in the United States that would appreciate having them in their roster. 

The three ballets performed this Friday night were performed with excellence and with great confidence by the entire company. The trust that every single dancer had in each other was marked. There were no errors that I could catch. There was nothing but fluidity and consummate artistry on behalf of everyone involved. The performance was exciting, breathtaking, and demonstrative of the commitment on the part of the dancers and the leadership of this ballet company. Their artistry is so great that calling them mere dancers seems inane. 

I encourage and challenge anyone who has doubts that ballet can be a totally aesthetic reward to come to a performance of the Colorado Ballet.