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.

The Colorado Ballet pushes us with 3(e)motions

This is going to be a very enjoyable review to write. Enjoyable, because of the remarkable performance given on opening night by the Colorado Ballet Friday, March 19. Three ballets were performed, each lasting roughly 20 minutes to a half hour with an intermission between each one. The first was the World Premiere of a new work choreographed by Brian Reeder entitled “Eventually”. The music is by Michael Gandolfi.

Commissioned by Colorado Ballet specifically for this production, Eventually, choreographer Brian Reeder is clever and humorous, and while he has choreographed a variety of ballets, Reeder’s newest ballet follows en suite with Reeder’s persona. Described as a light-hearted and witty ballet, Eventually chronicles an elderly man making his way across the stage, through the hustle and bustle of everyday life. Throughout his journey, the gentleman is caught in the midst of four couples constantly moving around the stage exuding energy that juxtaposes the central character’s journey.

Brian Reeder was born in Sunbury, Pennsylvania and began his dance training with Marcia Dale Weary at the Central Pennsylvania Youth Ballet. After attending American Ballet Theatre’s Summer Program, he studied at the School of American Ballet. Before joining American Ballet Theatre (1994-2003), Mr. Reeder performed as a soloist with William Forsythe’s Ballet Frankfurt (1990 -1993) and also danced with New York City Ballet (1986 -1990). He is currently on staff at American Ballet Theater’s Summer Intensives in New York City and the Coordinating Director of the ABT International Summer Dance Intensive in Bermuda (2006 – 2008.) Mr. Reeder has been a guest teacher at the Alvin Ailey School, School at STEPS, Studio Maestro, Orange County High School of the Arts, Newark Arts High School and the Icelandic National Ballet Company and School.

Michael Gandolfi entered the Berklee College of Music before transferring to the New England Conservatory of Music after one year. He went on to receive both his Bachelors and Masters degrees from NEC, where he is now the chair of the composition department. In 1986 he was a fellow of the Tanglewood Music Center; there he studied with Leonard Bernstein and Oliver Knussen. He has served on the faculty of Harvard University, Indiana University, and the Phillips Academy at Andover; since 1997 he has been the coordinator for the Tanglewood Music Center’s composition department. He has been championed by conductor Robert Spano as one of the “Atlanta School” of American composers, a group that also includes colleagues Osvaldo Golijov, Jennifer Higdon, and Christopher Theofanidis.

As this ballet opens, one can immediately see two things: an elderly man with a cane portrayed by Christopher Moulton, and on the other side of the stage is a mailbox. The elderly man’s wife, portrayed by Christina Schifano, hands him a letter to mail, and thus begins his journey from one side of the stage to the other; a journey which takes the length of the entire ballet. On this journey he is surrounded by the humdrum of everyday life, and his journey gives the audience a warm and humorous view of the comparison between the young and old and those who are fast and slow. Halfway across the stage, he becomes tired. He snaps his finger and a wonderful porch swing, its suspension cables covered with vines and flowers descends from the ceiling of the stage. He takes his seat and amuses himself by watching the hustle and bustle around him, and seems to be amazed at the thought that he was once as young as those he watches. The music has three sections; fast, slow, and fast. It is during the slow section that he is seated on the swing, and four couples take turns performing a pas de deux as he sits and watches them, eventually nodding off. The four couples were danced by Dana Benton, Andrew Skeels; Sharon Wehner, Adam Still; Caitlin Valentine, Sean Omandam; Shelby Dyer, Luis Valdes. And every one of these eight dancers exhibited a youthful exuberance and happy warmth in knowing that they were in their youth. And I must say, that it was extremely pleasurable watching eight young dancers who have very clearly worked very hard to perfect their art. I also could not escape the feeling of gratitude that Gil Boggs, the Artistic Director of the Colorado Ballet, has the creative imagination to commission Brian Reeder. I will not divulge how the ballet ends, but I promise you that it is a surprise, but yet charming.

After the first intermission, the Company performed for the first time in Denver, the ballet “Echoing of Trumpets.” This is a ballet choreographed by Anthony Tudor, with music by the Czech composer Bohuslav Martinu. The Colorado Ballet had the benefit of Mr. Donald Mahler who served as Repetiteur ( a “Repetiteur” is a coach for the dancers). Mr. Mahler has danced several leading roles in Antony Tudor’s ballets. In fact, he was trained at the Metropolitan Opera Ballet School by Antony Tudor. Tudor himself, is one of the outstanding choreographers of the 20th century. Born in London, in 1908, he began dancing professionally with the Ballet Rambert where he created many of his early ballets. He choreographed and created the Echoing of Trumpets in 1963 for the Royal Swedish Ballet.

The composer, Bohuslav Martinu, was born in Bohemia, and eventually became a violinist with the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra. He began studying composition at the Prague Conservatory, but he became dissatisfied with the styles of music that he was being taught, and was eventually dismissed for being a “lazy student.” He traveled to Paris, but had to flee the German invasion of France, and he therefore immigrated to the United States. He was a prolific composer, and among his huge output are 14 ballet scores.

This ballet has to be one of the most moving and tragic performances I have ever seen from any ballet. It is set during the World War II Nazi occupation. This powerful ballet memorializes the Czechoslovakian village of Lidice, which was completely destroyed in 1942, by Nazi forces. Echoing of Trumpets explores man’s inhumanity as he grieves for lost lives in an upturned world. Tudor expertly evokes the emotional turmoil of the people of a war-ravaged land caused by occupying soldiers.

The story centers on a woman, danced by Maria Mosina, and her husband, danced by Viacheslav Buchkovskiy. The occupying troops torment and harass the residents of the village. There is a Young Girl danced by Sharon Wehner: a Tough Girl danced by Janelle Cooke. There are women of the village who are danced Shelby Dyer, Asuka Sasaki, and Evelyn Turner. The Army captain is danced by Alexei Tyukov. All of these dancers were certainly very affected by the roles that they were dancing. I can promise you that they didn’t “just” dance. Every single one of them is a superb actor, and I am absolutely convinced that every single one of them could portray any character you choose. They were able to project total fear and despair at their surroundings, knowing that at any moment their lives could come to an end. The women of the village danced often stooped over, with their arms in second position, and exuded a palpable air of being browbeaten and totally subjugated in every single respect. But it was Maria Mosina who gave a truly remarkable performance. She was chilling and entirely convincing as she portrays the devastation of watching her husband killed. She goes to her husband’s body and pulls him into a sitting position, hoping that if she does that, he will come back to life. It does not work. She then pulls on his arms, as if to try to move him away from the hell that has engulfed them, so that he will have a better place to come back to life. And that does not work either. Her character then becomes an empty and hollow shell. Maria Mosina is such a fine dancer and such a fine actor, that you can almost read her mind in this role. Everyone on stage reacted to her acting. And so did everyone in the audience.

I admire the Colorado Ballet for programming such a devastating work and presenting it in such an incredibly artistic manner. Gil Boggs and the Ballet Mistresses, Sandra Brown, and Lorita Travaglia are masterful at what they do, and so is Donald Mahler.

After the second intermission, the ballet company performed “Celts.” Celts is a wonderful, cheerful, and energetic ballet based on traditional Irish music. It was choreographed by Lila York who danced with the Paul Taylor Dance Company. She has choreographed ballets for companies all over the United States and Great Britain. I was astonished at the demands that she places on the dancers. There was constant and incredibly vigorous movement all the time without a let up, and let me assure you this was not any kind of a cheesy reprise of Riverdance. This is a wonderful and artistic ballet that exhibits far more than athleticism. Adam Still, Sayaka Karasugi, Janelle Cooke, Igor Vassine, Johnstuart Winchell, Sean Omandam, and Cara Cooper absolutely shone in this third ballet of the evening.

Every time I see the Colorado Ballet perform I think that I have seen them at their best, but each performance is always better than the last. They always surprise and they never disappoint. Under the leadership of Gil Boggs the Colorado Ballet is doing remarkable things. All of you who attend their performances should go backstage afterward and tell the dancers how well they have done. It lets them know they are appreciated and this is an organization that deserves and has earned everyone’s respect and support.

An incomparable Beauty and The Beast

I truly hope that everyone who reads this will have a chance to go see the Colorado Ballet’s production of “Beauty and The Beast.” It is one of the most original productions of the ballet that I have seen for several years. It has a marvelous and modern musical score by the gifted Hong Kong composer, Seen-yee Lam, and absolutely stunning choreography by the gifted Israeli artist, Domy Reiter-Soffer.

Do not expect a traditional ballet where members of the corps de ballet stand upstage in pastel tutus in the first position while the lead dancers perform a grand Pas de deux downstage. Beauty and The Beast is a fairy tale of the first order. It is a meaty ballet of great substance. It was written by Charles Perrault in 1697. Perrault also wrote Sleeping Beauty, Puss in Boots, and Cinderella. What could I possibly mean by a fairy tale of the first order? I stress that Beauty and The Beast is not all that frightening, and I certainly think that young children should go see it. But it is darker, and certainly more emotional than any production of Beauty and The Beast that I have seen. This is because of the amazing and wonderful choreography by Domy Reiter-Soffer. And we certainly need to thank Gil Boggs, the Artistic Director of the Colorado Ballet, for inviting him to stage the choreography. The New York Times said “Domy Reiter-Soffer is particularly noted for his brilliant translation of words into movement, dealing with the very essence of the subject creating sheer theatre”. I have never seen a ballet, except for those choreographed by the late Merce Cunningham, where the dancing and intense personal expression of the dancers truly tell the story.

Domy Reiter-Soffer is a kind of modern Renaissance man, with a great range of interests and achievements which to date have included dance, drama, music and the graphic arts as well as teaching.

His production of Equus for Dance Theatre of Harlem at the Met. New York won him the Best Ballet of the Year Award from New York Daily News. Lady of the Camellias was voted Best production at the Finland festival 1990. His play Mary Makebelieve for the Abbey Theatre, Dublin was nominated as one of the Best Plays in the Dublin Theatre Festival. He has created a large repertory of successful works, among others the deeply moving Yerma for La Scala Milan and Irish National Ballet, and House of Bernarda Alba, both based on Lorca. The full length Paradise Gained about the French woman of letters Colette won him a special award for the best creation of 1991. Chariots of Fire (Phaedra), The Turn Of The Screw, the pop Time Trip Orpheus, Medea, La Mer, La Valse, Oscar (on the life of Oscar Wilde) and a multi-media production of A Time to Remember for the commemoration of the 2nd World war and the Holocaust won him great acclaim using over 300 performers on the stage. These productions have been successfully staged for American and European companies, including Dance Theatre of Harlem, The Australian Ballet, Finnish National Ballet, Pittsburg Ballet Theatre, Ohio Ballet Louisville Ballet, La Scala and Bat-Dor Dance Company with which he has created over twenty-five ballets.

For the last three years he has created three full-length works for the Hong Kong Ballet, The Emperor and The Nightingale, which toured Germany, Switzerland then closing the Salzburg Festival in Austria, with critical success, also Beauty and the Beast and the multi media production of White Snake, which is based on a Chinese legend. He also restaged his award winning ballet Lady of the Camellias with great success. He was Artistic Advisor of Irish National Ballet from 1975 to 1989.

He has created many multimedia productions using different facets of the arts, involving singers, dancers and actors. As well as dance he has directed theatre productions, plays, musicals and opera. Domy Reiter-Soffer is a serious painter with seventeen one-man shows and has exhibited at the Royal Academy of Art’s summer exhibition in London.

He has created over thirty designs for a wide range of dance and drama productions with much success. Reiter-Soffer has had a long dancing career, he has directed many plays and musicals, has been a staged rector for opera, and has designed more than 30 productions for both dance and drama at theatres including La Scala Milan, Australian Ballet, Dance Theatre of Harlem, the Carmiel Dance Festival, the Finnish National, Bat-Dor Dance Company and Hong Kong Ballet, and the Ohio Ballet.

As I mentioned above, the score for this Ballet was written by Hong Kong composer Seen-yee Lam. She is a very gifted composer who has won many awards for her film scores, her popular music scores, her television drama scores, and her scores for ballet. Beauty and The Beast was scored for orchestra and tape.

The scenery for Beauty and The Beast was designed by Ivan Cheng and the costumes were designed by Domy Reiter-Soffer.

I am quite sure that everyone is familiar with the plot of this story, so I will not dwell too much on that. From the outset, Igor Vassine, who danced Belle’s father, and Belle herself, danced by Sharon Wehner, were absolutely incredible. This also applies to Ruby and Opal, Belle’s sisters, danced by Maria Mosina, and Sayaka Karasugi respectively. I had the great good fortune of being invited to a rehearsal, and I was struck, then, by the intensity of these dancers, and I wondered if this intensity would be transmitted to the audience at the performance. It certainly was. Again, I must point out, that I have never seen such intense dancing with all of its powerful emotions in any ballet. The dance movements, even though it was classical ballet, were so descriptive that one could understand the story without ever having heard of it before. When Alexi Tyukov entered the stage as Belle’s egotistical admirer, one immediately knew his personality because of the way he danced.

Even the costumes reflected the attention to detail by Reiter-Soffer. For example, Janelle Cook, who danced two roles, that of the Sorceress, and that of the Goddess of the Forest, had, of course, two different costumes. Her costume for the Sorceress was all black except for two red slashes on the top of each long sleeve. The stage was relatively dark as she danced, but the lighting emphasized the red slashes, so that when she changed the handsome prince into the Beast, it seemed that the red slashes were producing the energy. Her dance movements emphasized the evilness of her character. When she was the Goddess of the Forest, her costume was light and airy, and that is precisely how she danced that role.

It truly seemed to me that everyone in the Colorado Ballet was totally infected by their own imagination. And after watching them at the rehearsal, it is clear that they had the highest respect for Domy Reiter-Soffer and Gil Boggs, as well as Ballet Mistresses Lorita Travaglia, and Sandra Brown. It truly seemed as if the entire company was anxious to try something new and that they found this avant-garde music and demanding choreography truly exhilarating and exciting.

One of the most poignant duets I have ever seen danced in any ballet was in the second act when Belle, the Beauty, realizes that the Beast, danced by the remarkable and expressive Dimitry Trubchanov, is not so evil after all. They danced with their hands only inches apart, but they never touched each other. It was clear that the Beast was falling in love with her, as it was equally clear that she was beginning and yearning to understand him. As I stated above, this was classical ballet, but it was like nothing I have ever seen, because the movements were so very subtly different. Domy Reiter-Soffer told me that he referred to this duet as the “No Touch Duet.”

I must also point out that the Colorado Ballet Orchestra under the direction of Maestro Adam Flatt performed superlatively. There are only three violins and three violas, two cellos, two bass, one flute, one oboe, one bassoon, one clarinet, and one French horn. They are never out of tune, and they are always exciting to listen to. Since this production was for orchestra and tape recording, I don’t know for sure if Maestro Flatt also ran the tape (really a CD). I would imagine that he had to be responsible for that, though I forgot to ask him when I spoke to him after the performance.

I might also add that I had the opportunity to speak briefly with two of the dancers after the performance; Janelle Cook and Dmitry Trubchanov. It was almost a shock because they were normal human beings without any magic whatsoever. Such was their amazing dramatic ability on stage and their tremendous gift to their art. But I must say that the entire company is that way, because once they took the floor at the rehearsal, all of them transformed themselves into magical beings.