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.

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.