Stars of American Ballet, directed by New York City Ballet principal Daniel Ulbricht, gathers assemblages of performers (mostly NYCB colleagues) to tour extensively, “to one day see all parts of this country entertained, educated, lifted up and inspired by the art of ballet and great dancing.” The Ogden Symphony Ballet Associated presented the group, just returned from a tour to Cuba this past week, to a somewhat sparse but enthusiastic audience at Weber State University’s Val A. Browning Center.
It’s a treat to see some of the current big names in ballet here in Utah, as local presenters often bring in acclaimed modern dance companies, or even smaller contemporary ballet companies, but rarely full-swing classical ballet. NYCB soloists Unity Phelan and Indiana Woodward were performing, as well as mainstay principal Ask la Cour.
As expected, Balanchine was well-represented on the program, with a couple of unknowns sprinkled in (and, unavoidably, a gala circuit favorite, the Kitri/Basilio pas de deux from Don Quixote).
I was looking forward to seeing Ulbricht’s band of dancers, having read about past engagements of theirs at Jacob’s Pillow, at which they recently presented a program of Jerome Robbins ballets in celebration of the choreographer’s centennial.
While such a program is likely (and regrettably) not viable to Utah presenters, I hoped, going in, that the more conservative, almost introductory, program would still allow its cast to shine - as brightly as on their larger home stage in the D*v*d H. K*ch Theater (thank you to soon-to-be-retiring NY Times chief dance critic Alastair Macaulay for that clever editing).
Though not without its dazzling moments, the evening did not shine as brightly as anticipated.
Balanchine’s firecracker pas de deux Tarantella opened the show. NYCB soloist Erica Pereira was the embodiment of a Balanchine ballerina, exhibiting the necessary crisp footwork, sharp focus, and expansive port de bras, with extra energy emanating from her fingers. Pereira was at home in the sassy, more traditionally performative choreography, as well as in the Balanchinian quirks of the pas de deux, such as in a sequence of échappés and second position pliés on pointe in a forced arch.
Ulbricht spun like a top and flew with bravura in his jumping sequences, yet somehow lacked the luster to vie with Pereira's sunnier approach. His performance quality often appears subtle, or at least casual - that is, when he is not doing tricks - and this approach may be better suited to solo work. (Ulbricht has previously performed excellent solos at Ballet West’s Youth America Grand Prix galas.) In this performance, it felt like he was withholding the exuberance necessary to carry a dance such as Tarantella.
Phelan and la Cour were the standout couple of the evening, in the sparkling pas de deux from Balanchine’s Diamonds. With the appropriate regal air, their extensions and port de bras flowed liquidly between crystalline moments of stillness, la Cour’s supple, almost prowling, walks providing a panther-like connection between partnered pirouettes and promenades.
Phelan possesses the enchanting ability to conceal her flexibility, except when she settles effortlessly into a perfect penché or a soaring extension; thus, each comes as yet another delightful revelation. While also delightful in most moments in between, Phelan still appeared withholding - as though she and la Cour were aware of the diminished size, and perhaps experience, of this audience versus at home.
Being shown only the pas de deux from Diamonds left me hungering to see the corps de ballet enter in its grand mass - luckily, Ballet West is presenting the full trio of Jewels (reviewed on this blog here) at the Capitol Theatre through next weekend.
The world premiere of Rouge Lullaby featured Utah native and NYCB corps member Baily Jones alongside the pas de deux’s choreographer, fellow corps member Alec Knight. The two were unsurprisingly clad in red unitards, which, oddly, closely resembled those worn for Ulysses Dove’s Red Angels (were they actually those costumes, borrowed for this occasion?).
Rouge Lullaby contained all the quintessential ingredients of a modern ballet - overextended arms, hip thrusts, flexed hands, accompanied by strident tones (here, a score by Bartók). Jones was a clear and compelling performer, buoying Knight’s satisfyingly kinesthetic yet, at times, imitative choreography. A more complicated, exciting version of a fish dive was a fresh surprise, but the two didn’t seem to have a good escape plan, which took away from the lift’s initial effect.
A quick Google didn’t turn up anything further on Knight’s choreographic pursuits, but it seems a reasonable progression for either Ulbricht or NYCB, in the form of the company’s Choreographic Institute, to further incubate Knight’s confident voice, honing its distinction within the aesthetic tradition of the company.
(I did learn that Knight is the first Australian male dancer to receive a NYCB contract, that he has modeled for Dolce & Gabbana, and was featured on Teen Vogue’s 2014 video series, Strictly Ballet, the second season of which is available for viewing here.)
At this point in the program, intermission was still two dances away, and I wish those described thus far could have been lengthened and the next two omitted. The Don Q pas de deux began on a good note, Houston Ballet’s Connor Walsh and Allison Miller portraying Basilio and Kitri. Both displayed a clean, refined technique, more gathered than their City Ballet cohort, but Miller began to waver as the opening progressed into her variation and then into the coda.
It feels unnecessarily harsh to assess the pas de deux based solely on the success of balances and fouettés, but the success of the pas as a whole is dependent on these, coupled with the bravado of the performers, which also felt less than in this performance (though Walsh’s jumps were consistently and gratifyingly effortless and soaring). The inclusion of a mediocre Don Q lent to the program’s introductory feel, as any ballet-going audience has a high bar for such a familiar number (though presumably I was in the minority here, as that did not seem to be the audience makeup, or similarly the programming’s intent, for this performance).
Immediately preceding intermission was a brief, jazzy number choreographed and performed by Ulbricht, who was joined by musical theater performer Danielle Diniz (I learned later that the two are dating, and have another collaborative duet that is also in the Stars of American Ballet rotation). Set to Benny Goodman’s “Sing, Sing, Sing,” and employing tropes of swing dance and elements of Fosse, it was a number that could have worked as a crowd pleaser (not to say the crowd here didn’t enjoy it), but it fell a little short as just a duet, again with diverging energies, Diniz’s enthusiasm unmatched by Ulbricht’s nonchalance.
Yet, at the same time, Ulbricht seemed more at home in the movement (which, as it was his invention, is logical) - as though it were really Ulbricht’s world that Diniz, and before Diniz, Pereira, were temporarily inhabiting, with their more unbridled approach.
A 30-minute portion of Balanchine’s Who Cares? was the entire second act, and the continuity was a reprieve from the choppier first half. Five of the group’s NYCB dancers (Pereira, Ulbricht, Phelan, la Cour, and Indiana Woodward) romped through a selection of the ballet’s original twelve well-known Gershwin standards. There appeared a coalescence as the colleagues supported each other in a style, and in a ballet, that must feel like home to them. And finally, Ulbricht’s approach did not feel at odds with the others’.
Phelan and la Cour’s beginning pas de deux emphasized Phelan’s awareness of and engagement with her backspace, her supple port de bras always going beyond and behind herself yet remaining well within her command.
Woodward dashed off a breezy series of brisé volé, capturing her levity, but soon afterward, her pointe shoes looked oddly clunky as she appeared not to extend her feet in further jumping sequences. I later re-watched videos of Woodward to assure myself this was not usual for her, and indeed it is not. It was an unfortunate anomaly amidst an otherwise polished performance, as she toyed charmingly with the syncopation of Gershwin’s music, long ponytail streaming in her wake.
Ulbricht then had a solo in which I saw his strengths (and not tricks, in this case) finally realized: a playfulness that seemed to not reach its peak previously appeared here in full force. In this solo, it was clear that his build serves him in his pursuit of musical bending - he is able to draw movement in just as quickly as he can send it out.
La Cour then joined Ulbricht’s solo for a brief yet memorable duet. This was a surprising pairing, as the two could not be more different: la Cour is nearly 6’4”, according to Playbill.com, grew up in the Danish school, and, unusually for a NYCB dancer, is not trained at the School of American Ballet, having joined the NYCB corps straight from the Royal Danish Ballet (family connections are the likely explanation here, as Ask’s mother’s first husband was former ballet master in chief Peter Martins); Ulbricht, compact rather than rangy, did take the traditional route, going through SAB to join the company as an apprentice and rose up the ranks from there.
Despite these differences, Ulbricht and la Cour engaged in a sportive yet calmly casual duet that somehow spoke to both of their strengths simultaneously, and cohesively. This duet was the true embodiment of what I think the whole program aims to do on a larger scale - bring dancers of multiple backgrounds together to enjoy themselves and impart to others the joy found in ballet in all its numerous identities. Whether or not this was always successful may be irrelevant, as all these stars of American ballet made it to Ogden, Utah, to a cheering crowd nonetheless.
Amy Falls coordinates and edits loveDANCEmore’s online journal. She studied ballet at the North Carolina School of the Arts and has a BFA in modern dance from the University of Utah.