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'S Wonderful: New Jersey Ballet swings to Gershwin with verve

by Judith Buckingham
January 12, 2008
Mayo Center for the Performing Arts
Community Theatre at Mayo Center for the Performing Arts
100 South Street
Morristown, NJ 07960
(973) 539-8008

Featured Dance Company:

New Jersey Ballet
New Jersey Ballet (office)
15 Microlab Road
Livingston, NJ 07039
973.597-9600
www.njballet.org

www.njballet.org

NJ Ballet's performance program with cast information
George Gershwin is an icon in the history of American music. His was brilliant for melding Jazz and Classical music to create a new genre that was uniquely American. On Saturday, Jan. 12, New Jersey Ballet showed a brilliance of its own when it opened its winter season in sparkling style, performing Gershwin at the Ballet at The Community Theatre in Morristown, N.J. The jazzy nostalgic performance included a revival of Balanchine's Who Cares?, and featured two premiers by up-and-coming choreographers, Alexandre Proia (Rhapsody in Blue) and Viktor Plotnikov (Porgy and Bess Suite). The all-Gershwin program also included guest musical performances by master jazz pianist, Rio Clemente, and singer Susan Speidel.

Rhapsody in Blue
George Gershwin referred to his virtuosic masterpiece, Rhapsody in Blue, as "a musical kaleidoscope of America." (from Isaac Goldberg's biography, George Gershwin: A Study in American Music (New York: Frederick Ungar Publishing Company, 1961) p. 139) Proia, a French-born former New York City Ballet (NYCB) principal, captured the colors, feeling, and movement of America's Jazz Age, splendidly, with his beautiful and inventive choreography. He considered Rhapsody one of the greatest challenges of his career. Working with the monumental piece of music led him to feel he was, "building the Chrysler Building . . . every view at every level reveals something different." (NJ Ballet program notes)

Originally commissioned in 2007 for the Mendocino Music Festival for Company C in California for two dancers, N.J. Ballet featured three men (Andres Neira, David Tamaki and Junio Teixeira) and three women (Kotoe Kojima, Gabriella Noa-Pierson, and rising star, Reku Gyulai). From the moment the audience heard Gershwin's famous clarinet glissando, the dancers captured the audience with their sweeping moves and controlled fluidity. Proia successfully incorporated a vernacular flavor into the ballet idiom. Like Gershwin's Rhapsody, he combined the symphonic classical form and jazz-filled energy that made the choreography a joy to watch - creating some interesting spaces between the partners and attractive back-of the-arm lifts. Reku Gyulai was exceptionally elegant with her high extensions and long lines.

To a lesser degree, Proia succeeded the way Jerome Robbins seamlessly interpreted Leonard Bernstein's West Side Story. Both choreographed to masterworks of American music with highly innovative dance moves, all while staying within the traditional framework of classical ballet.

Paul H. McRae's costumes harmonized perfectly with the fluid and, sometimes, explosive tone of the music. McRae was spot-on to leave the rhinestones and sequins on the costume cutting room floor to allow his young contemporary costumes to speak for themselves. The ladies were dressed in fresh orangey-pink coral with a surprise band of gray down their backs, while the men were unadorned in sleek gray fitted t-shirts and matching pants.

PORGY AND BESS SUITE
The Porgy and Bess Suite took a different turn with a wholly different shape, tempo and feeling with Plotnikov's choreography. Based on the DuBose Heyward play, Porgy, Gershwin set his only opera in 1912 Catfish Row, an African American fishing town in Charleston. It is a tale of love, tragedy, and loss, set in a troubled and drug-addled black enclave of South Carolina. The Ukrainian-born Plotnikov's intent was to create a "village that is not so different from Porgy's Catfish Row or real-life communities anywhere." Although the dancers do not necessarily portray the characters in the opera, Plotnikov captured a sense of the town, its people, and its culture through a vernacular dance style. He used energetic twisting motions for the men while the women appeared more delicate – reinforcing the control that men had over the women in that community.

Full of right angles, flexed feet, and bobbing heads, Plotnikov employed touches of character dance to interpret Gershwin's folk opera. The more romantic segments, danced by Gleidson Vasconcelos and Christina Theryoung-Neira, were danced with great power and emotion. But the highlight of the piece was the sultry pairing of sylphlike Saule Rachmedova and her partner, Valdimir Roje, who garnered applause for their searing duet to Summertime.

WHO CARES?
The night ended with George Balanchine's wonderful tribute to Gershwin with Who Cares? (1970). Each dance reflected the sophistication and charming insouciance of New York Society during Gershwin's time. Known for putting his female dancers on a pedestal, Balanchine showcased the women and their technical skills while also allowing them to express their wittier and flirtier sides. Former NYCB principal dancer, Judith Fugate, staged a wonderful condensed version of the piece. Originally choreographed for one male dancer and three women, Fugate divided the male role among three men. McRae's costumes scored, once more, by dressing each woman in a jewel tone of amethyst, gold and ruby, and suiting the men in sophisticated style with dark vests and slacks.

Mari Sugawa and Andrei Jouravlev began Who Cares? with their passionate duet in The Man I Love. I have praised Jouravlev's distinguished partnering skills before, but he added a distinctive confidence to this performance, responding with debonair charm to Gershwin's song. His polished performance included all the allure of a romantic lead in a 1930s movie. His timing and graceful deportment made him the perfect partner for the lovely and lithesome Sugawa.

Sugawa charmed, once again, in Fascinating Rhythm, skittering her way across the stage on pointe with great spontaneity, and devouring the stage with her turns. Her timing and balance were impeccable as she flew across the stage to Gershwin's brisk tempo. Sugawa was simply delightful. And Theryoung-Neira captured the audience with her handsome pirouettes in My One and Only.

The finale, I Got Rhythm, reunited the entire Who Cares? ensemble in an energy-filled performance. The dancers (Sugawa, Jouravlev, Theryoung-Neira, Sergio Amarante, Noa-Pierson and Vitaly Verterich) gave an airtight performance in this witty step-by-step fit to the score of Gershwin's nimble music. The jazzy movements and chaines-turns that never ended melded beautifully with the hummable Gershwin tune for the perfect ending. 'S Wonderful.
The finale of George Balanchine's 'Who Cares?' with New Jersey Ballet dancers Gabriella Noa-Pierson, Vitaly Verterich, Mari Sugawa, Andrei Jouravlev, Christina Theryoung-Neira and Sergio Amarante. 'Who Cares?' was staged by former NYCB principal Judith Fugate and presented by arrangement with the Balanchine Trust.

The finale of George Balanchine's "Who Cares?" with New Jersey Ballet dancers Gabriella Noa-Pierson, Vitaly Verterich, Mari Sugawa, Andrei Jouravlev, Christina Theryoung-Neira and Sergio Amarante. "Who Cares?" was staged by former NYCB principal Judith Fugate and presented by arrangement with the Balanchine Trust.

Photo © & courtesy of Joseph Schembri


New Jersey Ballet dancers Mari Sugawa and Andres Neira in Alexander Proia's new ballet, 'Rhapsody in Blue.'

New Jersey Ballet dancers Mari Sugawa and Andres Neira in Alexander Proia's new ballet, "Rhapsody in Blue."

Photo © & courtesy of Joseph Schembri

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