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Charming Ballet in a Cozy Venue: Christopher Caines' SPIRITS

by Tonya Plank
June 21, 2008
Jazz at Lincoln Center
33 West 60 Street, Floor 11
New York, NY 10023
(212) 258-9800
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www.christophercainesdance.org

The Christopher Caines Dance Company wears Gaynor Minden pointe shoes.
Over the weekend, the small ballet company, Christopher Caines Dance Company, premiered a charming program in a small, intimate venue, the Rose Hall in Jazz At Lincoln Center, in the Time Warner building. The room was small and without a stage; rather spectators sat at cocktail tables and chairs spread throughout one side of the room. The floor was polished hardwood, which seemed more suitable for ballroom or social dancing on hard-soled shoes than ballet. When the dancing began, much of which was on pointe, I thought the space was far too intimate; the dancers far too close. I've seen Flamenco in such venues, but it's been said that the magic of ballet – the ballerina dancing on her toe, turning endless pirouettes seemingly on her own, the apparently effortless lifts – only works when the audience is sufficiently far from the dancers. But by the end of the program, I felt the opposite; I was fascinated by the pointe work — the way the dancers walked on the balls of their feet, the difference in the curvature of the foot between demi and full pointe — and by the strength and grace of the dancers, their muscularity, the athleticism needed for difficult jumps and lifts. I felt closer to ballet than ever before and I had a new appreciation for it.

The 70-minute ballet's title, SPIRITS, operated on two levels. On one hand, it evoked the spirit world, as Mr. Caines, the company's artistic director and choreographer, created the dance as a tribute to his close friend and former mezzo soprano with the company, Alexandra Montano, who passed away last year. During two of the sections, "Water of Life" and "Water and Salt", ballerina Michelle Vargo, seemed to epitomize the transformation of a beautiful young woman in her prime into a near ghostly body making its ascent to the spirit world. The title also more literally suggests a series of toasts to Ms. Montano, in this sense "spirits" meaning liquor.

The ballet got off to a bit of a slow start with the first section, or "toast," named "Slivovice," in which four dancers, two men and two women, performed some basic partnering and solo work to Bohuslav Martinu's light, classical "Three Madrigals." The women were dressed in playful blue skirted bikinis, somewhat reminiscent of the ballet Le Corsaire. I found the most charismatic dancer to be Gisella Quinteros. She somehow looked grounded even while on pointe, and it was this intriguingly dichotomous quality to her dancing, along with her poses being so well-formed, that made me unable to take my eyes off her.

Things sped up considerably with the second toast, "Water of Life" in which the spellbinding Michelle Vargo danced with several men, at times being partnered by them, at times dancing solo. She wore a deep red wine-colored dress and her movement was alive and quick. But her sorrowful facial expressions seemed to forecast what was to come. As the men lifted her, at points one at a time, at times all at once, it seemed like she was being carted off to another place against her will. At the end of this section, she ran off, her dress torn as if she was drunk on earthly delights. I think I would have preferred her to have been a bit more happy and gregarious in this early section, maybe with a throwing-caution-to-the-wind air, especially in dancing with the men, to show a contrast with her later section, where she is frail and on the verge of passing into another world. She is a beautiful dancer, though, her pointe work sharp and clear.

The third section, "Cognac," was more lively, having a spirited French countryside feel to it. Four dancers dressed in shiny bronzes and yellows, evocative of both champagne and moonlight, danced quick-footed, mercurial, almost impishly, to several allegro 19th Century songs by Gabriel Faure, including the famous Claire de Lune, sung by a small, very good, chamber orchestra. This section, the lightest and most carefree, almost made you feel a bit tipsy at its end, like, as Pierrot Lunaire, the moonlight had had an ecstatic, slightly surreal effect.

The fourth toast was "Absinthe," the most comical of the "spirits." Here Jamy Hsu and Justin Wingenroth, dressed in bright greens, really captivated with their comical abilities. Hsu in particular was hilarious in her control; she clearly had the upper hand, as she kept holding up different numbers of fingers, indicating she was calling all the numbers, all the shots, and as Wingenroth seemed intent on catching up with or emulating her (at one point another dancer handed Wingenroth a short skirt, so he could imitate her to his fullest). Later, they performed acrobatics over each other, dancing each other into a cutely funny tizzy of exhaustion.

This was followed by "Water and Salt," set to Meredith Monk music, which was the most poignant of the "spirits." Vargo returned to the stage dressed now in a flimsy white nightgown, as if it was the eve not only of her youth but of her life, and she danced beautifully, poetically on pointe. She was accompanied by an older couple and a pair of young children, each duo not interacting with her, but dancing aside her, as to evoke the circle of life. The ensemble soon returned and danced around her and with her, as she became weaker and weaker, eventually resembling a small, weak dove. She finally collapses and is raised by several men and carried off.

The final section was "Champagne," and featured nearly all of the dancers waltzing around the room, in cheerful golden costumes, the floor now serving as a ballroom, though some female dancers were still on pointe. Along with their fluid waltzing, they performed breathtaking lifts as they whirled along in the group oval, making you really want to get up and dance along with them. Mr. Caines's lovely tribute to Ms. Montano ended on a very uplifting, celebratory note.
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