The majestic strains of Alexander Glazunov’s music for “Raymonda” wafted over our heads, introducing the first performance of American Repertory Ballet’s 2015-2016 season, on Friday.
We would not see the whole ballet, of course. Presenting this 19th-century spectacle in all its Russian Imperial splendor is beyond imagining for a small company like ARB. In its original form, with tons of painted scenery and hundreds of supernumeraries, “Raymonda” is a colossus that would crush the Bart Luedeke Center Theater at Rider University under its weight, cracking the foundations of surrounding buildings and sending furrows racing into Lawrenceville. A clever ballet master may distill this Tsarist grandeur, though, which choreographer Kirk Peterson does adroitly in his “Glazunov Variations,” a divertissement that brings “Raymonda” down to scale, allowing local audiences to savor the ballet’s aristocratic perfume.
Expert coaching is still required to bring it off; and clearly these dancers have had the best. The 10-member cast displayed admirable cohesion, while their confidence translated into an appetite for movement. The clarity of the dancing underscored the elegance of Peterson’s arrangement. Among other things, “Glazunov Variations” features a wonderful moment when pairs of women trade places, rushing across the space with their heads lowered as if brushing away distractions so we can focus on the prima ballerina, Samantha Gullace, posed dead center and lavishing attention on her extended foot.
Gullace’s long legs are the main event in this neo-classical showcase, yet the most intriguing aspect of her performance is the sensitivity she brings to Raymonda’s solo variation. Setting aside the brio with which the ballerina announces her arrival, sharply smacking her hands to grab our attention, Gullace reaches upward into a spotlight, losing herself in the romantic, spiritual side of her character. This Raymonda has an inner life, explaining why she remains so consistently elevated on her toes, even when tracing patterns in reverse. Among the other soloists, Nanako Yamamoto stood out with her ability to negotiate tricky steps and changes of direction, thanks to her strength and musicality.
Titled “Season Premiere,” this evening of mixed ballets also featured the revival of company director Douglas Martin’s “Ephemeral Possessions,” set to Samuel Barber’s soulful Adagio for Strings. Making a welcome return after three seasons’ absence, this not-so-ephemeral creation featured Karen Leslie Moscato and Mattia Pallozzi as the lovers who begin the piece spooning on the floor. Gradually, eight ensemble dancers join them, with the ensemble men drifting onstage last. By staggering the arrivals this way, Martin allows his choreography to build without disrupting its atmosphere of otherworldly calm; similarly, the dance’s climaxes are structural, not histrionic. The design jumps out at you when the central couple executes a lift, while on either side in flanking couples, the women sink to the floor.
Mary Barton’s ballet “Straight Up with a Twist” brought this program to its saucy conclusion. While hectic entrances and exits characterize this piece, set to rousing music by global-village composer Kaila Flexer, eventually things come into focus. Highlights include a kittenish solo for Monica Giragosian; and the “Gator” sextet in which the dancers form a flexible conga line, ducking their heads from side-to-side. Yamamoto returns here, too, a seductress vamping all the men, but especially Cameron Auble-Branigan.
ARB will repeat this program on Oct. 9 at the Hamilton Stage at the Union County Performing Arts Center in Rahway. For tickets, visit ucpac.org.
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