New Jersey Ballet offers night of crowd-pleasers at gala benefit

NJ Ballet performers Leonid Flegmatov dance in "Saturday Night."

New Jersey Ballet performers Leonid Flegmatov dance in “Saturday Night,” which was part of the company’s April 9 gala at NJPAC.

New Jersey Ballet took the safe route in programming its gala benefit this year. The celebratory evening, held April 9 at Prudential Hall at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center in Newark, featured a buffet of easy-to-digest dances with many set to popular tunes. The audience could relax listening to music by the likes of Etta James, Ella Fitzgerald and The Persuasions, with a just a soupçon of Jules Massenet thrown in.

Such “theme” evenings often lack variety, but the choreographers on this particular mixed bill appeared stylistically distinct. Both Ginger Thatcher and Johan Renvall balleticized their pieces “Saturday Night” and “Tango,” while Margo Sappington revealed her familiarity with musical theater dance in the comic “For Ella” and Robert North adapted his contemporary idiom in the rambunctious “Let’s Go South.” The outlier was Vladimir Salimbaev’s “Meditation,” a neo-Romantic duet set to the intermezzo from “Thaïs.”

On a program like this one, hardly any number lasts longer than it takes to sing a song. This reduces the risk of boredom, and also allows a company to showcase all of its dancers.

In “Saturday Night,” the cast passes effortlessly through the many moods of romance, illustrating a man’s obsession and a woman’s loneliness and then the carefree abandon of a couple in love. Kerry Mara Cox struggles mightily to free herself from Andrew Notarile in “Love Blues,” while Mari Sugawa crosses her wrists mysteriously and caresses her face in “Loving Arms.” In the opening number, “I Ain’t Got No Women,” Andre Luis Teixeira epitomizes this choreographer’s neoclassical approach with an “entrechat” followed by a shimmy. Later, he brings smooth elegance to his solo “Anybody Seen My Girl?”

Risa Mochuzuki, Iori Araya and Nahoko Nakamoto, in "For Ella."

Risa Mochuzuki, Iori Araya and Nahoko Nakamoto, in “For Ella.”

Choreographer Sappington whips up a froth in “For Ella,” as Gabriella Noa minces her way through “Tisket a Tasket,” lamenting the theft of her little yellow basket, which grows alarmingly each time it reappears. Ilse Kapteyn and Narek Martirosyan slink through the ticklish tango “Hernando’s Hideaway.” Noa returns, veiled, to intrigue Albert Davydov in “Tunisia,” and three “B” for “Bebop” boys deliver the goods in “Air Mail Special.”

It requires some effort to take Renvall’s “Tango” ballet seriously after the hijinks at “Hernando’s.” Yet the cast smolders on, with the women dipped and flung or dropped into lunges. While the tango can be tender, it can also be brutal and scornful: One woman proudly shoves her partner away by planting her foot on his chest, while a man snaps his fingers to summon his date. Caresses and insinuations soon turn acrobatic and Ruben Rascon stands out in a high-flying solo, while Kotoe Kojima-Noa and Risa Mochizuki swish and preen.

Evidently nothing says “orgasm” to some people like the intermezzo from “Thaïs.” Ecstasy followed by transports seguing into rapture describes the trajectory of Salimbaev’s “Meditation,” which begins and ends with Leonid Flegmatov pinned between Mari Sugawa’s legs.

Fortunately, these character don’t actually lose consciousness, or they would never survive the moment when Flegmatov pulls Sugawa from the floor into an overhead lift — one of several heroic moves that suggest these lovers have reached the longed-for heights of passion.

“Let’s Go South” brings the dancers back to earth again for a vivacious romp. Showing off to the tune of a honky-tonk piano, socking it to a loved one in a slapstick duet and scampering in an antic ensemble, the company rushes through one skit after another, knees lifted and heads cocked wryly. It’s all harmless fun.


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