Daniel Ulbricht breezed into the late-August heat of North Texas on an artistic foray with his Stars of American Ballet. In a single evening of artistry and athleticism at the Eisemann Center in Richardson, Texas, he made a strong case for touring dance troupes as an essential element in today’s arts landscape.
American audiences open their pocket books for either full-lengths or gala-style formats with the recognizable battery of sparkly tutus, crowd-pleasing lifts, and fouetté turns. Stars, however, reflects the aesthetic of its neo-classical heritage and opts to deftly subvert the traditional formula. It works.
For its Texas debut, Ulbricht assembled a sophisticated palette of moods, atmospheres, styles, and stories in place of standards and reliable favorites—no Gershwin, no Tarantella, no Sleeping Beauty. He curated an array of elite artists to interpret works by master American choreographers: Balanchine, Tudor, Wheeldon, and Robbins. The selections played off one another, creating an evening program that cataloged the evolution of the modern pas de deux.
The sensual pas de deux from “Rubies,” excerpted from George Balanchine’s full-length trilogy Jewels, opened the show. Smokey, sexy, and devil-may-care in spirit, the tone is set by the music, “Capriccio for Strings” by Igor Stravinsky. One of 39 collaborations between Balanchine and Stravinsky, this interlude is a prime example of the musique dansante innate to their partnership. As fellow craftsmen, they strove to exploit the brio of ballet’s pointe work, while expanding the definition of the male-female chivalry inherent in the romantic spirit of ballet. “Rubies” celebrates the sassy, independent female of the Jazz Age.
The tango theme set up an inherent tension to the duet, inviting phrasing that milks the rubato and syncopation, fearless of the razor-sharp edges. Though confident, Lauren Lovette has not yet wrested her personalized interpretation out of this gem. For the balletomane, however, the performance was landmark in Lovette’s blossoming career as a NYCB soloist. While “Rubies” set a tone, it would serve better dramatic purpose nestled later in the program.
Theatrical wisdom holds that youth is portrayed best by the mature artist. This certainly held true with the tender performance by American Ballet Theater soloists Stella Abrera and Sascha Radetsky in the young lovers’ pas de deux from Antony Tudor’s The Leaves Are Fading. Smooth partnering and effortless classicism from both dancers highlighted the delicacy of human relations for which Tudor is known. Without a hint of scenery, the dance and dancers exuded the atmosphere of the romantic interlude.
Moving deeper into the shadows of the human heart with Christopher Wheeldon’s duet Litury, the atmosphere of romantic courtship dissolved into the coolness of modern relationship. Set to the minimalist score Fratres for Violin, Strings, and Percussion by Arvo Part, the movement began and ended with each dancer standing locked in fifth position, arms wind-milling like waving antennae. The same arms later hooked akimbo over one another for leverage, supporting promenades driven by centrifugal force and lifts that hang like a Calder mobile. As one point she ran off stage, leaving him reaching out for her, lost without another body to help define the negative space between them. Then they resumed their positions, two silos on the vast plain of loneliness. Has anything changed, or was it just so much bumping into one another?
Litury was interesting choreography and the intelligent elegance of Rebecca Krohn and Jared Angle riveted attention to the movement phrasing and allowed the shapes to speak volumes.
Recharging the atmosphere, Ulbricht next fired off Pizzolla Tango, a two-minute tour de force of leaps, spins, and somersaults. He rightfully earned a sassy tip of the head, as if to say, “So, you think I can dance?” before dashing into the wings.
The always joyful and musically refreshing Tiler Peck and Robert Fairchild polished off Balanchine’s tribute to American jingoism in the lead pas de deux from Stars & Stripes. Recently named “NYCB’s most beautiful couple” by Vanity Fair magazine, Peck and Fairchild delighted in a relay race of sharp turns and precise footwork. With a salute and a high-kick, the pas de deux portfolio came full circle to find the sexes liberated, at play, and on equal footing.
The highlight of the evening was the classic one-act Fancy Free, the story of three sailors on shore leave in New York City during a hot summer night in 1944. The romance and bittersweet sadness of WWII was poignantly captured in the masterful character-driven choreography of Jerome Robbins. In the roles of the three sailors, Fairchild, Radetsky, and Ulbricht etched unique personalities to form a lovable trio of misbehaving goofs. Abrera and Peck provided an excellent foil for the competitive antics of their odd-numbered suitors. The Robbins Trust is particular about sharing the rights to his ballets, and it spoke to the integrity of this group that it granted a full touring production. It was fun to see artists from two different companies come together in a repertory piece they have in common.
The Stars of American Ballet is one of few touring chamber group appearing today in regional theaters that book mostly large, reliable shows. Ulbricht has a unique, and sustainable approach to bringing excellent dance and dancers to regional audiences. Stars of American Ballet has a complete package to offer at a time when the arts and arts presenters need to rekindle audience passion for the romance of a night at the theater.