City Ballet of San Diego opened its “Balanchine and More” with “Who Cares?,” George Balanchine’s 1970 ballet set to nine Gershwin tunes. Lighthearted and flirty, the piece was a delicious kickoff for a program demonstrating the extraordinary care that has made City Ballet a stellar company whose dancers gobble up challenging repertory … and do it to a live orchestra.
Running last weekend only, the show at the Spreckels Theatre featured two Balanchine ballets and a piece by Peter Martins (who succeeded Balanchine at New York City Ballet). There was also a company premiere—“Le Corsaire Pas de Deux,” one of the bravura works in the ballet canon.
“Le Corsaire” dates to 1856, and City Ballet’s Elizabeth Wistrich staged the pas de deux after the version by Marius Petipa, the Russian Imperial Ballet genius. The story, involving an abducted maiden and a slave, is one of those “fascination with the savage Orient” narratives that’s problematic to a 21st century sensibility. But the dancing!
Hugely demanding, the pas de deux is full of non-stop fouttés for the ballerina and big leaps and powerhouse lifts for the man. Athena Nikolakopulos and Iago Breschi (in the Saturday cast) met the challenge. Nikolakopulos pirouetted up a storm and is clearly set to move up from her apprentice rank in the company. Brazilian-trained Breschi dazzled with turning leaps that took him into dramatic lunges.
“Le Corsaire Pas de Deux” is a mountain for a ballet company to climb. In its first go, City Ballet almost reached the summit. Though I’d give high marks for technique, artistically it all felt a bit corny—Breschi’s low-hipped harem pants (fabulous as he looks bare-chested); the City Ballet Orchestra’s over-exuberant cymbals accompanying big lifts. I think that when the artists fully “own” this piece, the magic will trump any corn.
Both the orchestra, conducted by John Nettles, and the dancers shone on the rest of the program. “Who Cares?” offered one charming number after another—from Ariana Gonzalez’s and Geoff Gonzalez’s ardent “Man I Love” to Sumire Ito’s assured turns in “Embraceable You” to Megan Jacobs’s and Brian Heil’s lovely lines and frisky partnering in “Who Cares?”
Elaine Miller did a suspended jump in “My One and Only” as if she lingered an extra millisecond in the air. Miller is another promising apprentice, as is Chelsea Kuhn, who engaged in sprightly syncopated interplay with pianist Mark Polesky in “Fascinatin’ Rhythm.” The set, a lively New York street at nighttime, wasn’t credited, but it was terrific.
“Hallelujah Junction” by Peter Martins is set to John Adams’s two-piano piece by that name, superbly played onstage by Polesky and Kyle Adam Blair. Jazzy, often urgent dancing featured principals Breschi and Adriana Gonzalez doing acrobatic lifts—at one point, he draped her around his shoulders like a scarf, while she faced away from him, so she was in a backbend.
When ballerinas let down their hair, watch out. And when you get 24 of them onstage, they are not to be messed with. Balanchine’s “Walpurgisnacht Ballet” begins demurely enough, with the women, their hair tied in ribbons at their necks, doing a pretty-pretty dance to a romantic waltz; and Ito and Lucas Ataide do sweet adagio partnering. But Walpurgisnacht (April 30) is when witches cavort with the devil, and in this piece to music from Gounod’s “Faust,” the women—and their hair—get wilder and wilder.
This ballet showed off the depth of the company’s women with strong performances by soloist Yuki Nakahara—doing delicate jumps and big extensions—as well as half a dozen demi soloists. Nakahara and many of the demi soloists are apprentices, and I’m eager to see how they develop.