It wasn’t a coordinated effort, but instead a bit of serendipitous scheduling from Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre School and Pittsburgh Youth Ballet Company that local dance fans wound up with dueling “Serenades” at the end of the school year. It was bound to happen — this ballet is the 1934 George Balanchine ballet that remains a hallmark of the New York City Ballet repertoire
So “Serenade” wasn’t performed by a “professional” company. But then, its first performance was danced by students of the School of American Ballet at the estate of Felix M. Warburg in White Plains, New York. Both Pittsburgh schools have high quality programs that emulate that auspicious beginning and they received permission to stage the work, one of romantic sweep set to Tchaikovsky’s surging string score.
A masterpiece should stand the test of time, interpretation and age, whether it be Bach, Beethoven or Balanchine. With young casts taking on these roles and multiple performances within a short period of time, the viewer could still focus on the genius to found in the choreography.
After more than 35 years of writing, “Serenade” remains one of my favorites. I saw the school productions three times. Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre also drew upon the ballet on several occasions over the years, but my all-time highlight came in 1983 at the New York City Ballet. It was the final work on the final concert of the season following Balanchine’s death. The NYCB cast gave this “Serenade” an emotion that Balanchine himself always eschewed, particularly in the bounding jumps of the third movement where they seemed to be trying to escape the earth to be with him, and the lingering ending of the “Elegy,” which, given the circumstances, brought tears to many eyes in the audience.
The Pittsburgh students gave “Serenade” their all, full of the promise of things to come. How lucky we are to have Pittsburgh Ballet’s school, where co-directors Dennis Marshall and Marjorie Grundvig and staff have propelled it to a high level in four short years, and Pittsburgh Youth Ballet, where Jean Gedeon was celebrating 25 years of excellence.
PBT’s “Serenade” was staged by former NYCB member Jerri Kumery and had a strength of purpose that was apparent in performances bolstered by the graduate students.
But Balanchine’s moonlit dance only led off five programs at Point Park University’s George Roland White Performance Studio and the Byham Theater. Choreography can make or break a dancer and PBT has wisely elected to strengthen that aspect of the school. It now commissions a work by an outside artist, in this year’s case Luis Fuente’s “A Contratempo.” The former Joffrey principal dancer gave the grad students a fun Latin flair and percussionist Andrew Kirk improvised a driving score to match the movements.
PBT teacher and former dancer Alan Obuzor seemed to be fulfilling his own choreographic promise with a pair of pieces, “Monair” and “Hornpipe Reel,” both of which placed demands on the students without detracting from their free-wheeling performance — no easy feat. Russian ballet expert Anna-Maria Holmes came in to stage “La Vivandiere,” a buoyant set of dances that emphasized an elegance of line and crisp footwork. Anwen David, 15, and Ted Henderson, 18, performed a surprisingly mature “Bluebird Pas de Deux” — I caught them at a PBT luncheon and they’re definitely dancers to watch!
PBT staff member Anastasia Wovchko contributed “Fanfare,” set to Benjamin Britten’s “The Young Person’s Guide to Orchestra” and a great outlet for the student level dancers, plus a plush finale that involved the entire cast.
The Youth Ballet performers in “Serenade” were younger than usual and probably averaged around 15, but had a confidence beyond their years. With staging by Jessica Gattinella Kohls, PYB’s New York City Ballet style was apparent in the airy phrasing of Balanchine’s choreography.
Gedeon made sure that her anniversary program, coming in at three hours, was full of surprises. Obuzor crossed over from PBT (there are many fortuitous connections to be made between the schools) and made a welcome appearance in “Serenade.”
But Gedeon wasn’t satisfied with just that piece, as most schools would have done. She reprised Jerome Robbins’ “Circus Polka,” originally created for the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus elephants by Balanchine and composer Igor Stravinsky, for the littlest of the dancers. Those who were youngest were sprinkled throughout the performance, most notably in an ambitious version, albeit shortened, of “Coppelia,” and a lovely “Etudes”-like finale, flawlessly staged by Ruth Leney-Midkiff and backed by a slide show of PYB photos, among some of the best to be found in the area.
Gedeon also squeezed in a partial “Paquita” and two original works, “Noodles and Bosh” by PYB staff member Andrew Blight, and “Songs,” by former PYB dancer Taryn Frey Misner.
But there was yet to be icing for this multi-tiered cake. Gedeon persuaded Daniel Ulbricht, a principal
dancer with the New York City Ballet, to make an appearance at the Sunday matinee. Ulbricht performed with PYB from 1996-1999 and occasionally still comes in for workshops. He brought “The Tango Solo” by Servy Gallardo for this occasion. Set to music by Astor Piazzolla, this work elicited audible collective gasps from the audience for its sharply-edged rhythms and powerful jumps. Ulbricht is the closest thing to Mikhail Baryshnikov these days and a certifiable star on stage, the perfect exclamation point for these talented dance hopefuls.
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