Miami City Ballet in Symphonic Dances choreographed by Alexei Ratmansky (photo by Daniel Azoulay).

Miami Heat
The Miami City Ballet is bringing the warmth and elegance of  legendary choreographer George Balanchine to Harris Theater this Spring.

By Jordan Reinwald

From the Spring 2016 Issue ofClef Notes Chicagoland Journal for the Arts

As a company known for its specialty in performing works by the legendary George Balanchine, Miami City Ballet treats Chicago to some of the choreographer’s gems, along with new and original repertoire, this spring at their Harris Theater debut. Returning to Chicago after their Auditorium performances in 2009, the company brings a mixed program sure to have a taste of something all ballet lovers can enjoy. The company, founded by well-known former Balanchine dancer Edward Villella, is based in a robust catalogue of works by the late, great choreographer and is well known for performing his long, linear style. As expected, the majority of the two programs to be performed April 29 and 30 will be comprised of coveted, and rarely seen in Chicago, Balanchine works. In addition, the programming includes three pieces made specifically for the company, showing off the dancers’ ability to morph through several different styles and providing variance for the audience. Of the programming choices, says Michael Scolamiero, executive director for the company, there is the privilege of being the sole presenter of these specific works in the United States. “We look for programs and ballets that we think audiences will appreciate and that audiences have not seen often.” Scolamiero told me. “We want to bring repertoire that is unique to this company, so at the Harris Theater, Heatscape, Symphonic Dances, and Viscera were works that were commissioned specifically for Miami City Ballet, and as such, we have exclusivity on them in the United States. No other company performs them. We can introduce them to cities as we see fit.”

In the first program, Friday, April 29, Symphony in Three Movements opens. A Balanchine classic, Symphony was also performed by the company at the Auditorium Theater in 2009. Dancer Ashley Knox, cast in this ballet in Chicago says, “Symphony in Three is a Balanchine favorite. It’s a leotard ballet, all about lines, angles and symmetry. (It) brings out the simple beauty of dancing...” Symphony is a good introduction for those unfamiliar with the style and a nice reminder for those who perhaps haven’t seen Miami City Ballet or Balanchine work for some time. Linear formations, Balanchine’s trademark leotard look (a simple leotard with a high hip alignment belt, and pink tights), flexed wrists, pressed forward pelvis in deep lunges and elbows bent sharply at ninety degrees break classical traditions and show off the ground-breaking style of Balanchine’s time.

Following Symphony on Friday is Viscera by Liam Scarlett with Lowell Liebermann's Concerto No. 1 for Piano and Orchestra, Opus 12 as its soundtrack. Fluid port de bras and softer lines juxtapose nicely with Balanchine’s previous, sharper Symphony. Of Viscera, Knox points out, “Viscera was a piece made for us. It is all about the body and making curves and lines. It’s about showing and using your back and using a different type of movement in that way.”

The Friday program closes with Symphonic Dances by Alexei Ratmansky. This ballet is in three movements and contains the most narrative of the three works. Though there is no distinct storyline, this ballet loosely follows themes of romance, desire and fate. Costumes by Adeline André and Istvan Dohar change frequently, creating a degree of visual variance not yet seen on this program. The costumes use shape and style to allude to elegant and grand scenes but are simplistic in their design—some, comprised simply of tulle draped atop a leotard. “I find it very intriguing and a little mysterious. There are hints of a story line but (Ratmansky) leaves it up to you to fill in the gaps. It involves a lot of people, and the music is very powerful, so it’s an exciting piece that I think showcases the dancers well.” says Knox, in anticipation.

Of the Friday night program, Knox adds, “Each piece from a different choreographer definitely has a distinct style of movement. I think it’s a nice mix for the programming. Ratmansky plays with gravity. The challenge with him is always trying to make it look as if you defy gravity. It’s not as upright as some of the Balanchine pieces, so it’s definitely a challenge to get that in your body and switch modes.”

The second evening of the company’s Chicago stay sandwiches highly anticipated works by New York City Ballet’s Justin Peck between two classic Balanchine works. Serenade opens Saturday’s program with its classic, lush splendor. Light blue leotards with matching romantic tutus on the corps de ballet and the principals alike, provide the most classical allusion in costuming of the two evenings, and Serenade, slightly more classical in structure than the previous evening’s Symphony, is one of Balanchine’s most famous ballets; a treat to witness live for any audience. Knox, who dances the “Russian role” in one casting says, “It’s one of my favorite ballets. It’s one of those that everyone can connect to, I think. The dancing truly brings out the music and brings it to life as well as being one of those serene kind of dream-like ballets that you can get lost in.”

Justin Peck’s Heatscape, a Chicago premiere, comes next and is highly anticipated as Peck’s star has quickly risen in the world of contemporary ballet choreography. For many Chicagoans, this might be a first chance to see an original Peck creation in the flesh. The work was specifically made for Miami City Ballet and premiered last year on their home season. Heatscape joins Peck’s other creation, Chutes and Ladders, in Miami City Ballet’s repertoire, establishing a pattern of successful partnerships for the company and choreographer. Commissioned by the company’s artistic director, Lourdes Lopez, Heatscape features backdrops by artist Shepard Fairey, known most famously for his iconic Hope artwork that became a symbol of President Obama’s election campaign in 2008.

Knox speaks of the movement in Heatscape when asked how it stands out from the rest of the works on this program, “There is no strong storyline here either, but it has playfulness in the relationships. (Peck) is very great at formations and creating illusions with the corps and having the principal role kind of be a part of the corps but then all of the sudden be on her own, so he plays with having a large corps in that way.” Indeed known for his use of large corps de ballet and visually stunning use of ever-changing formations, the play with Fairey’s epic backdrops, Heatscape promises to be a unique experience for this spring’s Chicago ballet connoisseurs.

Finally, the oldest, and most classic Balanchine of the weekend finishes Saturday’s program. Said Knox, “Bourree Fantasque is an old Balanchine ballet that isn’t performed as often anymore. New York City Ballet doesn’t perform it that often, and it’s been awhile since we performed it. It has a French flair to it, and it’s playful and charming.  (It) kind of has music like a carousel with big circles and lots of people on stage.” Knox seems nostalgic as she explains. Fantasque is indeed a true Balanchine gem, harkening to his roots as a classically trained European dancer.

If Serenade acts as Balanchine’s most well-known masterpiece from America’s first contemporary ballet choreographer, Fantasque reminds us of what got him there. “Bourree is on our season and opens (February 12), and everything else has been done within the last year.” says Scolamiero of the artistic team’s choice to include the 1940’s ballet on this program.To be a city featured in this company’s 30th Anniversary Season Tour is a privilege indeed, and to have the Chicago Philharmonic Orchestra accompanying the dancers ties the guests performing here to our city on yet another level. Knox mentions a small group of the dancers came to perform in the Chicago Dancing Festival in September and notes, “We’re all really excited to return.” Now here’s hoping the Chicago weather welcomes them as warmly our audiences will.