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Review: Pittsburgh Ballet dancers open season at top of their game

| Sunday, Oct. 25, 2015, 5:38 p.m.
Julia Erickson and  Cooper Verona perform in Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre's 'In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated.'
Aimee DiAndrea
Julia Erickson and Cooper Verona perform in Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre's 'In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated.'
Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre dancers Diana Yohe and Luca Sbrizzi perform 'Western Symphony.'
Rich Sofranko
Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre dancers Diana Yohe and Luca Sbrizzi perform 'Western Symphony.'

Mixed repertoire provided an exhilarating start to Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre's season on Oct. 23 at the Benedum Center, Downtown. The smartly chosen program presented three great choreographers pursuing different expressive goals with contrasting approaches to technique. The evening was more consistently compelling than most full-length story book ballets.

The programming was obviously stimulating to the dancers, who opened the season at the top of their game. Cheering was part of the audience's expression of enthusiasm at the end of each piece.

The dance concert opened with Jiri Kylian's “Sinfonietta.” It is performed before a backdrop showing wide open and verdant fields. The piece is a celebration of freedom, written for the Czech people while they were still living under a communist regime.

Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre Orchestra was enlarged to play Leos Janacek's vibrant score, which was written a half century before Kylian picked it for this piece. The extra brass players were placed on the left and right front edges of the stage to play the fanfares of the first movement, and for their return in the final movement.

Three male dancers bounded in diagonally at the start of the piece and were later joined by four others, all eagerly exploring the space of the stage. Kylian obviously loves the fact that Janacek's fanfares do not sound traditionally militaristic, because his choreography is anything but regimented.

Kylian's flexible partnering and inventive individual parts were especially impressive given the pungent individuality of Janacek's music. The finale built to an emotional climax when, after the dancers increase in numbers to exuberantly fill the stage, three of them turn to the backdrop and slowly raise their arms with a mixture of joy and reverence.

William Forsythe's “In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated” was a complete contrast. It is set to bold electronic music by Thom Willems that is strongly rhythmic and explosive.

Forsythe's non-narrative choreography is visually striking. Dancers fill their individual space to the maximum with both attitude and specifics of movement. Nuances in the extension of the arms extend to the fingertips, but sweep through space in evocative gestures rather than leading to a graceful pose. Yoshiaki Nakano was particularly impressive in this way near the end of this piece.

All of the dancers in Forsythe's piece move with pride extended to egocentrism. Pairings feel temporary, and when the dancers separate they project a joyless pride but never regret. “In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated” is both extremely impressive and cold-hearted.

George Balanchine's “Western Symphony” provided the brilliant conclusion to the evening. The dance hall girls and cowboys performed to a score by Hershey Kay, which uses familiar Western songs such as “Red River Valley.”

Balanchine uses traditional ballet language to evoke the spirit of folk dancing, but invents some moves as his own, such as steering a team of horses.

“Western Symphony” thrives on partnering. The second movement featured Alexandra Kochis and Christopher Budzynski, who were riveting in duos that took longer to become romantic than he hoped.

“Western Symphony” concludes with high-spirited dancing by the entire cast, filling the entire stage with Balanchine's singular mastery of space. As the curtain fell while the dancers are partying on, the audience's cheering crescendoed Friday night, expressing both appreciation and, I think, a desire for the joy to continue.

Guest conductor Benjamin Pope led spirited and expert performances for the Kylian and Balanchine. The orchestra was impressive in both pieces. The Janacek is an especially difficult piece, and if the performance wasn't perfect, the strings coped extremely well, the winds had personality, and the onstage brass provided a special excitement.

Mark Kanny is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7877 or mkanny@tribweb.com.

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