The curtain in the Aronoff Center's Procter & Gamble Hall saw more than normal use Aug. 11. As befits a gala's sampler format, it rose and fell countless times to much applause during the marathon lineup of 17 pieces seen at ballet tech cincinnati's Gala of International Ballet Stars. In short, the cliche "something for everyone" applies here.
The sixth annual program's variety and plethora of "wow" moments -- and its form of concise pieces in a series -- offered an entertaining introduction to someone just discovering dance, while its generally consistent technical prowess probably pleased discriminating fans. What's more, the pieces are largely accessible in subject matter and in configuration: With the exception of two solo pieces, they are all duets, or "pas de deux" in ballet parlance. People can relate to couples, and the pieces explore male-female relationships through complex movement.
A provocative pair of modern pieces performed by Alejandro Alvarez and Stephanie Dalphond of the National Dance Company of Spain brought internal relational issues to the surface. "Us vs" had the pair forming a co-dependent buttress arch, leaning into one another with arms interlocking overhead and labored locomotion. They struggle and embrace, separate and reunite in tension-filled nonverbal exchanges. The heavy musical backdrop, courtesy of Collage, looms large with ominous bongs, clicks and bass piano tones. The duo wears ordinary street clothing in the curvilinear "Still," but their intricate corporeal dialogue renders them extraordinary. Their sculptural fluidity captivates as they ripple and curve their bodies in complementary response to each other.
Cincinnati Ballet's own Adiarys Almeida and Joseph Gatti -- the program's only local representatives -- astounded in Balanchine's Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux, arguably the evening's most technically challenging piece.
Wearing a summery, peachy-pink dress, Almeida flew through breathtaking turns across the stage and jiffy-popped through intricate footwork at a breakneck pace, smiling warmly all the while. She maintains remarkable precision but looks so relaxed.
Speaking of making steps look easy, her on- and off-stage partner Gatti whirled through a frenzy of pirouettes, smoothly and consistently slowing down before completion in an impressive display of control. He created a modern spin for himself in his world premier solo, Burning Heart, where he matches his balletic talents with rippling, Hip Hop inspired elements and an odd sort of moonwalking. He also choreographed the contemporary No Way Out, a melodramatic yet technically demanding world premier solo for Almeida.
As in previous years, the mixed bag included a majority of crisp, classical ballet favorites including four Balanchine works, some neo-classical -- two pas de deux from Swan Lake and Jewels, Tarantella, Le Corsaire, to name a few. (After all, "ballet" does appear in the gala's namesake.)
Certain classics can run the risk of taking on a stiff formality or slightly frigid quality, especially when slotted between more contemporary pieces. I'm pleased to report this was not the case on Saturday.
The lively warmth of the spirited Tarantella -- complete with tambourines -- by New York City Ballet's Ana Sophia Scheller (who originally hails from Buenos Aires, Argentina) and Miami City Ballet's Joseph Phillips captured the piece's folk dance flavor and infused it with fun expression without sacrificing sharp technique.
Another Argentinian contingent, Caroline Queiroz Gaier of the Teatro Argentino de La Plata and Hernan Piquin of Julio Bocca Company provided additional spicy Latin flair with their rendition of Alexander Ananiev's (based on Petipa's) Esmeralda Pas de Deux, which also featured tambourine.
How often do you see two separate pieces in one evening that feature dancers clapping and shaking tambourines with colored cloth fringe? (I imagined a backstage exchange: "Hey, we packed light. Can I borrow that tambourine when you're through?")
Gaier and Piquin also smoldered in the second act with a heady tango-ballet blend that burned hotter than the temperatures outside.
National Ballet of Canada's birdlike and statuesque Bridgett Zehr, with leg extensions and flexibility beyond reason, kept the flame of awe alight in the opener, the "White Swan Pas de Deux" from Swan Lake with partner Aleksander Antonijevic and later in the "Rubies Pas de Deux" from Balanchine's Jewels. I overheard a woman seated behind me gasp, "Jesus!" as Zehr pulled off one 180-degree leg lift after another. She has extension and she knows how to use it.
Also on the program were Miami City Ballet's Haiyan Wu and Yang Zou performing the "Diamonds Pas de Deux" from Jewels and their contemporary world premier choreographic effort, Xun; Cecilia Kerche and Vitor Luiz of Municipal Theatre of Rio de Janiero performing the lyrical Creation and the ever-elegant "Black Swan Pas de Deux" from Swan Lake; New York City-based Urban Ballet Theater's Natalia Johnson and Nicholas Wright III in the mysterious "The Final Pas de Deux" of El Hambre and the expressive "The Grand Pas de Deux" of Nutcracker in the Lower.
New York City Ballet's Scheller and Miami City Ballet's Phillips concluded the evening with a rousing classical favorite, Le Corsaire (uncredited in the program notes.)