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Balanchine Protégé Transplants the Spirit to the Southwest

The New York Times, By ALASTAIR MACAULAY

PHOENIX — Thirty years ago the Danish dancer Ib Andersen joined New York City Ballet, becoming the last new man of importance to work with George Balanchine. Elfin, fleet, witty, he had already been the youngest principal in the history of the Royal Danish Ballet (at the age of 20). In New York he created roles in three Balanchine ballets that survive today, and he became the final great exponent of Apollo in Balanchine’s ballet of that name during the choreographer’s lifetime. Ten years ago he became artistic director of Ballet Arizona.

From Ballet Arizona’s all-Balanchine program this weekend two strong impressions emerged: Mr. Andersen is a Balanchine regisseur-stager of rare acuity, and he has made his company one of the most musically intelligent in the world. These dancers — though certainly not world-class in all respects — look both keenly motivated and galvanized, full of vitality and adult individuality. Many different layers of Balanchine style emerge.

The weekend’s triple bill began with the high-classical Mozart “Divertimento No. 15” from 1956 (an example of how Balanchine’s choreography took purest classicism to new intensity), proceeded to the dramatic and erotic narrative of “Prodigal Son” (1929), and ended with the dazzling “Four Temperaments” (1946), one of the supreme works of pared-away modernism. In basic theater sense it’s a great program. If you’re new to Balanchine, you’re plunged in with the tutus, chivalry and virtuosity of “Divertimento No 15,” then excited by the still unusual dramatic force of “Prodigal” (whose middle scene feels like a Joseph Conrad tale of civilization corrupted) and lastly led into the many powerfully expressive and visually innovative facets of pure movement in “Temperaments.”

Yet it takes more than planning to make these three work that way. Some of these ballets can disappoint audiences unused to Balanchine, but Mr. Andersen triumphed, with each ballet winning a bigger ovation than the one before. Most of the audience quickly stood to applaud these performances of “Temperaments.” Quite right too: these and Miami City Ballet’s performances in 2008 were the best all-around performances of this great work that I’ve observed since Balanchine’s death.

When dancing classically, Ballet Arizona is strikingly incisive. Whether the emphasis of a movement goes down, up, sideways or around, the dancers cleave the air. Space itself becomes dramatic, a core Balanchine effect. In the elegant prancing-on-the-spot steps on point that look like horse dressage in “Divertimento No 15,” the women drove their feet sprucely down into the beat. Multiple dynamics were evident: marcato (indicating attack), staccato (a cut-off ending) and legato (tying successive moves), in many different combinations. Head positions were beautifully lively, upper bodies expansive, through-the-body lines finely focused. It was a recurrent joy to see the light, clean firmness with which every dancer, whether on point or half-toe, stepped surely into full-stretched arabesque.

Mr. Andersen staged all three ballets himself, often making fascinatingly shrewd choices of textual options ignored today by most other Balanchine regisseurs. Although “The Prodigal Son” is now danced across the globe, where else today is it evident that when the Father (Sergei Perkovskii) enters in the final scene, he is now blind?

This “Prodigal” was gripping as headlong narrative. True, Mr. Andersen does not make the Siren (Natalia Magnicaballi at the evening performances, Tzu-Chia Huang at the matinee) sufficiently cold or inscrutable, and there have been more elemental Prodigals than Roman Zavarov (at all performances). Yet it hardly matters. Those Sirens (especially Ms. Huang) were bold, controlling, lewd; Mr. Zavarov was utterly impetuous, intense even when most stylized.

To capture the same connective impetus within a plotless pure-dance context may well be the rarest quality in a Balanchine director. Mr. Andersen has it. Here “The Four Temperaments” felt again like an experiment in action: a theorem being demonstrated — indeed, explored — for the first time before our eyes. The dancers made the most of Balanchinean contrasts: back-front, closed-open, near-distant and so on. The whole ballet was delivered with terrific sweep, and the intensity of the finale was extraordinarily gripping.

Two further assets were the performance by the Phoenix Symphony led by the guest conductor Timothy Russell (taut, brisk tempos and handsome playing) and the lighting by Michael Korsch. The dancers were rendered sharply distinct within the space around them: a basic Balanchine feature, too seldom found today.

So what are the apparent limitations of the company? The men — who land heavily from jumps — are generally less distinguished than the women. And yet that’s not true of Mr. Zavarov (who has danced, among other roles here, Apollo) or of both Russell Clarke and Shea Johnson, who both made the Phlegmatic variation of “Temperaments” more vitally engaging than it has been in decades.

The women, though they exhibit hands and fingers that truly breathe, often angle their wrists so that they curtail, rather than release, the expansiveness of a gesture or an academic arm movement. Pointwork is generally good, but a few slips off point occurred. The distinction of all five ballerina roles (mostly double-cast) in “Divertimento No. 15” was remarkable. I especially cherished the youthful sparkle of Jillian Barrell and marveled at the elegance within brilliance shown by both Ginger Smith and Chelsea Teel. In “Temperaments” Ms. Teel was particularly compelling; she also danced the Sanguinic variation with flair and ardor. There are other dancers — notably Ms Huang, the most distinctive of those who danced in all three ballets — to look for.

One of the most striking developments in modern ballet is that there is now a trans-American, even transglobal, Balanchine diaspora. Ballet Arizona ranks among the most significant.

Ballet Arizona makes its Washington debut on Thursday and Saturday at the Kennedy Center; (202) 467-6400, kennedy-center.org.