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Ballet Across America performances sweep across a landscape of ballet

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, By Jane Vranish

Dance consumers can get their fill of ballet in two ways: through snippets on YouTube or the cost-prohibitive and time-consuming way, through travel.

Kennedy Center brought it, like the mountain to Mohammed, to Washington, D.C., audiences last week in Ballet Across America. It encompassed three separate programs, nine American companies and, for the most part, a wide-ranging and boldly independent choreographic flavor.

Kudos to the powers-that-be who curated the event. They were able to fill a big house with juicy snapshots that depicted the state of American ballet.

There were several threads intertwined in the event. The company directors were still male-dominated, with only Memphis Ballet’s Dorothy Gunther Pugh and Suzanne Farrell breaking their ranks. Five of the choreographers had George Balanchine roots (Ib Anderson, Jean-Pierre Bonnefoux, Edwaard Liang, Benjamin Millipied and the master himself). Three had international roots — Spain’s Nacho Duato, Finland’s Jorma Elo and Australia’s Stanton Welch — while one, Trey McIntyre, was born in the heartland of America, Kansas, and currently works in Iowa.

Most importantly, seven of the nine works were created for these companies.

The three largest regional companies, Houston Ballet, The Joffrey Ballet and Pacific Northwest Ballet, anchored each of the programs. But they turned out to be the most traditional, preferring to show why they are in the top ranks through a beautiful sense of control and technique in their dancers.

Houston Ballet opened Ballet in America with “Falling,” choreographed by Mr. Welch and set to Mozart. When the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust presented the Australian Festival several years ago, Pittsburghers learned that artists from Down Under such as Mr. Welch, separated by a large ocean, were left to their own resources and developed a singular creativity within this hothouse of a continent, far removed from the European way of thinking that we use here in the United States.

Mr. Welch capitalized on the playful elegance of Mozart by translating the composer’s trills into a shake of the head and moving with an unforced ease into a knee spin. In Mr. Welch’s world, anything was possible, but in this work he concentrated on his sweet and thorough knowledge of the balletic vocabulary.

Benjamin Millipied was more linear in his interpretation of Steve Reich’s minimalist score in “3 Movements,” tracing the ongoing musical patterns with bourrees and filling a particularly lovely duet with the stops and starts and directional changes that Mr. Reich favors in his compositional technique. Like other choreographers before him, Mr. Millipied kept the choreography gurgling — Twyla Tharp’s “In the Upper Room” comes to mind — and took full advantage of Pacific Northwest’s uncommonly beautiful dancers. At times, however, it was all a little too “straight” forward for me.

Mr. Liang used another minimalist, Philip Glass, with a dollop of Thomas Montgomery Newman’s movie score “Little Children” in his work for The Joffrey Ballet. But even though the piece was an abstraction of the romanticism to be found in Jane Austen’s novels, there was an undercurrent of warmth between the men and women, a poetry in the ballroom scene and an underlying sensual seduction hidden beneath — all to good effect.

The most surprising and popular performance came from North Carolina Dance Theatre’s signature work, “Shinding.” With sprightly live bluegrass from The Greasy Beans, Mr. Bonnefoux’s work took great advantage of his dancers’ exhilarating technique and ebullient personalities, much like Mr. Balanchine did in “Square Dance.”

Ballet Memphis, too, paired Mr. McIntyre’s movement with an unlikely partner in the country shadows of Roy Orbison songs such as “Crying” and “Sweet Dreams.” Dressed as somber black cowboys and short-skirted dance hall girls, they probed the depths of his lyrics with some skipping and a few chugs, with the emotions erupting right along with the words in the choreographic landscape.

I also loved the European pairing of Aspen Santa Fe Ballet’s “Red Sweet” and Tulsa Ballet’s “Por Vos Muero (For Thee I Die)” on the second program. Pittsburgh Dance Council presented the feisty Western spirt of Aspen Sante Fe this past season and it was there at Kennedy Center as well. I loved Jorma Elo’s sweet sense of humor about his Vivaldi/Biber music, with windmill arms and rippling of the backs. This time I caught a little of Paul Taylor’s masterful sense of evolving patterns, but more airborne in nature than the movement found in the modern dance master’s style.

Tulsa Ballet’s piece came on the heels of Mr. Duato’s company appearance last month at Kennedy Center. But the group acquitted themselves robustly in a piece laced with religious overtones and plush phrasing.

The Suzanne Farrell Ballet was the only real disappointment, although it brought an intellectually satisfying pairing of Mr. Balanchine’s “Momentum pro Gesualdo” and “Movements for Piano and Orchestra.” Both were set to the angularities of composer Igor Stravinsky. But the first seemed dry and unresponsive. The second work was still abstractly centered, but more pliable and assured.

Mr. Andersen left Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre, where he was ballet master and being considered for artistic director, for Ballet Arizona. Now his ensemble has made it to Kennedy Center ahead of PBT. They have, not unexpectedly, a beautiful, detailed attention to technique, particularly in the men’s fully centered turns. Although there were a few unusually awkward moments (the women being held like moving mastheads on a ship and then riding the men’s backs at the end), the piece was like seeing ballet through a prism — the colors, the angles, the clarity.

Overall, Ballet Across America took on a patriotic atmosphere among the aficionados who turned out for the performances. Nearly every company seemed to have a support group that cheered for the home team, so to speak. Judging by the large turnout and the subsequent reactions, ballet has a firm fan base and a creative impulse ready to whet its appetite.