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Ballet Arizona brilliant in ‘Balanchine Classics’

The Arizona Republic, By Richard Nilsen

We expect more out of great art than entertainment: We expect it to change our lives.

That doesn’t mean we have to rend our garments and walk naked into the desert, but that in some way, the art has enlarged our lives, made us understand something we didn’t or feel some corner of our psyches we had left untouched for too long.

George Balanchine’s “Prodigal Son” is one such work. You cannot sit through it and not believe in genius.

It is popular in academic circles these days to pooh-pooh the whole idea of genius. But how else can you explain the power of Balanchine’s choreography? It isn’t merely a succession of dance steps meant to delight us: It tells us something essential about being a human being.

As danced in the current program at Symphony Hall, Ballet Arizona gives us a great version.

Roman Zavarov, as the son, bounds across the stage at the beginning as a conduit of the life force; at the end, beaten and ruined, he crawls back home.

And as the siren who abets his destruction, Natalia Magnicaballi owns the stage.

One can compare this version with the DVD of the same dance staged for video by Balanchine with Mikhail Baryshnikov as the son and Karin Von Aroldingen as the siren, and Ballet Arizona’s version comes off as better. (This is not to claim Zavarov is the equal of Baryshnikov, but the famous dancer seems a little old to be the son, and that some of the restaging for video is less than elegant).

Zavarov projects star quality in this ballet, which may be just as important as his technical ability. And Magnicaballi always glows from the inside. This is one of the best things I’ve ever seen at Ballet Arizona.

In the end, “Prodigal Son” is a story about unconditional love, and you would have to be stone not to be brought to tears by the end, as Zavarov is drawn up into the arms of his father, danced by Sergei Perkovskii, and the old man wraps his cloak around his damaged son.

“Prodigal Son,” with Prokofiev’s music performed live by the Phoenix Symphony, is more self-consciously Modernist than later, more classical Balanchine, and in places is as oddly amusing as a Momix production. It is truly a moment in dance any ballet lover should see.

The program opened with “Divertimento No. 15,” which comes from later in Balanchine’s career, and is more emotionally remote. An abstract series of solos, duos and choruses, it is a perfect curtain raiser, but somehow feels less urgent than “Prodigal Son.”

And the program ended with a reprise of “The Four Temperaments,” with a great score by Paul Hindemith, played by the symphony and piano soloist Alex Foaksman. It is one of Balanchine’s primo dances, and Ballet Arizona nails it.

Each season, the high point is the Balanchine program, and Ballet Arizona artistic director Ib Andersen, who is a former Balanchine dancer with the New York City Ballet – and Balanchine’s last great “Prodigal Son” before the great choreographer’s death – gives Arizona a great gift of his knowledge, experience and depth.