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Ib Andersen’s memorable feast ‘Play’ offers 7 courses of artistic delight

The Arizona Republic, by Richard Nilsen

Ballet Arizona ends its season this weekend with a new program of dances by artistic director Ib Andersen. Called Play, the program both plays with its name and plays off it, with a first-half that begins with the lightness of Mozart’s “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” variations and builds in seriousness to the erotic heat of a pas de deux by company big horses Natalia Magnicaballi and Astrit Zejnati.

Andersen has called the program a “seven-course meal,” and its various parts offer contrast in style and mood, rather than telling a single evening-long story. And after the slow crescendo of intensity in the program’s first half, the two Stravinsky sections after the intermission feel like an extended dessert.

Even if it weren’t for the dancing, the evening would be a delight for the live music by the Phoenix Symphony under conductor Timothy Russell.

Yet, it is the first half of the evening that makes Play special. Each of the five dances builds in intensity, from the playful Mozart through a darker section of Benjamin Britten and an emotionally gripping section of Arvo Pärt’s Cantus in Memory of Britten, and ending on Pärt’s Festina Lente – not only the high point of the evening but one of the high points of the season.

Zejnati and Magnicaballi, dressed in the briefest of costumes, seem never to break body contact through the dance, entwining their bodies slowly and sinuously, as if to make the case that every square millimeter of the human body is an erogenous zone and that it’s possible to have sex with every part of the body.

There is nothing vulgar or salacious about this dance; it is refined and aesthetic but, like the best art, manages to remind us that art is ultimately about the facts of life.

The lighter second half, to Stravinsky’s Suite No. 2 and a suite from Pulcinella, seems almost like an exhalation after holding our breath through the crescendo of tension in the first half.

The first half of the program also belongs to lighting director Michael Korsch, whose design, especially for the Britten prelude and fugue, is as much a part of the choreography as the dancers: Lights move, grow, shrink, shift and refocus, backlighting some dancers while spotlighting others. Each of the segments in the first half makes use of its lighting in

some special way.

Although the evening is a joy, there is something worth mentioning about Andersen’s choreography in general. It can be uneven.

The best is fresh and inventive, but there are moments when Andersen relies on traditional patterns of moves that fill time and space but don’t necessarily bring us anything new.

The first segment of the program, for example, danced to Mozart’s Twelve Variations on Ah, vous dirai-je Maman, or “Twinkle, Twinkle,” begins with great promise: The curtain opens on a stage flooded with stars. The scene is magical, and the group of dancers massed in the center of the stage slowly spreads out and opens up, dancing to the familiar tune. Then, with each musical variation, an individual dancer comes onstage to give us a solo. Each begins with some inventive bit of movement that mirrors the mood and motion of the music. You revel in the joy of the metaphor: This movement, that harmony.

But after the first phrase in each variation, the dance devolves into those standard series of leaps and turns.

When you see these solos and the dancers moving diagonally from upstage left to downstage right, then running back to start another run, you can’t help but think of the compulsories in a gymnastics competition. You half expect a front-pike somersault among the jetés and entrechats.

The execution by the dancers is always first-rate, but the steps feel routine, the choreographic equivalent of a pianist’s passagework.

This is quibble in the general enjoyment of a great dance evening.