Balanchine and Forsythe at the School of American Ballet Workshop Performance

Peter J Sharp Theater, New York
June 1, 2019

David Mead

It was Balanchine almost all the way at the 55th annual workshop performances of the School of American Ballet, the only interruption being a pas de deux from William Forsythe. As always, there were plenty of fine performances, although this year no-one really stood out. No-one made you sit up and think maybe you’ve just seen a star of the future.

The afternoon opened with a few welcoming words and tributes to two former teachers who passed away during the previous year: intermediate and advanced technique, partnering and character teacher Andrei Kramarevsky; and Peter Frame, particularly credited with developing a strength training program for the dancers. Most noticeable was the line-up of this year’s graduates behind the speakers, however: just four boys out of nineteen dancers, and a group far from uniform in look.

Given it was devised as an exercise in stagecraft, Concerto Barocco is a perfect ballet for these SAB performances. Staged by Suki Schorer and led by soloists Rommie Tomasini and Zoe Bliss Magnussen, it was very pleasingly danced indeed. The ensemble even made the winding in and out, under each other’s arms, and then the subsequent unwinding, look easy. Magnussen drew the attention from her first entrance. She is remarkably light in everything she does, and when lifted by the attentive Benjamin Lepson in the pas de deux, she soared as if on an endless thermal. Things may have occasionally looked a little scrunched up on the relatively small Peter J Sharp Theater stage, but it was also a treat to see the ballet closer-up that usual, even with an orchestra in the pit.

Zoe Bliss Magnussen and Ben Lepson in Concerto BaroccoPhoto Paul Kolnik
Zoe Bliss Magnussen and Ben Lepson in Concerto Barocco
Photo Paul Kolnik

Space was rather more at a premium in the Garland Dance from Balanchine’s The Sleeping Beauty that followed, being danced at the workshop for the first time. It finished with no less than 57 dancers on stage, young children to advanced students. It is a riot of colour (to the point of being garish) and movement, and was danced with great enthusiasm. A little more room would have allowed the patterns to be enjoyed better, though.

The pas de deux from William Forsythe’s New Sleep to a typically industrial, electronic score by Thom Willems, brought a change of mood. Goodbye summer sunshine, hello dark night. Although Forsythe’s ballets have been performed by New York City Ballet, this was the first time his choreography has been danced by SAB students as part of workshop. It’s typical Forsythe of the period, stretching the classical vocabulary but still very much rooted in it. The powerful Shelby Tzung and Ross Allen made a good fist of it, performing with authority, but for me the dance didn’t quite have the attitude it should. It was just a touch too nice, too polite. It needed taking closer to the edge with a few more movement full stops and capital letters.

Shelby Tzung and Ross Allen in the New Sleep pas de deuxPhoto Paul Kolnik
Shelby Tzung and Ross Allen in the New Sleep pas de deux
Photo Paul Kolnik

It was back to Balanchine to round things off and Bourrée Fantastique, a classical showpiece featuring 44 dancers across three movements that runs from comedy, through romance, to glorious exuberance. It was among his first creations for New York City Ballet, but for some reason has not been danced by them since 1993.

The opening movement was a cracker. A mini-story, Bourrée Fantastique sees the man longing for a kiss, just one kiss, from the woman, who teases and makes him wait and wait. Mary Kate Edwards and KJ Takahashi played the tall girl-short guy humour for all it was worth. Takahashi is clearly something of a livewire, and comes complete with super high jumps and a winning smile. There’s some interesting choreography too as Balanchine takes aim at a few conventions, including flexed feet and pointework all jumbled up. The man does eventually get his kiss, by the way.

There’s no such luck for the man in the Prelude, which brings a total change of pace and mood. Mia Domini and Colby Clark were the couple who meet but who cannot connect, and who eventually slide apart. They were full of poise, bringing just the right hint of darkness and mystery to proceedings. The dazzling Fete Polonaise, led by Amarra Hong and Ross Allen, sent everyone away happy.

The June 3 workshop also featured the pas de deux from Balanchine’s Agon in tribute to the legendary Arthur Mitchell, who died in 2018.

The list of destinations for the graduating dancers is impressive indeed. Apart from New York City Ballet, they are off to the National Ballet of Canada, Sarasota Ballet, Semperoper Ballett in Dresden and most major regional American companies. As one stage of their journey draws to a close, another exciting, challenging stage is about to begin.