This past Saturday (Aug. 15) marked this year’s one-night-only installment of ballet tech cincinnati’s annual Gala of International Dance Stars at the Aronoff Center.
It was a night of connections. Connections are necessary for any performance worth its salt—both with the audience and amongst the performers. But when it comes to dance, connectivity arguably becomes even more central to success and enjoyment. —-Here, btc reached out to the audience with an unexpected (and uncredited in the program) “welcome” gift: a short Michael Jackson tribute performed by local dance students in conjunction with Kasib’s p.e.a.c.e.-y.a.r.d project and Byron Carter Entertainment. Because Jackson was uber-famous and well-known as a dancer, I imagine these three short pieces offered a familiar nod to draw in spectators who might not have seen a great deal of concert dance. A rendition of the choreography in Jackson’s cinematic “Thriller” video was a highlight that brought back memories (for me, anyway).
Over the years, this annual Gala performance event has evolved from focusing on classical and neoclassical ballet-centric pas de deux to a majority of modern-dance-steeped duets. Sure, the women still wear pointe shoes and get lifted and the technique is fundamentally balletic, but gone are the tutus. Last year, btc even removed the word “ballet” from the program’s name in favor of “dance.” Now it reads: Gala of International Dance Stars. No matter what you call it, it’s a reliably high-quality summer program that’s not to be missed.
In a program that’s almost exclusively a collection of male-female duets performed by about a half-dozen pairs, the pieces where the partners’ connections are strongest generally result in the most powerful and moving segments.
From the start, connections were palpable in National Ballet of Canada’s Sonia Rodriguez and Aleksandar Antonijevic’s romantic opener, the pas de deux from Lady of the Camellias, choreographed by Val Caniparoli (a nationally-known choreographer who’s created pieces for Cincinnati Ballet). From her stuttering feet to her supple spine, Rodriguez’s ethereal presence embodies perfection. Her technical prowess complements her delicate softness that was as light as her gossamer gown. The pair’s complex and daring lifts, of which there were many, took off with the easy regality of birds. They made it all look effortless.
Minor-key music dominated the evening, as did works filled with undulations of torso and unfurling of arms. Long-limbed and long-bodied Gala veterans Kellye A. Saunders and Matthew Prescott, she with cropped black hair and he with a shock of blond curls, always cut a commanding onstage presence. The two pieces they performed this year—“Once Before, Twice After” and Prescott’s own creation, the world premier “Encantado”—held a mesmerizing, almost ritualistic quality. The pair mutually climb and intertwine in majestic sculptural forms that suggest ancient archetypes. They combine so engagingly, they often seem to become one. (See Kathy Valin’s interview with Saunders and Prescott here.)
Speaking of “One,” it’s the title of the signature duet from rising-star duo, Jacoby and Pronk, who grace this month’s cover of Dance Magazine. For their first Gala appearance last year, Rubinald (“Rubi”) Pronk was sidelined by a last-minute injury, yet Drew Jacoby, ironically and admirably, performed their “One” duet as a solo.
This year, their performances alone were worth the price of admission. The energy of their connection is palpable. They carry a delicious underlying tension in every move that builds and smolders. A fresh, almost futuristic feel permeates their dancing, but it’s anything but cold or robotic; each gesture is full of feeling and sensuality. She’s 5’11” of graceful yet grounded muscular strength tempered by an almost feline presence. He’s over 6 feet tall with flexibility beyond reason. He launches a split leap where his legs go beyond 180 degrees and he lands like a feather. (I think I overheard a fellow critic sitting near me gasp, “Holy shit,” at this point.)
Somewhat less exhilarating were the two brief, untitled solos of internal focus, one each from Alejandro Alverez and Bernard Martin. The two also performed a duet together (“Deux”) that didn’t quite gel. Their dancing was skillful and often elegant, yet I had the feeling they were tearing through the movements as if they had a train to catch. Then again, that might just be choreographer Shawn Hounsell’s movement study style.
Unexpected acrobatics suddenly appeared in the second act: Hamburg Ballet’s Yaroslav Ivanenko in the lively world premier of “Just Like That” and Jamal Story’s handstand, back-flips and back-handsprings in “Solitude” from A Gentle Prelude. In between his tumbling and spins into oblivion set to Duke Ellington, Story also provided some of the relatively few leaps seen all evening.
I could go on about the astounding feats seen throughout show, but that’s the powerhouse
fun of a Gala — thrill after thrill, courtesy of top international companies’ top dancers.