Guest Critic: In Chautauqua Debut, Stars of American Ballet Take Audience on Thrill Ride

  • Dancers Antonina Skobina and Denys Drozdyuk perform a ballet routine named “Irresistible”, during the Stars of America Ballet Recital on Wednesday night, June 26, 2019 in the Chautauqua Amphitheater. “Irresistible”, features music by Michael Jackson and choreography by Denys Drozdyuk. ALEXANDER WADLEY/STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER
Review by Steve Sucato:

One of several dancer-founded dance showcases touring the United States each year, New York City Ballet principal dancer Daniel Ulbricht’s Stars of American Ballet made its triumphant debut Wednesday in the Amphitheater, in a mixed-repertoire program that brought the audience to its feet multiple times and left them wanting much more at program’s end.

A former student of the School of Dance in the late-1990s, Ulbricht, a St. Petersburg, Florida, native, formed Stars of American Ballet a decade ago after his mother was diagnosed with cancer and was unable to travel to see him dance. The idea was to bring top-flight dance to her and others who might not otherwise get the opportunity to experience it.

Ulbricht and company — which for Wednesday’s program might have been more aptly named, “Stars of New York City Ballet,” given seven of the 10 dancers were either soloists or principal dancers with the company — all lived up to their star billing in a stylistic variety of works.

The program opened with George Balanchine’s “Apollo,” the often performed, 30-minute ballet classic, that Balanchine originally created for Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes in 1928, and one of the iconic choreographer’s earliest works. Set to Igor Stravinsky’s composition, “Apollon Musagète,” the ballet depicted Apollo (Adrian Danchig-Waring), the young god of music being visited by his three half-sister muses who instruct him in their individual talents via a series of solo dances.

The first of them, Calliope, muse of poetry, carried with her a tablet. Danced by Sara Adams, who is also a School of Dance alum, Balanchine’s illustrative choreography for Calliope saw Adams mimicking writing poetry, and then, with her mouth agape, used her hands to trail a line outward from her mouth to indicate the recitation of said poetry.

Polyhymnia, muse of mime, whose symbol was a mask, came next. The unfortunate victim of a technical glitch, Carlisle, Pennsylvania-native Abi Stafford danced Polyhymnia, and was left standing onstage for an uncomfortably long time, waiting for the music for her solo to start. When it finally did, she too performed gestural movement illustrative of her talent, most noticeably holding one finger to her lips in a shushing gesture as she danced.

The last of the half-sisters, the lyre-carrying Terpsichore, muse of song and dance, was portrayed by Unity Phelan dancing the role for the very first time. She powered through her vibrant solo, full of waving arms and high kicks, that showcased her wonderful facility and skillfulness as a dancer.

  • From left, dancers Sara Adams, Adrian Danchig-Waring, and Unity Phelan, perform a ballet routine named “Apollo”, during the Stars of America Ballet Recital on Wednesday night, June 26, 2019 in the Chautauqua Amphitheater. “Apollo”, features music by Igor Stravinsky and choreography by George Balanchine. ALEXANDER WADLEY/STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

Each of the women were marvelous in their solos and in group dances that saw them twisting in and out of pretzel-like formations, on their heels in duck walks or moving one after the other across the stage on pointe in bourrée en couru (a series of tiny steps) that had them looking like mechanical dolls. But the ballet ultimately belonged to Danchig-Waring, who appeared every bit a Greek god in his commanding stage presence and in his technically brilliant dancing. His quick, sharp movements, jumps, leaps and turns were near flawless.

After an intermission, the program majorly switched gears with “Irresistible,” a ballroom dance duet performed to Michael Jackson’s “Smooth Criminal.” Denys Drozdyuk, a former winner of the TV program “So You Think You Can Dance Canada,” choreographed the number and performed it with fellow ballroom champion and Ukraine native Antonina Skobina. The pair delighted the audience with fast-moving, daring and adroitly danced contemporary ballroom movement, infused with Jackson signature dance moves. The killer duet surely would have landed the pair on the coveted “Hot Tamale Train,” a term coined by Mary Murphy, ballroom expert and judge on America’s “So You Think You Can Dance.”

Next, Ulbricht made his first appearance onstage in the 15-minute solo, “(A) Suite of Dances,” choreographed by Jerome Robbins in 1994 to music by Johann Sebastian Bach that was played live by cellist Ann Kim. The playful and charming ballet was originally created for dancer Mikhail Baryshnikov, whose footprints remained all over it. Looking like a blend of improvisation from Baryshnikov mixed with bits of Robbins’ ballet and Broadway stylings, including cartwheels and somersaults, the solo created banter between dancer and musician that Ulbricht and Kim, who is a member of the New York City Ballet Orchestra, executed deliciously.

For his part Ulbricht brought a carefree ease and humor to the sometimes difficult and taxing choreography, while Kim brought poetry to Bach’s music in her playing. Perhaps the only letdown in the ballet choreographically was a rather bland, slow section — an obvious breather for the dancer, but also a momentum killer — which saw an introspective Ulbricht amble about the stage in thought. 

In the first of two dancer-choreographed ballets to round out the program, Danish dancer Ask la Cour’s pas de deux, “Change of Heart,” took the stage like a runaway freight train in its drive and unyielding pace. Performed to music by Edvard Grieg, la Cour and dancer Teresa Reichlen ripped through contemporary ballet choreography, that while lovely enough, provided little emotional connection between the dancers. The relationship piece could have benefitted from some purposeful pace changes to better explore the characters’ tumultuous bond.

Capping the program was perhaps its biggest “wow” piece, “Tres Hombres,” choreographed by Ulbricht, Drozdyuk and Lex Ishimoto. Danced to music by Astor Piazzolla, the trio of Ulbricht, Drozdyuk and former Boston Ballet first soloist Joseph Gatti, released the bravura dance hounds in a barrage of high flying jumps, blurringly fast turns, spins and leg beats. Steeped in machismo attitude and flamenco flair, “Tres Hombres” left many in the audience gleefully wondering what just hit them.

In the end, Stars of American Ballet was the perfect example of what happens when you give the keys to the luxury sports car to world-class dancers and let them drive the programming. They put the pedal to the metal, do donuts in the parking lot and take us all on a thrill ride we will never forget.

Based in Painesville, Ohio, Steve Sucato is a contributing writer, critic and reporter. His work has appeared in such publications as The Plain Dealer, The Buffalo News, Pittsburgh City Paper and Dance Magazine, among others.

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Steve Sucato

The author Steve Sucato