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Dance Review:


At the Athenaeum Theatre


Chicagoans had a rare opportunity to experience a program featuring classic George Balanchine works and world premieres inspired by the neo-classical balletic tradition, May 17-19, at the Athenaeum Theatre. And they didn’t have to wait for the New York City Ballet to visit either (which this famed company never does).

Even more impressive than a visiting world-class dance company was the presence of so many young dancers (adolescents and teenagers) from the Ballet Chicago Studio Company (BCSC) delivering spot-on performances of a fiendishly challenging and varied repertoire.

Since its founding in 1997 by Daniel Duell – former principal dancer with the New York City Ballet – BCSC has presented over 150 performances throughout Chicago and the midwest. Ensemble members consist of year-round advanced students from the School of Ballet Chicago, under the direction of Duell’s wife, Patricia Blair.

The school and company offer a unique opportunity for aspiring professional dancers who yearn to perform established repertory and brand-new pieces rather than less adventurous recitals. The fact that these young artists can be part of an authentic production of Balanchine’s signature 1940 "Concerto Barocco" in Chicago is its own unique and inspiring phenomenon.

Their efforts proved commendable during the Saturday matinee’s performance of this bare-bones, plotless ballet in which the dancers’ long, lean bodies serve as pliable vessels accentuating each chord of Bach’s "Concerto for Two Violins in D Minor."

While the corps dancers have not entirely nailed Balanchine’s mathematically swift music-movement connection, they demonstrated a facility for the off-kilter but fluid line favored by the revolutionary 20th century Russian choreographer. Laura Dunlop’s precisely focused pas de deux with her very giving partner, Stephen Sanford, exemplified a serious attention to detail -- further accented by soloist Alana Czernobil’s ability to paradoxically combine speed with languid, delayed extensions.

The world premiere of Blair’s "Juxtaposition," pairing Philip Glass’ rumblingly dissonant music from "Mishima" with Mozart’s ethereal "Ave Verum," did not achieve its intended transcendence. Its obvious theme of peace resolving discord existed on too literal a plane to be remotely intriguing. The capable dancers seemed to exist in two separate ballets ("Discord" being the more invigorating one). Julie Niekrasz’s "Peace" solo, while beautifully executed, presented too pat a solution to a complex concept.

Children in the audience let out a collective "ooh" when the sparkling fairies appeared in Duell’s mischievous excerpt from "A Midsummer Night’s Dream." This brisk piece was followed by more awed outbursts when the poised dancers for "Emperor Waltz," Duell’s grand salute to Viennese waltz king Johann Strauss II, entered in 19th century formal wear. "Emperor Waltz" proved to be a highlight – illustrating the performers’ versatility and an exceptionally strong group of young male dancers (Sanford, Samuel Feipel and Ted Seymour).

For Balanchine’s bravura 1960 "Tchaikovsky Pas De Deux," Duell paired Joffrey Ballet of Chicago principal dancer Willy Shives with BCSC’s graduating ensemble member, Lydia Freeman. One of the most cruelly demanding – but vibrant and uplifting – duets in Balanchine’s prolific canon, this piece experienced a few tentative moments. The disparity between the tall, muscular Shives and the petite Freeman also created some discombobulating optical illusions.

Shives was a meticulous, gentle partner to Freeman, who specializes in allegro movement. His solo segments underscored his status as a much-respected craftsman. But Freeman, who has achieved a high degree of technical mastery and speed, needs to concentrate on textured and nuanced artistry, as well as a less mechanical carriage.

The program concluded with Duell’s "Ellington Suite" – a five-part mood piece combining elements of jazz, musical theater and neo-classical ballet. Once again, the men – Sanford, Feipel and Seymour – proved their mettle at soaring technique and malleable theatricality; and Sanford and Niekrasz danced a rapturous but understated pas de deux.

Overall, the BCSC is adept at proper stage demeanor and exhibits a firm technical foundation. Now they need to open up and become more distinguished and kinetic actors. Nevertheless, their dedication is apparent.

If you repeat the words "Ballet Chicago" over and over very quickly, they start sounding a lot like Balanchine – and the indefatigable master of tilting classical ballet at an evocative modernist angle would be proud of these young fleet-footed artists.•

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