Graceful, giddy debut for Richmond Ballet's 35th season

While Richmond Ballet’s current season celebrates its 35th anniversary as a professional company that boasts national and international acclaim, its success must acknowledge the creation of the School of Richmond Ballet in 1975, it being the root element for growth of dancers on the way to becoming professionals. (Its origins actually extend back to 1957 as a civic ballet for local dance students.)

The “35th Anniversary Celebration” in Richmond’s Carpenter Theatre on Sept. 29, featured eight pieces, a majority of which by internationally renowned choreographers were given world premieres by Richmond. It was informative to have video comments from these folk (and a composer) introduce each work; the videos also served to express their admiration for the talents and skills of Richmond and Stoner Winslett, its choreographer-artistic director since the group’s founding in 1980.

The fare opened with a work acknowledging the importance of the School. “Circus Polka,” set to Stravinsky, is a work by Jerome Robbins that featured nearly 50 students of the School of Richmond Ballet. For a large group of varying degrees of skill, the sense of form and cohesion was impressive, indicative of the fine training being provided. The bulk of the program was a look back at moments from ballets crafted for and danced by Richmond over the years, one of the most beautiful being the balcony pas de deux from “Romeo and Juliet,” choreographed by Malcolm Burn, Richmond’s ballet master and artistic associate. It was exquisite and elegant and captured the romantic essence of Prokofiev’s rich score. Of the many “Romeo and Juliet’s” I’ve seen, this was a sumptuous moment to savor, especially as done by Maggie Small and Fernando Sabino.

Charming beyond words was William Soleau’s Titania and Bottom pas de deux from “Midsummer Night’s Dream,” set to Mendelssohn’s “Nocturne,” a fine blend of elegance and humor, qualities easily embraced by Sabrina Holland and Matthew Frain. Two portions of Val Caniparoli’s “Stolen Moments,” to Rameau, were eye-catching, his style merging classical technique with contemporary applications and expressive hand movements. Notable were corps moments of mirror movements that were cohesively and concisely done.

Ma Cong’s finale to “Ershter Vals” offered waltz-type episodes that were uplifting, lyrical and flowing, as was Jessica Lang’s duet from “To Familiar Spaces in Dream” thoughtful. Here Lauren Fagone and Phillip Skaggs, on whom the piece was set and who are now retired, returned to offer this mesmerizing dance. The final portion of Winslett’s “Windows,” with stirring music commissioned by Jonathan Romeo, merges elements of the entire work that reflects evolving cultural changes and influences as seen through the lens of selected periods of dance. This cliff notes text doesn’t do it justice, but the idea of windows on life and perspective is key. This section was filled with creative singular and collective movement that coalesced smartly with Romeo’s compelling score, based on Paganini’s 24th variation.

The event closed with Balanchine’s effervescent “Who Cares?”, the use of which was provided by the Balanchine Trust. Only top notch companies get said permission, thus this one. It is a brilliant setting of 16 songs by George Gershwin, among them “Strike Up the Band,” “Embraceable You” and “I Got Rhythm.” It was bubbly and fun — one solid smile start to confetti-filled finish.

Richmond put its all into this energetic, graceful and giddy work, illustrating the perfect blend of music, movement and emotion. Throughout, Erin Freeman led members of the Richmond Symphony with a careful hand, coordinating things between the pit and the stage that brought spontaneity and immediacy to the moment which, again, while borrowing from one of the Gershwin songs, says this about the highly talented Richmond Ballet: “‘S Wonderful.”

Shulson, a Williamsburg resident, has been covering the arts for more than 40 years. He makes a guest appearance in Margaret Truman's "Murder at the Opera."

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