Chances are, the word "playful" doesn't come to mind when you picture Ib Andersen. Artistic director for Ballet Arizona since 2000, he's prone to brooding, somber expressions. But there's clearly a different side to Andersen, and it's brilliantly channeled through his newest dance work, simply titled Rio.
Rio is part of the three-dance lineup for this year's Today's Masters, which opened Thursday, March 23, at the Orpheum Theatre, and continues through Sunday, March 26. Today's Masters also includes Rigged Games, a new work by Nayon Iovino, and a classical Russian ballet called Paquita.
The latter served mainly to contrast classical and contemporary ballet, highlighting dancers' facility for moving between them. And Rigged Games was a fun exploration of identity, complete with dancers representing different parts of one personality popping in and out of a giant drawer.
Rio was the clear stand-out on opening night, for a couple reasons.
First, it's inspired by samba, a Brazilian dance with African roots that's all about swaying the body while undulating the hips. It's a seductive, playful dance — and Ballet Arizona worked it to full effect. When male dancers dressed in cerulean blue tights faced towards the back of the stage, then shook their back sides before a captive audience, they actually managed to look sophisticated while doing so.
Beyond the invigorating mix of salsa-infused ballet with music by Philip Glass, there's the Ballet Arizona backstory that takes this piece from playful to poignant.
Three Ballet Arizona dancers come from Brazil — including Iovino, as well as Helio Lima and Ricardo Santos. Other company dancers hail from Argentina, Australia, Canada, Cuba, Kazakhstan, and Spain.
By incorporating movement from other cultures, Andersen subtly addresses immigration-related issues without getting overtly political. And he honors the international make-up of Ballet Arizona, while elevating the central role immigrants have already played in American culture.
Thus, his Rio is a beautiful mix of playful with poignant.
Rio is noteworthy in part because there's no single dancer who stands out from all the rest. Instead, the entire cast flows seamlessly together, like organisms moving in unison through a delicate coral reef.
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But it's the ending for Rio, which also closes the show, that packs the most power. After all but four dancers leave the stage, those who remain walk backwards into a dark envelope of haze. The carnaval celebration Andersen has imaged must come to close, as those living in poverty sink back into their barrios.
Ballet Arizona performs Today's Masters through Sunday, May 27. Get information and tickets on the Ballet Arizona website.
Correction: A preview version of this post referred to a Ballet Arizona dancer as Ricardo Sanchez. His name is Ricardo Santos.