Ballet Arizona returned to Desert Botanical Garden this season with a new site-specific work called Round, choreographed by artistic director Ib Andersen. His first site-specific production for the Desert Botanical Garden, titled Topia, premièred there in 2012 – and was so well received that it returned in 2013.
Topia set a high bar as a site-specific work, in part because it beautifully integrated ballet with the backdrop of the Sonoran Desert. Bold swaths of green and purple lights bathed saguaro cacti behind the 80-foot stage where dancers gracefully embodied choreography that conjured images of sweeping desert winds.
The desert garden — rich in varied colors, lines, and textures amplified by exquisite lighting design — magnified Andersen’s exploration in Topia of humanity’s relationship to an expansive natural world.
By contrast, Round is oddly detached from the desert that surrounds it – prompting reflection on why it was even staged there in the first place. Round embodies “themes that explore man’s connection to nature,” according to brief program notes. But nature never gets the spotlight, because although Ballet Arizona performs Round inside one of the city's most gorgeous preserves, seats are arranged so audience sightlines obscure views of its enchanting plant life.
Rather than being set on a horizontal stage with a vast expanse of desert behind it, Round is performed on a square platform that includes a circular area for dance and runways at each corner for dancers to enter or exit. Audience members are seated on all sides of the stage – making Round a true in-the-round performance.
But instead of a beautifully lit landscape, viewers see dancers set against a backdrop of other audience members in a sea of white chairs and tablecloths. Gone is the wonder of Topia. It’s been replaced with visual clutter.
The desert never gets its due during Round – which defeats the purpose of presenting the new work outdoors.
Still, the production has merit.
Andersen’s choreography for Round, which mixes classical and contemporary ballet with elements of acrobatics and folk dance, is challenging and complex. Circles of various sizes abound, created by individuals and groups of dancers. Dancers climb over one another, swing and rotate each other, and sometimes even look like they’re crowd-surfing at a rock concert.
Round is one of more than a dozen works Andersen has choreographed for Ballet Arizona since 2000. On Wednesday, May 18, (essentially opening night, after the previous night’s performance was halted for bad weather) Natalia Magnicaballi, Nayon Iovino, and Amber Lewis were the stand-out dancers.
Magnicaballi, who has danced with Ballet Arizona since 2002, showed a commanding presence, dancing with exquisite lines and sophisticated musicality. With Ballet Arizona since 2012, Lewis exhibited a quiet confidence coupled with clean technique. Iovino, a skilled choreographer in his own right who joined Ballet Arizona in 2012, created a compelling sense of drama. He's ever-engaging here, but his expressions are never overwrought.
Unfortunately, several other cast members looked unpolished — and sometimes simply not strong enough to pull off Andersen's work. Some bobbled during small moments of losing balance. Others appeared strained by the weight of lifting or carrying other dancers. And several times the synchronicity was off.
To some, Andersen’s choreography for Round may seem avant-garde. But it's clearly rooted in choreographers whose works Andersen performed while a dancer with the Royal Danish Ballet in Copenhagen and New York City Ballet – including August Bournonville, George Balanchine, Jerome Robbins, and Peter Martins.
Like Danish choreographer Bournonville, who bucked the trend of using male dancers mostly to make female dancers shine, Andersen’s choreography demonstrates an appreciation for male dancers in their own right. They're featured prominently in Round, in groups small and large, often partnering or lifting one another in ways traditionally reserved for male with female pairings. And like Balanchine, whose most iconic ballets include Apollo, Andersen draws heavily from Greek mythology.
As they did in Topia, male cast members for Round often look like ancient statues come to life. More often than not, they’re dressed only in dance briefs that were nude in color, or sometimes metallic silver. Frequently, their skin appeared porcelain, illuminated by lighting designer Michael Korsch to create a stark contrast to the dark sky. It's an interesting bit of gender reversal, since it's typically tutu-clad ballerinas who are lit to create a pearl-like sheen.
Women dancers wear metallic silver dance shorts, too, paired with distracting tube tops. But more often, the women wear leotards accompanied by variations on the tunic, a fashion staple of ancient Greece basically comprising rectangular fabric worn front and back. The color palette for costumes, designed by Andersen and Leonor Texidor, also includes metallic variations on gold, bronze, indigo, and green.
Round opens with two pieces by British composer Thomas Ades, who puts a contemporary twist on music by Francois Couperin, composer for Louis XIV at Versailles. Works by Claude Debussy, J.S. Bach, and Maurice Ravel follow — each rife with historical significance in the worlds of classical music and dance. Each brief interlude of flute, cello, or drums signals changes in mood as the production builds towards a fervent denouement — and prompts consideration of ways live music would magnify the impact of Andersen's piece.
For all its virtues as a ballet, the experience of seeing Round in this setting is a letdown. Certainly, performing Round in the round has a nice ring to it. But switching up the stage was a clear case of trying to fix something that simply wasn't broken. And in the end, it merely sidelines the desert, which should be one of the stars of the show.
Ballet Arizona performs Round through June 4 at the Desert Botanical Garden. Performances start at 8:15 p.m. General admission is $36. Table seating is available for an additional charge, and food and beverages are available for purchase at the event. For information and tickets, visit www.balletaz.org.
Correction: This article originally stated that Kaelyn Magee was among the show's stand-out dancers. However, Magee did not perform at this date of the show. The dancer was Amber Lewis, who was filling in for Magee in an unannounced casting change.
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