Ballet Arizona's Today's Masters Is Anything But Boring in Downtown Phoenix

Picture a tiny ballerina, with hair bun and tutu, methodically turning inside an old-fashioned jewelry box. For some, it's the quintessential image of a dancer. Everything is evenly-paced and predictable. But that's not the sort of ballet featured in Today's Masters, a two-hour program being performed by Ballet Arizona through Sunday, March 27, at the Orpheum Theatre.

That’s because watching two of the program’s five pieces, both choreographed by Alejandro Cerrudo, is more like opening the lid of a tightly wound jack-in-the-box – and then having a Gumby toy on steroids pop out. That cheerful green figure with bendable limbs could move every which way; not unlike the cast of Thursday’s opening night performance.

Cerrudo, who serves as resident choreographer with Hubbard Street Dance Chicago, hails from Spain. His pieces Second to Last (Second Movement) and Pacopepepluto comprise the middle section of the three-act program. Ballet Arizona commissioned Second to Last, and first performed it during the 2013-14 season. It’s their first pass at performing Pacopepepluto, but they nailed it.

Three pairs of dancers, including uber-limber Lauren Flower and Eric Hipolito Jr., moved during Second to Last like birds or sea creatures compelled to undertake a delicate, fragile mating ritual. Forget those pesky pirouettes replete with endless rotations. Second to Last was filled with lunges, scissor kicks, and undulations.

But then Ballet Arizona pushed it further, as Nayon Iovino, Helio Lima, and Alejandro Mendez performed Pacopepepluto, which replaces characteristic movements of classical ballet with more modern fare. Think mime, gymnastics, and quirky variations on famed Broadway choreographer Bob Fosse’s jazz hands – plus hints of erotic dance and Steve Martin’s old King Tut bit for Saturday Night Live.

That’s followed by Iovino’s Inner Layer, which premièred in 2014 during Ballet Arizona’s Innovations. There’s no music when it opens, as lights hover over the dancers like ghosts — but the audience hears the steps, and breathing, of its six dancers. Denim tops get stripped away (yes, the women wear leotards underneath), and used as props during various push-and-pull movements accompanied by sounds signaling automation. They're worn again by the time the dance ends.

Today’s Masters also includes choreography by August Bournonville, who directed the Royal Danish Ballet for nearly 50 years during the mid-19th century, and by Ib Andersen, who danced with the Royal Danish Ballet before joining the New York City Ballet under renowned 20th century choreographer George Balanchine.

Bournoville’s Konservatoriet, which sets dancers in a ballet class, opens the Today’s Masters program. Staged by Andersen, it beautifully captures Bournoville’s romanticism replete with lifts and feet aflutter. Michelle Vagi, who joined the company in 2006, delivered a stunning performance on opening night. Her arms reached towards the sky like a tender plant yearning for the sun. Expressive, but not overwrought, her technique was crisp and strong.

Today’s Masters concludes with two movements from Symphonie Classique, choreographed by Andersen. Dancers convene under four white chandeliers suspended overhead, donning classic ballet attire including tutus for the women and velvet jackets with tights for the men. Two hours earlier, audiences might have pegged them for typical jewelry box-type dancers. But after seeing the company’s growing facility with coupling contemporary and classical dance, it’s clear that company dancers and other creatives aren’t about to box themselves in.

Today’s Masters continues through Sunday, March 27, at the Orpheum Theatre, 203 West Adams Street. Tickets start at $25. For information or tickets visit Ballet Arizona online or call the box office at 602-381-1096.