What an uplifting performance last night by the students of the Gelsey Kirkland Academy of Classical Ballet, now completing its second year. The Academy's mission is "to encourage a renaissance of dramatic storytelling in ballet by providing specialized training for gifted students and by establishing a classically-oriented studio company capable of creating new dramatic works." The evening's dancers – not categorized as soloists or corps, seniors or juniors, advanced or intermediate – were grouped as Botticelli, Raphael, or Caravaggio after the great Renaissance painters. The school's faculty includes veterans of the famous Mariinsky, Royal Danish, and Perm companies. For this showcase, the legendary Ivan Nagy lent a coaching hand and ABT Principal Herman Cornejo, considered by many to be the greatest male classical dancer currently on the face of the earth, performed.
The overwhelming impression from last night was that quality is still important.
The first third of the program included divertissements from Swan Lake Act III, Le Corsaire, Little Humpback Horse (Saint-Leon), and Esmeralda along with Bournonville's Jockey Dance and Petipa's Carnival of Venice. The final offering before the intermission was Swan Lake Act II excerpts with 24 swans including the lovely Katia Raj, who performed Odette with her tall, very attentive Siegfried, Alexander Mays. While the divertissements were danced very well – carefully and energetically – this last section bolted the evening up a notch. The corps included dancers of every conceivable physique and yet they moved together as one: legs, feet, fingers, eyes. Ms. Raj did an admirable job manipulating her extraordinarily long limbs into the signature shapes of Odette, and Mr. Mays' careful placement of hands and beautiful, manly line suggested great promise as a potential big stage danseur.
Haglund remembers from Gelsey's early teaching efforts at David Howard's studio how she impresses upon each student to open up his/her face by raising the eyebrows without wrinkling the forehead and looking up into the light. No small task. While the results of that are exactly what is called for in a big theater, it all looked a little strange in the small Symphony Space. However, it will most likely look extraordinary on the performance video, which is available for pre-order here.
The middle section of the program included excerpts from Act II of La Bayadere, a ballet which was in play by ABT at The Met at the exact same moment, although the Act IIs do not represent the same sections of La Bayadere. Act II at ABT is the Kingdom of the Shades, whereas Act II for the GKA performance included the Scarf Dance, Jug Dance, Drum Dance, Golden Idol, and Grand Pas by Solor and Gamzatti. Let's just say that GKA's Gamzatti, the lovely and mysterious India Rose, was NOT dancing around with her mouth opened as apparently was the case down at The Met last night. This confident young dancer demonstrated the aplomb and upper class manners bred into Gamzatti while appearing steely secure in her technique. Her Solor, the tall and handsome John Pickup, lifted Gamzatti effortlessly and demonstrated strong partnering skills. Can you imagine having a big, strong guy walk into a fledgling ballet academy and introduce himself as John Pickup? It would be like a sign from God.
Joao Frazao took a good stab at the Golden Idol solo and excelled earlier in the evening in the Carnival of Venice. Wonderful stage presence and elevation, but still quite young. He's on our radar, though.
The evening concluded with excerpts from Act II of La Sylphide. Haglund was giddy even before it started because another one of his favorite ballerinas, Erica Cornejo, was in attendance with her handsome husband, Carlos Molina. If it hadn't seemed inappropriate in such a church-like setting, Haglund would have thrown himself at Erica's feet and begged her to come back to ABT. Intermission texts received from those in attendance at the Met pleaded with him to do so.
If Swan Lake Act II by the GKA students was an attention-getter, La Sylphide was the mega-horned announcement that the academy is not only committed to quality but to distinguishing itself as such. It was an incredibly fine job, beautifully staged, harmonized, and authentic. Herman Cornejo blew out the air conditioning of the theater with his surging electrical allegro and charm. (We have to blame the air conditioning on somebody.) What a treat to see James' variations danced with such clarity, precision, and joy. Almost all of the Sylphs, including the magical Gretchen LaMotte, were noticeably taller than Herman which, after the initial startle, gave the whole scene an added dimension of fantasy. The Sylphs were perfectly beautiful in their Bournonville port de bras and carriage. Ms. LaMotte, a very tall sprite indeed, was playful and joyful, and a very lovely dancer. Her wings failed to fall off after James wrapped the poisonous scarf around her, but that has even happened to Veronika Part. The moments when she seemingly stumbled forward after having gone blind were very touching.
It was a totally enjoyable evening. The near-capacity crowd thought so, too. Can't forget to mention the beautiful tutus designed by the folks at Tutu.com
The Pump Bump Award must be bestowed upon Herman Cornejo, an artist who makes our lives worth living.