Last night, I was thrilled to venture out from my usual exhaustion of third year medical school to catch the last performance Sacramento Ballet’s fall program program. This is my first time seeing the Sacramento Ballet, except maybe for about 20 years ago when my cousin was a little dancer in their program of Cinderella. But once I heard that their program included Trey McIntyre and Balanchine’s Serenade, I couldn’t stay away.
I realize that I’m most likely not Sacramento Ballet’s target audience. For this program, Sacramento Ballet heavily promoted its version of Dracula, choreographed by their own artistic director Ron Cunningham, timely for Halloween. They also encouraged audience members to dress up for Halloween, and many audience members actually did, including a convincing Beetlejuice wandering the lobby during intermission. I was impressed with the audience turnout as well, particularly on the closing night of a program run, including running into a college classmate I hadn’t seen in over a decade, a random friend who’d never gone to the ballet before, and a doctor who works at the same hospital I do. Sacramento Ballet really does an excellent job catering to their audience of the residents of Sacramento, making it fun and accessible to go to the ballet. And in addition, I could sense their goal of trying to expose Sacramento audiences to high quality ballet as well, including throwing in a Balanchine classic and a very of-the-moment choreographer, Trey McIntyre. The company’s goals are lofty and admirable.
The program opened with Trey McIntyre’s Second Before the Ground. Who knows what the title means, but this piece showed us why McIntyre is so popular amongst ballet companies today. With music performed by the Kronos Quartet, the quirky strains of nostalgia and joy in the music reflects the high speed fluidity of the movements heavily based in classical ballet vocabulary. Innovation places this piece firmly in the 21st century, with experimentation outside classical ballet poses around every twist and turn. He also utilizes two opposing groups of dancers in different ways, often divided along gender lines. These groups never directly mirror each other but remain as contrasts or reactions to each other, often paralleling different aspects of the music.
McIntyre shows us that even in this plotless ballet, moments are couched in the familiar. The awkwardness of a junior high school dance pervades a sweet and charming duet. The raucous fun of a group square dance reigns in another movement. The men are in khakis, shirtless but with charming suspenders. Girls are in simple light dresses reminiscent of summer dresses. He firmly shows us his very American midwest upbringing with these familiar feelings that are never directly alluded to, but felt.
The program continues with Balanchine’s Serenade. It was thrilling to have my very first full viewing of this piece in its entirety, having seen excerpts all over the internet as well as a school performance of it in college. This piece is easily one of Balanchine’s masterpieces, and I love that it was choreographed for a group of adult beginning ballet students. The opening sequence of women in white romantic tutus to the strains of the richness of Tschaikovsky’s Serenade for Strings, with their feet in parallel, open up to the dancing body with their feet turned suddenly into first position. Basic class exercises are turned into something more than the sum of the movements strung together, flowing together from one to the next. History says that a woman in his adult ballet class saunters into class late, and he choreographs this part into the ballet.
With the stage filled with women in white, the choreography whispers of something ideal, of something heavenly. His formations of women in geometric shapes remain fresh and new despite this piece being choreographed in 1934 (wow), from small groups of 2-3 to the full ensemble. You see how Balanchine is the father of modern ballet, with countless choreographers today copying aspects of his choreography. But Balanchine does what he does with such subtlety and complexity, with movements woven deeply into the music. And is there any other piece that showcases the arabesque in all its grandeur and vulnerability?
The program wrapped up with Ron Cunningham’s Dracula. In all, the audience loved it and was obviously waiting for this piece the entire night. One man in our row ending up leaving in a huff, complaining loudly and bitterly that the two pieces before Dracula were even in the program, saying he refused to wait two hours to see the main attraction. This piece was a draw for many, but admittedly not for myself. The company pulled out all the stops with their sets and effects, including a hard-working fog machine, grandiose sets, and high pitched screams and “dracula” roars. Melodrama dripped off the stage, mainly remaining on that one frenzied high-pitched note the entire performance. Again, I’m not their target audience; my fiancee had to explain to me the different aspects of vampire culture, including their hatred for garlic and their need to continue to kill to stay alive. But it was an excellent vehicle for the company to shine, showcasing their physicality and dramatic skills. Who also knew that vampires were so sexy?? The audience loved it and ate up every moment.
In all, my first experience with the Sacramento Ballet was an excellent one. The company clearly knows how to cater to their audience, and also aims to show varied, historic and modern works as well as entertain. The performers are superb, all of them dancing with a modern snap and fluid clarity with a healthy dose of theatricality to sell every piece. Apologies for not naming individual dancers; I found the program a little confusing, but the soloists and ensemble were both lovely.
Sacramento Ballet. Their next performance is the Nutcracker, with performances starting on December 9, 2011.