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BALLET CHICAGO

at the Chicago Theatre

October 25 and 28 and November 1 and 4

With its sprightly performance of Ruth Page's Die Fledermaus at the Chicago Theatre, Ballet Chicago gave proof positive that it's not only alive and well but getting better all the time. It hasn't overcome all its problems, but BC is finally emerging from its traumatic beginnings two years ago. Daniel Duell, BC's artistic director, can take pride in how attractive his 21-member troupe looks onstage.

Die Fledermaus ("The Bat"), Johann Strauss's beloved light opera, is a classic of Viennese music, comedy, and gemutlichkeit. Page's ballet, choreographed in 1958, is hardly a work of choreographic genius, but as restaged for BC by Larry Long, it is such a colorful, giddy, naughty, fast-paced romp through bedroom and ballroom that one barely notices the weaknesses of dance design. Stylistically, it belongs to the tradition of Leonide Massine's Gaite parisienne, whose slight story of insouciant sexual game playing is the bench mark for that dated but still popular genre.

Purists familiar with Strauss's Fledermaus may complain that Page's 1958 ballet telescopes the plot and rearranges the music. The basic plot remains the same, however. Von Eisenstein, a man about town, enjoys dallying with his wife, Rosalinda, but he enjoys dallying with others even more. He gets his comeuppance when a friend he had publicly humiliated in a practical joke plays his own joke on him. He sends the philanderer to a masked ball, where Eisenstein discovers that the mysterious beauty he's been trying to seduce all evening is his own wife.

Strauss's music, arranged in 1958 by Isaac Van Grove, has been expanded for this production by George Daugherty, who also conducted the orchestra.

Page's ballet doesn't violate the spirit of the music, although the scoring is brassier and faster-paced--when dancing replaces spoken dialogue and song, the music must move. And some of the musical numbers have been shifted around to suit Page's balletic purposes. Although Eisenstein's practical joke on Dr. Falke, which gives the work its title, is merely mentioned in the operetta, Page has quite sensibly choreographed the incident. It gives the plot a peg on which to hang, and adds some necessary action to start the ballet humming along. Gordon Schmidt as Falke used the opportunity to show off his considerable comic talents and virtuosic technique.

Most of the enchanting music, however, is used to delineate the characters for whom Strauss composed vocal solos, duets, and full-cast numbers. Petra Adelfang as Adele the maid offered a pert Laughing Song, and Sherry Moray as Rosalinda danced the sensuous Hungarian czardas and a romantic pas de deux with David Newson as Eisenstein.

Apart from some momentary lapses, especially in that pas de deux, the dancing was spirited and attractive. Newson, new to BC, is a welcome addition. He, Manard Stewart as the valet, and Schmidt are all personally engaging and technically strong. For that matter, BC's entire male contingent is comfortable in elevation, jetes, fleetness, and supportive partnering. As the repertory expands, they should play a more important role. The women, who are very good-looking, are beginning to show the results of Duell's intensive preparation. They carry their arms, legs, and bodies with greater assurance, poise, and grace, and they respond well musically to Strauss's sparkling score, as well as to other repertory.

The wildly colorful, goofy sets and costumes, originally designed by Andre Delfau, seem the ancestors of those by current hotshot designer Christian LaCroix, who uses color and pattern so eccentrically. Among other curiosities, there's a long, fluffy pink tail attached to Adele's tutu that actually requires male porters.

In her ballets, Page has always shown an offbeat, earthy sense of humor, and her Fledermaus is no exception. What makes the ballet work--even when the step combinations are less than inspired--is the skill with which she has combined nonstop dancing, comic touches, and an atmosphere that somehow blends racy cynicism with romance. She makes them play well against or with each other--and, of course, with the enchanting, timeless music.

Duell's Seven Poetic Waltzes, to piano selections by Enrique Granados, was the program's curtain raiser. Four couples, led by Karen Baynham and Newson, danced very prettily to pianist Christine Weathers's onstage playing. This modest little romantic ballet has a period-piece charm; it's intended to show off the dancers' lightness and grace--much like a graduation piece for a dance academy--and it was quite perfect in its introductory role.

The best thing about Feral Forms, choreographed by Gerard Charles, is Kathryn Koesling's slinky black gowns (worn by Lesley Bories, Christine Dorian, and Laura Taylor). Performed to a taped mix of Latin-style music by Wally Badarou and John Neschling, with Nando Carniero, and male voices from the sound track of the movie Kiss of the Spider Woman, the ballet itself is pretty much a mess. Unfortunately, movie dialogue suited to a dramatic situation sounds pretty stupid when transferred to another medium.

I don't know what Charles was trying to say. I found nothing in this confused work to evoke either "feral" or "forms." Are the stunning women, led by Lesley Bories's unfocused sexy solo, supposed to symbolize emasculating bitch goddesses? Are they Circes leaving the poor men (Joseph Malbrough and Mark Ward) groveling on the floor like tamed animals? Frankly, who cares? The music is a mishmash of confused moods. The dancing had no emotional impact, and went nowhere. Feral Forms reminded me of the kitschy commercial for Calvin Klein's perfume Obsession, in which a desperate male demands we care about his passion for the cold, unattainable She. In both, the message is pretentious, offensive junk.

Duell's Octet a Tete, perhaps his most inventive ballet, dates from 1988. Danced to Stravinsky's Wind Octet, it is a tricky, witty, astringent piece for eight dancers; in it, Duell makes a bow to his neoclassic mentor, the late George Balanchine. The way Duell flexes his dancers' feet and poses their hands with palms bent outward, and the cleverness with which he arranges amusing, complex group designs, combine to give Octet a Tete an intriguing, cool, angular look full of surprises. Koesling's cleverly patterned geometric costumes add the right accent.

BC's second program, which can be seen this Saturday, includes the revival of Balanchine's Steadfast Tin Soldier and two world premieres, By Django, choreographed by Schmidt, and Les Fonds Sous-Marin, by Lisa de Ribere.

Ballet Chicago has recently received flattering, encouraging notice from the New York Times and the Village Voice. But only a shortsighted idiot would believe that this praise means the troupe has achieved world-class stature. It's still a very young group, one that needs tender loving care, time, and financial support to develop its own artistic identity. Unfortunately, in the past Chicago's influential, monied movers and shakers have lacked staying power in their support of resident ballet, and their impatience and unrealistic expectations led to the premature demise of Chicago City Ballet. Ballet Chicago may well be the last hope for this city to establish a viable presence on the ballet scene.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Janet Mesic-Mackie.

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