The Gelsey Kirkland Academy of Classical Ballet presents:
Mostly Bournonville and Petipa

Dancer India Rose in Pas de Quatre
Photo: James Culp

Symphony Space
2537 Broadway at 95th Street, New York, NY
December 16, 2011

A Review

Fifteen ballet excerpts provided a well-staged, wildly entertaining program of grace, technique, theatre, and artistry that almost made me forget I was watching students. It was an ambitious program for Miss Kirkland’s fairly new academy, and for the most part, the students’ grasp of the material chosen for them was well performed.

The program started with the charming “Pas de Huit” from Bournonville’s A Folk Tale. This seldom-performed excerpt was a beautifully costumed treat with impressive technical efficiency from the performers who were highly expressive. The second soloist’s light and lofty jumps were right on the mark of Bournonville’s classic style.

Excerpts from Bournonville’s Le Conservatoire followed, and it seemed to me that they must have needed a time-filler here for costume changes. Well-trained students capable of performing a proficient center-floor barre on stage seemed an odd choice as the performers concentrated heavily on controlling their extensions and balances, and they seemed, at times, like scared students. I do applaud the performers for taking on a piece of this technical difficulty.

The joyful Napoli “Pas de Six,” also choreographed by Bournonville, was one of the pieces that was best suited to its cast. The dancers moved as a company, with an understanding of musicality unusual for student dancers. Every solo, duet, and trio felt like a gift; from the male soloist who jumped and turned with assertion while appearing fully at ease, to the duet of tall girls that danced in absolute unison with a light, flowing quality that was hypnotizing, to the sprightly female soloist who blew us a kiss!

Yarislav Fadetev’s “Gypsy Dance” that followed was another choice that I did not understand. The piece seemed to call for a longing and sultry emotion that the dancers could not quite achieve. The emotion they exuded was insincere (understandably with teenagers), overly dramatic, and missed the mark for me.

Gelsey Kirkland Academy corps de ballet on stage

Next came the “Neapolitan” dance from Petipa’s Swan Lake staged for twelve dancers with tambourines. The costumes were simple, and the choreography was extremely pleasing both visually and musically. The company mastered the circular quality of the port-de-bras and quick footwork.

I was out of breath after watching the “Drum Dance” from Petipa’s La Bayadere. The lead couple, both very tall and strong, surprised me with how fast they were able to move their long bodies and with such accuracy. It goes without saying that the corps’s stamina was extremely impressive. I do wish they had used a real drum and worked the drum’s rhythmic sound into the piece, as that is what makes this dance unique.

Pas de Quatre was one of the highlights of the night. Jules Perrot choreographed the original specifically for four of the greatest ballerinas of their time: Lucile Grahn, Carlotta Grisi, Fanny Cerrito, and Marie Taglioni. I was leery of four teen-aged students taking on roles made for women who were well into their professional careers, but the coaching from Miss Kirkland, Era Jouralev, and Alexandra Lawler was genius. The girls did such an exquisite job of capturing the very essence of the dancer whose part they performed, and of the romantic era as a whole. Grahn’s variation was full of life, with the soft arms and wrists that are characteristic of the ballet’s period. Grisi’s variation was performed in such a way that made the uncomfortable choreography look simple, and the dancer’s pirouettes were extremely centered with a lofty, airy quality that was a joy to watch. The dancer who performed Cerrito’s variation captured the “coquettish” style associated with the famous ballerina. Finally, Taglioni’s variation, performed by Katia Raj was absolutely stunning. Her balances were breathtaking, her port de bras provided exquisite decoration, and her presence was ethereal. All four dancers were charmingly expressive and danced with a professional caliber that was very satisfying to watch.

“Hungarian” from Swan Lake followed, with over-the-top costumes and traditional choreography albeit the stage seemed a bit crowded with 19 dancers.

La Vivandiere, choreographed by Arthur Saint-Leon, was pleasant and fun. The dancers displayed excellent technique and timing, and were extremely dynamic. The male soloist, Joao Franzao, stood out with his flexibility, buoyancy, and grace. The dancers gave us so much to watch, with impressively controlled ponches, fearless allegros, intricate travelling patterns that weaved seamlessly, and by the end, when dancers hit the well-known “ponche picture” pose with flowering legs, all I could say was “wow.”

The opening to ACT II, “Birthe the Troll” from A Folk Tale, in my opinion, was the most entertaining excerpt of the night. It was the perfect testament to Miss Kirkland and Mr. Chernov’s statement of the goals of their Academy. They have made it clear that they aim to bring theatricality to classical ballet, and this piece was a shining example of how that idea excels. With a full set, costumes, and props, Sara Ezzell, who played the Troll, stole this show. She was hilariously repugnant, scolding the servants while tromping around clumsily. What impressed me most was that her technique was maintained despite the humorous quality of her movement.

Various excerpts followed from Petipa’s Sleeping Beauty, including “Jewel Fairies,” “Aurora’s Girlfriends,” “Red Riding Hood and the Wolf,” and “Blue Bird Pas de Duex.” The couple who danced “Blue Bird” were both delightful dancers, but were improperly paired. The male dancer, whose smaller size helped him in the variation, hindered him in partnering, unfortunate for the female soloist as he was not able to turn or press her.

A ballet class at the Gelsey Kirkland Academy

To end the evening, twenty-three dancers performed excerpts from La Bayadere, one of Petipa’s most beloved ballets. The students gave a hauntingly beautiful performance of the “Kingdom of Shades,” and Emily Neale, who danced the role of Nikiya, absolutely took my breath away. Her poise and control was that of any professional in the field, although her expression showed her concentration a little too much. Her lines were never-ending, her execution of the most difficult balances was flawless, and her movement quality was subtly alluring. Her partner was tall and strong as he performed soaring jumps and ended his variation with a backbend that stunned as his head nearly touched the floor. The corps’s precision and the soloists’ artistry coalesced to end the evening on a high note.

This evening, with its masterful staging by directors and faculty, should firmly establish the Gelsey Kirkland Academy of Classical Ballet as a school among the likes of the School of American Ballet and the Joffrey School. I look forward to the time when this generation of dancers will most certainly make up the most preeminent ballet companies.

—Austin Jarred, December 29, 2001