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Peabody honors Balanchine at spring show

By Patrice Hutton | April 13, 2006

In an evening that culminated with three generations of dancers gathering in an atrium to look at a series of photographs depicting George Balanchine's role in American ballet, Peabody Dance of Johns Hopkins University presented its Spring Showcase 2006 on Saturday night and Sunday afternoon in honor of the legendary Barbara Weisberger's 80th birthday.

In a mixed bill program that combined three of the mid-Atlantic region's top dance schools -- the Peabody Institute, Central Pennsylvania Youth Ballet and the Baltimore School for the Arts -- in addition to the area's premiere company, the Pennsylvania Ballet, all groups dazzled a moderately full house with young talent on Saturday night.

The night opened with "Twilight Plumes," a contemporary piece set to Roberto Sierra's Piezas Caracteristicas: Segundas Mayores, Segundas Menores and choreographed by Peabody Dance's director Carol Bartlett and Elizabeth Gahl, a junior at Georgetown University, during the Peabody Dance Choreographic Workshop last August. The work -- blending both ballet and modern forms -- was danced in pointed shoes by seven of Peabody's advanced dancers and was highlighted by innovative formations. Sarah Chin, a freshman who is also a student at the Baltimore School for the Arts, gave a rich and nuanced artistic performance.

Baltimore School for the Arts performed the evening's next number, "Rhapsody," choreographed by Barry C. Hughson, current director of the American Repertory Ballet. Set to Sergei Rachmaninoff's Rhapsody on a Theme by Paganini, the piece opened with a sweeping pas de deux performed by the statuesque Jaqueline Green and Carlos Gonzalez, followed by an Allegro section featuring shorter pas de deux among the members of the corps de ballet. Green and Gonzalez's performance was impressive among BSA students, yet set against the refined technical and performance skills of Peabody and the CPYB dancers, who appeared later in the evening, overall the BSA dancers struggled to match up.

Peabody's dancers returned in pink tutus to perform in Peabody faculty Laura Dolid's reconstruction of variations from "Raymonda," set to Aleksandr Glazunov's Raymonda, Op. 57. Constructed in a series of solos, duets, quartets and then corps de ballet work, "Waltz and Variations" showcased the brilliant classical technique that Peabody ballet teacher and CPYB alumni Melissa Stafford has inculcated in her dancers. As in the contemporary piece, the exquisite performance of young Chin stood out as that of a dancer whose impeccable technique so ingrained that when she steps on the stage all she has to do is smile.

Following Peabody's reconstructed sections of the Raymonda variations, Rachel Azenburg and Jermel Johnson of the Pennsylvania Ballet performed Raymonda's pas de deux. Both dancers displayed remarkable flexibility and extension in their work, but the exceptional height and elasticity -- a rarity among male dancers -- of Johnson's leaps was captivating beyond any aspect of Azenburg's performance.

As if a contemporary and classical piece weren't enough for Peabody dancers to perform in one evening, Carol Bartlett's modern work of "Invocations" served to further highlight the remarkable versatility that places Peabody dancers leaps ahead of their peers. Set to Yiddishbuk by Osvaldo Golijov, eight dancers wearing wispy orange dresses mesmerized the audience in a work that embraced an array of innovative modern techniques: the lyricism of a single dancer rising from the stage to a series of staccato jumping passes. The piece opened with Peabody's most advanced contemporary students, Elizabeth Montgomery and Riva Nathans, performing movements that resonated beyond their completion, sometimes making use of each other's space on stage. As their duet culminated, eight other dancers joined and the choreography shifted into a craft of continuously morphing formations.

Central Pennsylvania Youth Ballet performed the night's final number, and rightly so. Performing excerpts from Balanchine's Harlequinade set to Riccardo Drigo's Les Millions d'Arlequin and staged by director Marcia Dale Weary, CPYB showcased a technical and artistic prowess that far surpassed that of the other two schools. Robbie Jean Arbaczewski, CPYB's 15-year-old prodigy, starred as the Columbine -- a role that Balanchine originally crafted for New York City Ballet dancers. The corps of tiny -- ages nine, ten and 11 -- Polichinelles and Harlequins demonstrated en masse what Weary's arduous training methods are definitive of: precision and a flair of showmanship that would ordinarily take dancers another decade to harness.

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