Chicago dance sizzles with rising talent in a number of distinguished studio companies grooming the next generation of dancers for professional careers. Ballet Chicago, founded in 1987 by husband and wife team Daniel Duell and Patricia Blair, is a shining example of the impressive technical accomplishment and artistic integrity such companies can bring to the staging of established repertoire and the development of new works.
Four favorites from company repertoire are on display in “Balanchine and Beyond: Encore! Back by Popular Demand,” this Saturday at the Harris Theater.
Former Miami City Ballet principal dancer Simone Messmer, and St. Louis Ballet company member and Ballet Chicago alum Jordan Nelson grace the stage as guest artists in George Balanchine’s “Concerto Barocco” (1941). Balanchine originally choreographed the ballet for students at his School of American Ballet (SAB). It was subsequently incorporated into the repertoires of Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo (1945) and the New York City Ballet (1948). Ballet Chicago first performed the piece in 2012.
“Concerto Barocco,” considered one of Balanchine’s greatest masterworks, exemplifies his revolutionary genius for making music visible through physicalization of instrumentation, melody, rhythms, tempos and dynamics. Nowhere is this more apparent than in his use of Bach’s "Concerto in D Minor for Two Violins," where two lead ballerinas personify the two violins. Messmer brings lyrical passion to the role of first violin, while Ballet Chicago’s Nina Montalbano, a senior at Lake Forest High School, joins her as violin two. In a recent rehearsal, Montalbano’s spot-on technical command and sensitive interpretation made for perfectly-matched harmonies of music and dancing between the two ladies. In the second movement adagio, Messmer and Nelson’s soaring duet threads through Ballet Chicago’s corps de ballet, their movement echoing and amplifying the lead couple's arching lifts as if an extension of the two lovers’ bodies.
This season also brings back Duell’s charming ballet, “Hansel and Gretel” (2018), a family-friendly story that has Hansel and Gretel dunking a not-too-scary witch into a tub of water to break her spell, restoring all the gingerbread children back to life. Duell has given Ballet Chicago dancers a challenging range of dramatic movement to portray the principal character roles with playful fidelity to the story.
Forty-eight additional dancers from the school’s junior levels populate scene two’s forest with squirrels, deer, forest fairies, cherubs and bunnies, some doubling as gingerbread cookies in scene three.“What was I thinking when I said we were going to have squirrels?” quipped Blair, unflappable in rehearsal as she supervised a remarkably un-squirrely squad of impeccably-trained children donning bunny ears, mittens, antlers and furry tails.
The music for Duell’s succinct storytelling was adapted from the original Humperdinck opera into an instrumental score without voice in 1993-4 by Chicago-based pianist and composer Kimberly Schmidt, and recorded for the former professional Ballet Chicago company’s 80-minute production by a commissioned freelance orchestra comprised primarily of musicians from the Chicago Symphony and Lyric Opera Orchestras. The current 35-minute production utilizes a shortened version of that recording for the Ballet Chicago studio company.
Two pieces by Ballet Chicago resident choreographer Ted Seymour round out the program with “LongLivingLine” (2007), a full company piece to the music of Vivaldi and Aphex Twin, and “Danzon” (2014), a saucy quintet for two men and three women to music by Arturo Marquez. The two highly contrasting pieces showcase Seymour’s versatility and distinctive choreographic voice with pieces that any professional company could be pleased to include in their repertoire. A Ballet Chicago alum, Seymour was an SAB scholarship student when then NYCB artistic director Peter Martins invited him to participate in the New York Choreographic Institute. He began choreographing for Ballet Chicago in 2001 and in 2007 became a dancer of the now-defunct Suzanne Farrell Dance Company.
Ballet Chicago artistic director Daniel Duell was a principal dancer with New York City Ballet (NYCB) and danced in the company from 1972-87, under the direction of George Balanchine for ten of those years. He guest teaches for major companies in the U.S. and abroad.
Ballet Chicago associate director Patricia Blair’s summer at SAB inspired her love for the Balanchine technique, which was most formative in her artistic development. “It was the summer that turned everything around for me,” she said. Blair first learned “Concerto Barocco” overnight as a last-minute stand-in for an injured dancer with the Eglevsky Ballet, where she became a company member under the direction of Edward Villella. She also collaborated with major choreographers and performed in musicals on tour and on Broadway.
Both Duell and Blair are répétituers for The Balanchine Trust and stage Balanchine works for companies across the United States. Together, they oversee Ballet Chicago and the School of Ballet Chicago with the express mission of perpetuating Balanchine-based technique and developing both character and artistic excellence in the next generations of dancers.
With annual student enrollment of 168, including the studio company of 40, and summer enrollment between 250-300 students, Ballet Chicago is the only institution of its kind in the Midwest. Many Ballet Chicago dancers combine college degrees with their professional commitment to dance: pre-med at Northwestern, liberal arts at the University of Chicago and Harvard, they are proving that excellence across disciplines is possible.
Perhaps what is most refreshing about watching these inspiring young performers is the obvious care and attention their directors have devoted to their artistic nurturing. From the nuttiest squirrels to the most heavenly angels, from hopping bunnies to the soaring passion of “Concerto Barocco” and the Latin pizzaz of “Danzon,” superb technical training melds seamlessly with artistic expressiveness. With “Balanchine and Beyond,” Ballet Chicago is making sure that new generations of dancers will continue to shine Mr. B’s legacy into a bright ballet future.
"Balanchine and Beyond: Encore! Back by Popular Demand” takes place Saturday, May 11, at 2 and 7:30 p.m. at the Harris Theater, 205 E. Randolph Dr. Tickets are $35-$50, available by clicking the event page below.