On Stage: A Finale Weekend at Chautauqua

The Chautauqua dance season came to a close recently and was packed with activities. Of course, there was the final concert by North Carolina Dance Theatre with the Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra, which you can find by clicking on The Chautauquan Daily.

That was a Saturday night event, but Friday afternoon found the Chautauqua School of Dance Choreographic Workshop in the rustic Carnahan-Jackson Dance Studios. Any dance program worth its salt these days incorporates some sort of foray into the process of making dances.

But this one was different, for the student choreographers were able to take advantage of Chautauqua’s fine summer music program and the talent that it yields. According to NCDT artistic director Jean-Pierre Bonnefoux, the choreographers handle it all — searching out their musicians, deciding on the accompaniment, scheduling rehearsals and directing them.

The staff hands out various awards during the in-house performance (best technique, most improved dancer, etc.), but Jacob Casey took home the top choreographic honor for “Into Your Mind,” full of quirky images and with a classically-inspired score by Kellen Degnan, the cellist in his own String Quartet in E Major. Diana Peters captured second prize with the energetic and ambitious “Threaded.”

On Sunday there was the Chautauqua Dance Student Gala, a matinee that showcased teenaged ballet talents and was held in the Amphitheater. The main focus was George Balanchine’s “Donizetti Variations,” beautifully staged, as always, by master teacher Patricia McBride.

Originally called “Variations from ‘Don Sebastian,’” this is a piece that I don’t think I’ve seen before. It is not one of Mr. B’s masterworks, but it still shows the hand of a master.

Light hearted and chock full of technical hurdles, the young cast went for it all with an elegant gusto, led by a confident Laine Habony, only 14, and 17 year-old Philip Martin-Nielson, expertly etching minute details in his variation, both from School of American Ballet.

All student levels had a chance. For the younger dancers, there was the venerable Maris Battaglia, who gave them a whole range of works. A pink-and-white confection of a “Cinderella.” A Bach number (shades of “Concerto Barocco”) where even the tiny ones showed the spark that Chautauqua seems to bring. “Shostakovich by Rostrapovich” which was inspired mostly by “Rubies” with a little “Prodigal Son” thrown in for good measure. And “Dance for Seven,” a little Strauss piece where the dancers could display new partnering moves. All in all, Maris is a real asset to the program.

But she wasn’t the whole story. Guest teacher Michael Vernon created “Place Montmartre.” Can you say Gene Kelly’s “American in Paris?” This had all the bustle and charm of that film ballet (although the music came from the delightful Shostakovich ballet suites), from schoolgirls skittering about in plaid skirts to a Kelly-esque policeman. Aside from an abrupt ending, this was a real winner.

Modern dance choreographer Jon Lehrer, so imaginative, didn’t move the ballet students too far out of their comfort zone  and Rachael Humphrey gave them exposure to hip hop, the first time it has been included on the Gala program.

Of course there were a few solos, including the elegant Isabella LaFreniere in “Black Swan” and Austin Carter in a specially-designed piece by Jean-Pierre called — what else — “For Austin.”

That’s something to cherish, a piece named for you. Yes, they care that much about their students here…




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