Misty Copeland, Herman Cornejo, Tiler Peck, James Whiteside, Isabella Boylston. Jared Angle, Carla Korbes, Lauren Lovette, Marcelo Gomes. The list of ballet dancers appearing on Friday, August 4 at the Gerald R. Ford Amphitheater for the Vail Dance Festival was like a roll call of the best dancers in America (and Europe). One would have to attend many nights at the American Ballet Theater and New York City Ballet in Manhattan, (and the Royal Ballet in London), to witness performances by as many prominent dancers. Add to that, the tapper Michelle Dorrance, Memphis Jooker Lil Buck, Bill Irwin, the inimitable physical comedian/actor, a handful of musicians, a bunch of up-and-coming stars, and a stage full of kids, and you’ve got a show.
Like a Gala performance, any evening like this is, by its nature, a programming hodgepodge. In this case there were fifteen, count-‘em, fifteen, different dances–all excerpts, pas de deux’ or short works created for the occasion. If it was a first-rate dance vaudeville more than a showing of choreographic meat, it was still an opportunity to witness some of the world’s finest dancers at 8,000 feet. Besides, a packed hillside with picnicking families may not have had the attention span for longer works.
Early on, Devon Teuscher and James Whiteside from ABT came out to perform the “White Swan Pas de Deux ” from Swan Lake, and if the accompaniment by violinist Johnny Gandelsman and pianist Cameron Grant, and the lack of swan corps on stage, offered a diminished version of the ballet, the authoritative dancing was larger-than-life. Teuscher and Whiteside brought the summer crowd to absolute silence. There were many moments like that throughout the evening. Romance was the choreographic link.
Artistic Director Damien Woetzel, a former New York City Ballet star himself, who has been running the festival since 2005, brings dancers to Vail and asks them to collaborate. It was his idea to pair a young male student dancer with a principal, the charming Roman Mejia from the School of American Ballet with Lauren Lovette from NYCB, in Balanchine’s jaunty tambourine beating, “Tarantella. “ Woetzel was also a force behind the combining of dance voices from disparate genres, like Michelle Dorrance with James Whiteside (who can tap!), Melissa Toogood, a modern dancer, and Lil Buck, in, “1-2-3-4-5-6,” based on a rhythm by Steve Reich. Another summer tactic: giving newly promoted soloists like Unity Phelan and Joseph Gordon a chance to shine in leading roles; or by combining dancers from different companies, as he did in casting Misa Kuranaga from Boston Ballet with Herman Cornejo from ABT for the bravura closer, “Don Quixote Pas de Deux.”
Misty Copeland came onstage during a scenery change to discuss with Woetzel the educational initiatives they are both involved with, in Colorado as well as in New York. Copeland said her first ballet class took place on a basketball court at a Boy’s and Girl’s Club. In excerpts from Twyla Tharp’s “Sinatra Suite,” she was teamed with the debonair Marcelo Gomes. They presented the balletic version of Tharp’s originally modern-dance-meets-ballroom classic. Copeland and Gomes were good together, although it was hard to see much of the edgy overtone the choreography asks for. Gomes and Copeland were almost lyrical in their violence. Copeland brought a prima ballerina’s line, but also a softer quality to her character, and Gomes, a dashing figure in a suit and tie, fired-up the chemistry levels with his no-nonsense masculinity. “I love the 60’s,” sighed a female teenage dance student behind me.
A dance history class could discuss different international schools of ballet, as well as the major American choreographers, based on the range of excerpts presented. August Bournonville’s polite and folkish Danish school of ballet was ably demonstrated in a duet from “The Flower Festival in Genzano,” danced charmingly by Isabella Boylston and Jeffrey Cirio, from ABT. British manners were on display in “Rhapsody,” by Frederick Ashton, danced by visiting Royal Ballet artists Francesca Hayward and Marcelino Sambé, set to Rachmaninoff’s uber-romantic, “Rhapsody On a Theme of Paganini.” Here, a piano quintet version of the score created a quieter ecstasy.
Tiler Peck was paired with Joseph Gordon, a dancer at NYCB who was just promoted to soloist in February, and has the looks of a very young man. Still, he brought play, musicality and technical authority to “Divertimento Brillante,” and especially later, paired with Lauren Lovette, in Jerome Robbins’ Three Chopin Dances.” Watching the tall, red-haired young man on stage with a dancer at the top of her form like Peck, as well as the charismatic Lovette, was educational. In Gordon, there was an opportunity to see the unbridled joy in dancing that only the up-and-coming can offer. These May-December partnerings were interesting to behold.