At an April rehearsal at the Rochester City Ballet studios on University Avenue, the company was running through the George Balanchine work "Serenade" under the direction of Leslie Peck, one of an elite group of dancers authorized by the George Balanchine Trust to stage his ballets, in an effort to keep the artistic integrity of his works intact. It is a much-sought-after privilege in the dance world, to have one of these "repetiteurs" set a Balanchine work on your company. This is the second time that Peck has worked with the Rochester City Ballet; she first set "Serenade" on the company in 2010.
"They give 'Serenade' all the love I have for it," Pecks says of RCB. The dancers "keep growing with it. They don't just say, 'I know it and that's it.' They're also super-fast studies and disciplined, working long hours."
The Balanchine piece will be performed this weekend along with other works choreographed by RCB Artistic Director Jamey Leverett, and the world premiere of "For Tim: Remembering Beloved Mentors," a work created for RCB by noted dancer and choreographer Bill Evans. The concert, "Past, Present, and Future," celebrates the 25th anniversary of the company and highlights the company's collaborations with renowned artists and choreographers.
Among the selections featured this weekend will be "LumaVoce," first presented by the company in 2008. It's an abstract work with an eerie gothic sensibility lit almost entirely with hand-held lighting. Computer-manipulated human voices in the music by Stephen Kennedy contribute to the piece's unearthly feel. Live voices will accompany the original sound scape during this weekend's performances.
A witty battle of the sexes is the basis of Leverett's 2012 work, "4Play." Tim Leverett and his drum kit will share the stage with the dancers for this number. Piano and strings will be performed live for the new Bill Evans piece, a tribute to the memory of Tim Draper, founder of RCB, and other mentors who inspire in the dance world.
During Peck's April "Serenade" rehearsal it was apparent that the RCB dancers held her in some thrall. She trained at The School of American Ballet when "Mr. B" — as George Balanchine was known — still taught class, and she danced in the core of the New York City Ballet under the legendary choreographer.
"Company class at SAB wasn't there to warm you up," Peck says. "I went 45 minutes early. And Mr. B never missed a class. Never."
The RCB dancers listened intently to Peck's every word of advice and worked to put her corrections into action. The excitement of her attention and the strain of concentration were more transparent in the 15- to 18-year-old dancers who were pulled from the Professional Training Program at The Timothy M. Draper Center for Dance Education to raise the ranks to the 28 dancers required for this ballet. Faces glistened and nervous laughter occasionally rang out as the joy of learning the movements, and the intensity of the work required to absorb the ballet into muscle memory, bubbled over the hushed attentiveness permeating the warm studio.
"Remember, you love to dance. Love it," Peck called out as the dancers went back over a difficult bit of phrasing for the umpteenth time. "Five and six, and seven and eight, and reach and reach!"
The dancers outstretched their limbs like deer as they soared down the diagonal of the studio, their eyes flicking instinctively to the mirrored wall to check the alignment of their extensions. While holding a position, they adjusted the crook of a finger or pulled up their torsos another fraction of an inch, as if lines of energy stretched from their mirror images to their flesh-and-blood selves.
But, more often than not, they looked to Peck for affirmation or correction. After all, she was there as an emissary of sorts for the works of Balanchine, the undisputed genius of 20th Century ballet. "Serenade," which premiered in 1934, was the first original ballet that the Russian-born-and-trained Balanchine created in America, and one of the signature works of New York City Ballet's repertory. Set to Serenade for Strings in C, Op. 48 by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky — the composer with whom Balanchine is most closely identified — the emotion inherent in the music ranges from jovial to deeply sad.
Balanchine is known for the extreme musicality of his choreography. In "Serenade" he seems to have almost made the music visible in the rise and fall and collective shapes of the pale-blue-clad dancers. It is a ballet of patterns, the core of dancers gliding in and out of geometrical formations as simple yet complex as the shifting figments inside of a kaleidoscope. Balanchine created the ballet as a lesson in stage technique; during rehearsals he wove unexpected events — a student arriving late, another falling — into the final ballet. Moments like these have become iconic to the work; audiences love to recognize them.
In "Elegy," the work's final section, a memorable moment occurs when the Dark Angel, hauntingly danced by RCB's Megan Kamler, covers the eyes of talented newcomer Ian Buchanan to lead him first toward and then away from the Waltz Girl, poignantly danced by Jessica Tretter. Casting also includes principal Courtney Catalana as a wondrously vibrant Russian Girl, and accomplished veteran Adam Kittelberger as the Waltz Boy.
The ballet concludes with another iconic moment, as Tretter is lifted high into the air in a standing position by three male dancers — Kittelberger, Jesse Campbell, and Anthony Dionisio, Jr. — who hold her by the legs as they slowly transport her upstage and into the wings. Watch how smoothly Tretter's arms flow through first and third positions while she is borne aloft. Finally, she reaches behind herself, her arms like spread wings, as she arches her torso, head and neck backward in a seeming lament. Beneath her, the surrounding corps de ballet matches her movements, wistfully ethereal.
"Give it your all!" Peck called out before the final run-through. And the dancers have, ending wreathed in sweat and smiles.
For Rochester City Ballet, the staging of "Serenade" is one accomplishment among many during this silver anniversary year. It also marks the 15th year that the company has teamed with the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra to put on the holiday classic "The Nutcracker," arguably Balanchine's most well-known work. Also this year, RCB collaborated with Jeff Tyzik and the RPO on "New York Cityscapes," newly choreographed by Leverett.
"We're making our dream a reality with this company," Artistic Director Jamey Leverett says. "Times are difficult for dance, companies are folding, but we're still going strong. We have a unique voice and a lot to offer the whole upstate region with our eclectic performances."
The company has grown tremendously since its inception by founder Tim Draper 25 years ago. Leverett has journeyed with the company as it rose from pre-professional status to, currently, being able to boast 18 paid dancers. She herself trained under Draper as a young dancer, performed as a principal in his newly established company, and worked closely under him as he groomed her to eventually take his place. In 2003, with Draper's death, Leverett became acting artistic director. The company has come far under her leadership, just as her choreography has gelled into a strong voice with a distinctive style, winning her personal acclaim and affording new opportunities for the company.
This July, RCB's voice will be heard all the way up to the Berkshires in western Massachusetts, where the prestigious Jacob's Pillow Dance Festival is held for weeks every summer, typically involving more than 50 dance companies from countries around the world as well as music, art, nature and culture.
Principal dancers will perform "4Play" and "Bravo!Colorado," both signature repertoire pieces and original works by Leverett, at the free Inside/Out outdoor stage on July 19. Rochesterians will have a chance to preview the pieces in the company's studios on July 17 as part of the free Studio Series.
Leverett created the series last year as a way to offer potential audience members the opportunity to glimpse behind the scenes of a ballet company. The series has thrived, embraced by an audience eager to learn the secrets of the trade. Latecomers, finding the seating at capacity, often end up flanking the back mirrored wall or clustered around the doorway. The next Studio Series takes place in June. The dancers will be showcasing their own forays into choreography, presenting their creations to the public in the studio.