Ballet Theatre of Annapolis had an opulent opener in a mixed repertoire that featured the gem "Sapphire Romance," a pas de deux titled "The Golden Age" and a bow to the Duke -- true nobility among American composers -- in "Ellington Suite."
"Sapphire Romance" is a multifaceted gem choreographed by Ballet Theatre's artistic director Edward Stewart to the music of Sergei Rachmaninoff. The ballet reflects Stewart's sensitivity, his skill in showcasing each dancer's strengths, and ability to design what is visually arresting.
The ballet opened with six elegantly costumed dancers, all first-rate ensemble artists. A dance of four introduced Dmitry Malikov, a soloist newly arrived from Moscow, and Jennifer Dancesia, an alumna of Carter School of Dance, who joined the troupe's junior company in 1990. Anmarie Touloumis and Jeffrey Watson, both Ballet Theatre stalwarts since 1994, completed the quartet.
The pas de deux was danced by Thomas Bell and Ninel Cherevko, wife of Malikov. Cherevko conveyed with Bell the romanticism of Rachmaninoff's "Piano Concerto No. 2 in C Minor."
Stewart's programming skills were evident in contrasting the opulence of "Sapphire Romance" with the stark simplicity of "The Golden Age," choreographed by Yuri Grigorovich. This pas de deux was given 24-karat treatment by principal dancer Dmitry Tuboltsev, with the exquisite Natasha Kiryanova.
The ballet opened with a star-filled night sky as backdrop to a beachlike stage where the partners lay at opposite ends. Tuboltsev generates excitement by meeting the most difficult challenges with a bravado that stems from assurance and flawless technique. In "The Golden Age," Kiryanova and Tuboltsev conveyed the eternal male-female dialogue as the starry sky moved from inky black to a rose-tinged dawn.
Principal dancer Zhirui Zou and Jeffrey Watson danced to Stewart's "Forever You," proving again that Ballet Theatre has snared a principal ballerina that any company would embrace. Aware of Ballet Theatre's good fortune, the audience warmly expressed its appreciation of Zou.
The highlight of the classic Petipa choreography of variations of "Don Quixote" was the stunning pas de deux danced by Zou and Tuboltsev. These superbly matched dancers seem to mirror each other in perfection, with Tuboltsev's stunning overhead lifts, and Zou's absolute trust in him, as she floats above or turns.
In solo dances, Tuboltsev's leaps were incredible in strength and lightness. Zou executed so many pirouettes that I lost count, caught up in her hypnotic ability.
The evening ended with guest choreographer Stephanie Powell's brilliant "Ellington Suite" to honor Duke Ellington's 100th birthday. All the dancers, including six members of the junior company, contributed to this exciting ballet.
Dramatically costumed in black, the troupe formed constantly changing patterns that shifted anew as more dancers entered, circling the corps already moving on stage. The entire troupe displayed great versatility in adapting to the free style of modern dance, all seeming at home in this Ellington idiom.
This spectacular and memorable tribute all but belonged to Jeffrey Watson, who was delightfully loose, moving easily, obviously having a wonderful time.
As usual, the costume designing skills of Juliet Shore and Barbara Engle contributed greatly to the professionalism and beauty of the production, which kicked off the season last weekend.
Information on Ballet Theatre of Annapolis: 410-263-8289.