Ballet Theatre of Maryland brought the beauty and excitement of dance to Baltimore's Vivat! St. Petersburg last weekend to conclude a 2 1/2 -week salute to the Russian city's 300th anniversary.
The Annapolis-based ballet company commissioned three choreographers to create works inspired by the Baltimore Museum of Art's Vivat exhibition, Art of the Ballets Russes, focusing on the early 20th-century era of Sergei Diaghilev and the costuming art of Leon Bakst.
This ambitious program of three new ballets, danced at the museum's Meyerhoff Theater, was mind-boggling in its scope. It ranged from a playful look at a beloved mischief-maker to a modern dance evoking an array of balletic characters to a fascinating glimpse into the mindset of the world's most famous male dancer.
Choreographer Peter Anastos described his Pulcinella as "a funny ballet about Pulcinella and his girlfriends." The fun began before the curtain opened, when Dmitri Malikov, as Pulcinella, impishly poked his head through the closed curtain, instantly conveying the mischievous essence of his character.
Soon, Malikov's Pucinella was joined by exuberant, mischief-making, identically costumed Pucinelli and girlfriend Colombina, fetchingly danced by Anmarie Touloumis.
Performed to Stravinsky's Pulcinella Suite, played by violin and piano soloists from the Baltimore Chamber Orchestra, the ballet expressed the music with the simple purity of childlike fun. Everything was comically exaggerated - grief expressed in great, body-shaking sobs.
In a series of quick, stab-like motions, Malikov conveyed Pulcinella's fake suicide, impishly waving at the audience as he exulted in the sadness his death had caused his friends.
In the funeral procession, his playmates carried the lifeless Pulcinella and accidentally dropped the body, drawing draw startled gasps that turned to laughter as the audience realized the joke Anastos had played with a seamless transition from dancer to stuffed dummy.
Another comic highlight was Pulcinella and Colombina's interrupted wedding scene.
By evoking such familiar dance characters as the Firebird and Scheherazade in a dance with serious modern overtones, choreographer Carol Bartlett's "Muses with Prokofiev" echoed what Diaghalev's ballet revolution was about.
Performed by a Peabody Conservatory ensemble, Sergei Prokofiev's richly textured jagged and intense "Quintet Op. 39" proved a perfect musical choice to match Bartlett's choreography. In its emphasis on athleticism, this ballet was a stretch for the Annapolis dancers, who met the challenge without apparent difficulty.
Bartlett added to the success of her ballet with the magnificent costumes she designed, Scheherazade evoking a dreamlike quality.
Dancers Malikov and Touloumis displayed versatility and consummate artistry in creating distinct characters in their transition from the innocent fun of Pulcinella to the exotic sophistication of Scheherazade. Every dancer deserves kudos for delivering a near-flawless performance in the unfamiliar territory of modern dance.
With its recognizable subject and ability to tell a story, the third ballet of the evening, Alex Ossadnik's Nijinsky, had the strongest audience appeal. Ossadnik's two-part ballet illustrated aspects of Nijinsky's remembrance of his dance career, his puppetlike dependence on ballet impresario Diaghalev and his wife Romola.
Danced to Moussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition performed by piano and violin, Ossadnik's ballet conveyed the great dancer's psychological fragility, his movement in and out of the world of dance and his dedication to it and the competing demands of his wife and impresario
Bat Erdene-Udvall created a compelling portrait of Nijinsky, first seen seated on the floor, grasping his shoulders in closed, near catatonic isolation. He moved in and out of darkness as he joined dancers. In one intense scene, illustrating the brutally hard work of ballet, a free-floating ballet barre was used, grasped by Erdene-Udvall on one side and by ballerinas Kelly Hoenig and Jaime Lawton on the other.
Jeff Watson was a formidable presence as Diaghalev. Once more, Touloumis proved her adeptness at creating a complete character, here as Romolo Nijinsky.
Ballet Theatre of Maryland contributed its magic to Baltimore's Vivat by bringing the beauty of Russian ballet to life.