BWW Reviews: Festival Ballet's UP CLOSE ON HOPE Features Passionate SOLEDAD and SCHEHERAZADE
For the Rhode Island arts aficionado, there is no better seat to be found than in the Black Box Theater at 825 Hope Street. In that space, Festival Ballet Providence opens the doors to its studio and invites the public to experience performances "up close" to the company's acclaimed artists.
Every season, FBP's Up Close on Hope series places audiences mere steps away from the dancers as they spin, leap, and perform elegant feats of strength and artistry. Even before the production begins, ushers collect tickets and distribute programs at an arm's length from where company members stand mending their toe shoes and running through bits of choreography. This intimate setting provides entirely new levels of appreciation for Festival's dancers and the art of ballet. While individual sequins and colorful lines of makeup are clearly visible right to the back row of seats, so too are the beads of sweat and defined muscle tone that speak to the years of discipline and practice each performer has dedicated to perfecting their craft.
This winter's Up Close program features two expressive tales of love and loss. First on the bill is Soledad by FBP Artistic Director Mihailo "Misha" Djuric, a piece full of complexity and deep emotion. At the very heart of Soledad is a woman in a black dress (Vilia Putrius); her movements and her demeanor reflect the heaviness of the grief first suggested by her mournfully-hued attire. Putrius opens the performance alone on stage with a chair. She executes a series of elegant steps and extensions on and around the chair while still bringing the weight of her character's internal struggles to her performance. There is a sense that her earth-bound steps could soar - and once did - were her broken heart unburdened.
Four other couples enter the scene, and they mimic many of the same movements Putrius demonstrated only moments earlier - some even with chairs - only now the dance is fully realized by the partners' high flying lifts and twirling spins. The woman in black attempts to rejoin the life swirling all around her, but she loses momentum as her grief floods back in and she retreats to a solitary corner away from the group. Now alone, the woman's memories come to life and she dances a brilliant pas de deux with the shade of her lost love (Mindaugas Bauzys). This is an exceptionally lovely piece for this couple; Bauzys brings seemingly effortless strength and grace to his performance, and Putrius' characterization is outstanding. As the two dance, Putrius allows the sorrow to gradually slip off of her shoulders until she realizes the joy only hinted at earlier in Soledad. After hitting that high, the sadness begins to creep in again, until Bauzys' character fades back into the woman's memory and Putrius is once more alone on stage.
Second on the Up Close program is Gianni di Marco's Scheherazade, a piece the company first premiered at the Veterans Memorial Auditorium. Restaging Scheherazade in the FBP Black Box gives the production immediacy and a truly immersive quality. Audience members feel they are seated just behind a gauzy curtain in the Sultan's palace, catching glimpses of secret lovers' hidden meetings and court intrigues unfolding in darkened corners. The threat of discovery weighs dangerously over the spectators and characters alike as the Sultan's favored wife, Zobeide (Jennifer Ricci) steals passionate moments with her love, the Golden Slave (Alan Alberto), while group numbers, brimming with energy, seem to catch everyone up together in a breathless whirl.
Scheherazade is certainly an entertaining tale, but excellent storytelling skills are needed to make the material connect with an audience at an emotional level. Festival's featured dancers excel in this, breathing life and authenticity into their portrayal. Ty Parmenter brings both lighthearted foolishness and fearful obsequiousness to the role of the Eunuch, for example, while Ilya Burov exudes jealousy and menace in each step and leap as the Sultan's scheming brother, Shah Zeman.
Ricci is utterly mesmerizing as Zobeide; her movements are so exquisite, it is impossible to look away from her performance, and every last detail of her characterization is polished to perfection. She sweetly demonstrates affection (pretended or otherwise) towards the Sultan, shows palpable distress when faced with unwanted advances from Zeman, and glows with unaffected joy when reunited with the Golden Slave.
Alberto's remarkable strength is showcased as he partners with Ricci, especially in the confidence he exhibits in lifts and carries. He gives quiet dignity to the Golden Slave's temperament, an unbowed spirit that he expresses most fully through his love for Zobeide in their breathtaking pas de deux. This passionate dance is intimate and highly sensual, both in its physicality and in the genuineness of feeling that underscores the depth of the characters' connection.
Festival Ballet Providence's Up Close on Hope will hold performances at the FBP Black Box Theatre, 825 Hope Street, through Saturday, February 14, 2015. Tickets are $50, which includes a reception with drinks and hors d'oeuvres at intermission. To purchase tickets, call the box office at 401-353-1129 or order online at festivalballetprovidence.org.
Pictured: Jennifer Ricci and Alexander Akoulov
Photo by Thomas Nola-Rion