Ballet dances the gamut from playful to intense

Alexandra Cunningham and Christopher Nachtrab are two of the gems dancing in the Sacramento Ballet’s “Rubies.”

The Sacramento Ballet opened its 59th season Thursday evening with a three-part program of dances all set to the music of Igor Stravinsky. Opening with George Balanchine’s playful "Rubies" (to Stravinsky’s Capriccio for Piano and Orchestra) and driving through a glittering "The Firebird," the program ended with a masterful reinterpretation of "Rite of Spring" (Sacre du Printemps).

The choreography of "Firebird" and "Rite" was by the Ballet’s co-artistic director, Ron Cunningham, and the inspried combination of the three dances created a show that was, simply, a gem set in platinum and gold.

"Rubies" is one of three segments of Balanchine’s "Jewels," generally recognized as the first full-length abstract ballet. Balanchine has been quoted as saying, "The ballet had nothing to do with jewels. The dancers are just dressed like jewels." (The other two parts of the ballet are "Emeralds" and "Diamonds.")

"Rubies" is crisp, with sharp hip movements, off-balance positions and long, extended leaps and stretches. Alexandra Cunningham and Christopher Nachtrab (a pairing of two equally poised and confident dancers) are the central couple. Her on-pointe dancing — indeed, all her footwork, in arabesques and elsewhere — was crisp and precise. He was more than just a steady support, capturing the whimsical nature of the piece in shrugs and smiles.

Ava Chatterson, dancing a third featured role, looked Balanchine-ballerina perfect, her elegant extensions emphasizing the arm work that is essential to his choreography.

"The Firebird"  (set to Stravinksy’s first ballet score) retains the original concept and style of Michel Fokine’s 1910 choreography, but filtered through choreographer Cunningham’s imagination.

Based on an old Russian folk tale, "The Firebird" tells the story of a Prince (Richard Porter) who, while hunting, encounters a magical Firebird (Kaori Higashiyama). He pursues and captures her, but releases her when she promises to come to his aid anytime he needs. The Prince is soon surrounded by beautiful maidens in the magic garden where he stands, and he quickly falls in love with their beautiful Princess (Isha Lloyd). She warns him about the evil sorcerer Koschei (Christopher Nachtrab) who holds them prisoner. Koschei quickly appears and furious fighting ensues until, in his moment of greatest need, the Prince calls upon the Firebird to rescue him. With the defeat of the sorcerer and his minions, the Firebird disappears into unknown realms and the Prince and Princess are wed in a colorful ceremony.

This is an inventive and imaginative story, well danced by all to music that is by turns melodic and disturbing.  Veteran company members Lloyd, Porter and Nachtrab continue to make strong impressions, while relative newbie Kigashiyama is captivating in the title role. The ensemble, terrific as usual is precise in its unison movement and adds atmosphere and texture to the sometimes strange and surreal goings on.

Saving the best and most demanding for last, Cunningham programs his reimagining of the notorious "Rite of Spring." When "Rite" debuted in Paris in 1913, it set off a riot in the theater. Its combination of avant-garde music and ultra modern choreography upset audiences expecting a more classical dance. Cunningham’s choreography is every bit as shocking in its way — primal and intense.

The rite in "Rite of Spring" is a human sacrifice, usually that of a young female virgin. Filtering the fable through other famous tales of sacrifice (Abraham’s order from God to offer up his son), Cunningham posits that the greater sacrifice, the one most likely to please god or the gods, would be that a healthy, virile male. And he places the action amidst a primitive tribe where the Shaman (Stefan Calka) chooses the Sacrifice (Oliver-Paul Adams). For a while, it appears the Priestess (Lauryn Winterhalder) may become victim as she, the Shaman and the Sacrifice wrestle for dominance.
Calka, an impressive actor as well as dancer, is menacing as can be as the Shaman, authoritatively driving the plot toward its powerful conclusion. Adams, likewise, is required to act as well as dance and he convincingly portrays the anguish of one facing an unpleasant end. The struggle among the three principles is tightly choreographed and expertly executed.
Again, the ensemble creates texture and atmosphere, especially in one intensely frightening segment (matched perfectly to Stravinsky’s jarring, jamming music).

"Rubies," "The Firebird" and "Rite of Spring" will be presented at 7:30 p.m. Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday at the Community Center Theater, 1301 L St.

Tickets are $19-$70. For more information: (916)

This Ballet season is celebrating the 25th anniversary of Carinne Binda as company co-artistic director (with husband Cunningham). All the programs, including the full-length "Cinderella" which will be presented Nov. 2 and 3, were chosen or inspired by Binda.



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