Dorothy Jemison Day Theatre, Alabama School of Fine Arts, Birmingham, AB; April 13, 2014

Rachel Hellwig

Alabama Ballet in "La Bayadere" Photo © Melissa Dooley

Alabama Ballet in Kingdom of the Shades from “La Bayadere”
Photo © Melissa Dooley

For its season finale, Alabama Ballet presented a double bill featuring The Kingdom of the Shades from La Bayadere and Agnes De Mille’s Rodeo.

Unquestionably the best portion of La Bayadere, The Kingdom of the Shades stands well on its own. Separated from the plot, it becomes more of an abstract vision; longing and melancholy interspersed with moments of brightness. Wonderful lighting – pale moonlight blue with accents of citrine orange—contributed to the atmosphere.

The corps handled the challenging opening sequence admirably, which, depending on the dancer’s position in the long procession of white-clad spirits, may require repeating the same sequence up to thirty-eight times.  The lead roles of Solor and Nikiya showcased Max van der Sterre’s grand allegro skills and Samantha Hope Galler’s delicacy and classical line. Elizabeth Gamble demonstrated a lovely lightness in the challenging pointework of the first shade variation while Alana Czernobil’s ballon and balance were evident in the second shade variation. In the third shade variation, Kelli Murdock-Sylestine easily glided across stage in the final series of bourrees, a passage which is often performed without the grace and speed needed to create the intended skimming illusion.

Although Rodeo contains exciting virtuosic passages, its weight is equally derived from smaller, seemingly simple gestures-waving hello, tipping one’s hat, and naturalistic turned-in steps. It also incorporates steps from square dance and tap dance, as well as movements inspired by horseback riding and roping. The characters in this story are dressed in historically-inspired costumes; there’s not a tutu or pointe shoe in sight, nor does there need to be. In these ways and others, Rodeo seems to encompass Fokine’s ideals about “The New Ballet”, although it probably does so unconsciously.

Copland’s brilliant score incorporates American folk tunes along with his own imaginative musical scene painting. Agnes De Mille herself explained:

“If you know anything about early nineteenth-century American painting, you see America has to do with great space, great landmasses […] and few people […] and there is this in the music. Aaron Copland wasn’t using authentic tonalities—this [his style of music] has become the American sound because he struck certain cold, rather penetrating and evocative intervals that suggest space to us.”

Elizabeth Gamble in "Rodeo" Photo © Melissa Dooley

Elizabeth Gamble in “Rodeo”
Photo © Melissa Dooley

Elizabeth Gamble was spot-on in the main role: the wide-eyed, optimistic cowgirl with a can-do pioneer spirit.  Her character’s desperate antics to win the attention of the local cowhands inspired much laughter from the audience while at the same time, Gamble vividly conveyed the cowgirl’s youthful despair over her initial failure to find love. Samantha Hope Galler stood out for her tender and lyric approach to the role of the Rancher’s daughter.  Max van der Sterre and Alexander Forck were thrilling to watch in the athletic roles of the Wrangler and the Roper.

The purpose of pairing The Kingdom of the Shades and Rodeo on the same program is, of course, to demonstrate that a company is equally adept at performing works which employ the classical vocabulary and those which do not. Alabama Ballet succeeded in this test.

It may sound cheesy to gush about a how a performance exceeded your expectations, but this one truly did. I hope to see an encore of it in the future.