Harlequinade (dancer here Katia Raj).  Photo © Luis Pons

Petipa’s Harlequinade (dancer here Katia Raj).
Photo © Luis Pons

Peter Norton Symphony Space, New York, NY; March 28, 2015

Jerry Hochman

It was double trouble at Symphony Space Saturday night as Gelsey Kirkland Ballet offered a program of two fanciful period pieces choreographed by Marius Petipa: Cavalry Halt, which the company premiered a year ago, and Harlequinade, which had its company premiere the previous night. Each ballet focuses on the lighthearted adventures of couples as they navigate the trials and tribulations of romance. Although performing these two comedies on the same program doesn’t provide a complete picture of what the GK Ballet dancers can do, the result was a highly entertaining evening that kept the audience smiling throughout.

It takes some degree of audacity to present Harlequinade after New York City Ballet returned George Balanchine’s version of the ballet to its repertoire only a month ago. But as its performances in the past year demonstrate, GK Ballet has an abundance of audacity, as well as the artistic talent and professionalism to credibly pull off what logic says should still be beyond its reach. And presenting Harlequinade in its original form (or some semblance of it) turns out to have been a felicitous decision. Not only does it enable the company, and its audience, to chart the advancement of its dancers; but seeing it so soon after the Balanchine version enlightens them both.

In the tradition of Italian Commedia dell’arte, Harlequinade tells the story of Harlequin’s pursuit of his love, Columbine, her father Cassandre’s attempts to prevent the two from seeing each other, and the escapades that lead to the lovers’ ultimate triumph. Along the way, Cassandre recruits his servant, Pierrot, to keep his daughter locked up; and when that fails, hires some bird-brained comedic villains to ensure the penniless Harlequin’s demise. Assisted by Pierette (Pierrot’s wife and Columbina’s bff), Harlequin foils Cassandre’s dastardly deed; and a good fairy (who may have been the Lilac Fairy in a prior incarnation) blesses the couple with sufficient funding to overcome Cassandre’s objection.

Balanchine’s Harlequinade retains the essence of the Commedia dell’arte sensibility, but modernizes the style and presentation of the Petipa original. The action is more clearly told, the production looks relatively streamlined, and the choreography appears much more complex and nuanced.

The Petipa original, however, is richer in many ways. Like most Commedia dell’arte stories, it includes an introduction that, essentially, tells the audience what it’s about to see. Here, this also serves to make it clear that Harlequin is the focal point of the piece; the character who controls the action. With a wink and a nod, Harlequin describes, physically and through props (including flying body parts) what will happen, and that – fear not – he’ll triumph in the end.

The Balanchine version dispenses with the introduction and gets down to business immediately. By doing so, however, it is more decentralized: Harlequin is just one of a number of characters, and one who doesn’t appear until after others are introduced.

Petipa’s introduction also highlights the festiveness of the piece. This isn’t just a story, it’s a tale told within the context of a Venetian carnival, a mardi gras street festival of sorts, with hordes of masqued celebrants who are colorfully introduced at the outset. One can easily envision Columbine not only waving from her balcony, but tossing beads to the hordes below.

There are some adverse consequences. The Petipa version, here told in one act, is just short of being overly busy, though the relatively small Symphony Space stage didn’t help. And details that are clear in the Balanchine version tend to get buried in the broadly-populated action. For example, Cassandre’s plot to have Harlequin disappear through the assistance of incompetent comedic thugs is almost completely lost. The beak-masked thugs are there; they just suddenly appear and then just as suddenly disappear until they’re captured by a wayward local gendarme.

Dawn Gierling and Anderson Souza in Cavalry Halt.  Photo © Luis Pons

Dawn Gierling and Anderson Souza in Cavalry Halt.
Photo © Luis Pons

But this version isn’t all staged comedic hysteria. The characters of Harlequin, Columbine, Pierrot and Pierrette, although stock figures, are clearly delineated, and the ensemble dancing makes a more immediate and more powerful visual impact.

The GK Ballet dancers do a commendable job. Each of the leads handled both the choreography and the characterization well, and if the complexity of the original (here staged by Nikolai Levitsky and Vera Solovyeva) was toned down somewhat to meet their capabilities, it didn’t show.

The role doesn’t call for the effervescent doll-like cuteness as does the Balanchine version, but Anastasia Barsukova was an appropriately ebullient Pierrette. As Pierrot, Marko Micov’s one-note facial expression didn’t change (although I caught him smiling ever so slightly at one point). Nevertheless, he gave his portrayal surprising depth. This Pierrot was neither a dolt nor loser, but a cuddly bumpkin down on his luck with a highly functioning intelligence that he successfully kept hidden from his boss. And something inside him obviously lit up when he danced with Pierrette (which is where I caught him unable to hold back that smile).

Nicole Assaad is a highly capable dancer well able to handle the choreographic assignment. But it’s her stage character that distinguishes her. As Columbine, there’s fire underneath her part tease, part sweetheart demeanor that can be seen in her animated stage presence. Simply put, she connects with an audience, and is great fun to watch.

But the performance belonged primarily to Erez Ben-Zion Milatin’s Harlequin. Milatin, like Assaad, is short in stature, but he’s a dancing dynamo. Equally important, and unlike some other portrayals of the role, he also comes across as an irresistible Harlequin next door; a thoroughly likeable rogue.

The supporting Harlequinade” corps – members of the company as well as students at the Gelsey Kirkland Academy of Classical Ballet – was well-drilled technically, as has repeatedly been the case in all of the GK Ballet productions, but there was no sense of regimentation. They were comfortable with both the choreography and the festive air. One in particular, Kyono-Chantal Morin, a company apprentice, dances with a rare combination of youthful elegance and innocence, as well as controlled fluidity, which sets her apart from the others.

The professionalism of this presentation is also evident in its production values – particularly the extraordinary costumes created by Jennifer Wood-Bonnell, Jetty Maika, Debra DeJong, and Naomi Morin.

Even though it’s no longer a novelty (it was presented in one of the Mikhalovsky Ballet programs this past fall), Cavalry Halt remains as delightful now as it was when GK Ballet presented it a year ago. While the execution overall didn’t appear quite as polished as it did when I saw the same cast last fall, the performances by Dawn Gierling (Maria), Katrina Crawford (Theresa), Anderson Souza (Philipp), and Milatin, Johnny Almeida, and Alexander Mays (Coronet, Rotmeister, and The General) were appropriately cartoonish, and Gierling and Crawford did a particularly fine job, as did the ‘peasant ladies soloists’: Michelle Katcher and Assaad.

GK Ballet is not at the level of other major New York-based companies, but company artistic directors Gelsey Kirkland and Michael Chernov have served notice that it has ambitions to eventually compete on the same level. And, with an expansive new home in DUMBO to which it will move in June, it’s taken another step in that direction. On its agenda are a new production of Don Quixote (which landed Ms. Kirkland, as Kitri, on the May 1, 1978 cover of Time magazine), and participation in the new DUMBO Dance Festival in October.

As I wrote at the outset, GK Ballet has no lack of audacity, and although its artistic heart is firmly lodged in Russian classical ballet and its dancers hail from all over the world, it may just carve a niche for itself in New York.