Daniela Aldrich in George Balanchine's Divertimento no.15. Photo © Paul Kolnik

Daniela Aldrich in George Balanchine’s Divertimento no.15. Photo © Paul Kolnik

Peter Jay Sharp Theater, New York; June 1, 2013

David Mead

The Royal Danish Ballet School in Copenhagen probably has almost as good a case, but I’m not sure that any ballet school in the world remains so closely associated with one particular choreographer as does the School of American Ballet. Founded by George Balanchine and Lincoln Kirstein in 1934, the master choreographer’s name is still writ large through everything it does. So how appropriate that this year’s Workshop Performances should feature three of his works, and three that focus purely on dancing to great music: the gorgeously delicate “Divertimento No. 15” (to Mozart), staged by Suki Schorer; the elegant and delightfully well-mannered “Le Tombeau de Couperin” (to Ravel), staged by Rosemary Dunleavy and Arch Higgins; and the free-spirited “Walpurgisnacht Ballet” (from Gounod’s “Faust”), staged by Susan Pilarre.

All three ballets looked pristine. That’s hardly surprising given the fact that all were staged by former dancers associated intimately with the Balanchine tradition. You can ‘kill’ a work by over-rehearsing, though, and I do sometimes wonder how the youthfulness and freshness seen here is maintained given the extended rehearsal period, far longer than the company enjoys. With the School it is not so much “33 ballets in 3 weeks” (to quote from the company’s advertising for part of the spring season) but rather closer to “3 ballets in 33 weeks!”

“Divertimento No. 15” is a statement of classical style, albeit infused here and there with Balanchine’s trademark inflections of the pelvis and hips. The young dancers carried it off brilliantly. The dance and the music were as one in spirit as much as anything else, which is just as it should be. There is nowhere to hide in the six variations, each intricate in its own way. All were polished and agreeable, but the sparks really flew in the final one, which demands crisp, fast footwork. Eighteen-year old Daniela Aldrich delivered it in spades. Like all very good dancers she gave the impression of having time; nothing seemed rushed. Of the rest, also standing tall was the refined Mimi Staker in the third variation. Only seventeen, she already looked a true artist. She is one of those dancers who have that special something that doesn’t allow you to take your eyes off them, even when their back is turned. The other solos were danced by Jordan Miller, Clara Ruf-Maldonado, Laine Harbony and Zachary Gunthier, with the opening theme by Patrick Frenette, and Alejandro Ocasio.

“Le Tombeau de Couperin” is a suite of dances for eight dancers in two quadrilles that dance separately, albeit side by side, until the middle of the ballet. Although danced on a bare stage and in simple costumes, it begins graciously and with an air of courtly formality about it, although later gets somewhat closer to a hoe-down. It is packed with delightful geometric patterning that draws heavily on social dance. Although a very polite ballet, “Tombeau” always works much better when danced with a level of innocence, something not always captured by older dancers. There was certainly plenty of youthful freedom and bounce here, and a great esprit de corps among the group. Laura Gunder and Morgan Lovette particularly caught the eye with their clarity and sharpness of movement.

Isabella LaFreniere, Mayim Stiller and the School of American Ballet in George Balanchine's Walpurgisnacht Ballet. Photo © Paul Kolnik

Isabella LaFreniere, Mayim Stiller and the School of American Ballet in George Balanchine’s Walpurgisnacht Ballet. Photo © Paul Kolnik

Rounding things off was “Walpurgisnacht Ballet” with its 24 girls dancing energetically, their purple tulle skirts billowing, their hair streaming. They were led by the tall and imposing Isabella LaFreniere, who performed strongly and confidently despite one slip. She is another obvious emerging talent. Mayim Stiller was the lucky man surrounded by all the ladies, and danced well in the pas deux that is full of unconventional partnering. Claire Millard as the second ballerina combined bravura and grace. She was particularly light yet razor sharp in her pas de chat volés.This year’s Mae L. Wien Awards for Outstanding Promise went to Aldrich, Miller and La Freniere, although promise and talent could be seen wherever one looked on stage. As the performance went on, you kept having to remind yourself that none of the dancers were older than nineteen. Some were only sixteen. How refreshing to see dancers so young apparently understanding fully that dance is about artistry and dancing with the music, rather than about flashy tricks as seen far too often in the circus that is ballet competition. I’ll hazard the opinion that performances like this and choreography like this tell us far more about a dancer than any sixty-second contest variation. One can only hope the good habits learned at the School stay with them as they move to careers with New York City Ballet or other companies.

The specially brought together Workshop Orchestra was as good as the dance on stage, and was conducted with some panache by Daniel Capps.