BY SANDY STAGGS
Ballet Spartanburg layers this celebrated expatriate story with divine dance, a jaunty Gershwin score, torch singers and even a can-can, all amongst the lightsome backdrop of the French capital.
Artistic Director and choreographer Carlos Agudelo has been cautioning all season – the Ballet’s historic 50th year – that his ballet is not the recent Broadway “An American in Paris” by Christopher Wheeldon that graced the Peace Center this winter.
Agudelo’s vision, which opened last night at the Chapman Cultural Center,” is more closely aligned with the 1951 Oscar-winning film with Gene Kelly and Leslie Caron that was influenced by George Gershwin’s game-changing jazzy symphonic tone poem.
It opens with Gershwin’s frolicking sweep of the busy slaphappy streets of the City Of Light, as Parisians stroll the boulevard with balloons, a flower cart and even the Gershwin toot of a bicycle horn. And just as I made a mental note of “Where are the dogs “littering” the streets of Paris?” as in Robert Altman’s “Prêt-à-Porter,” along comes Oxford, the company’s resident white Labrador retriever strutting across the stage. Bravo!
Will Scott is the American expatriate and painter Jerry, the Gene Kelly role, who falls in love with the gorgeous Parisian beauty, Lise (Nichola Montt). But Lise is already attached to the ambitious singer Henri (guest artist Kendall Teague). And Jerry has a benefactor-with-benefits arrangement with Milo (Analay Saiz), a wealthy heiress.
Company dancer Will Robichaud plays Jerry’s pianist pal Adam and member Meghan Loman and apprentice Dominique Guerra dance the parts of Lise’s friends.
But does Jerry get his girl? You bet and that’s what makes this ballet made for adults so refreshing. It’s a very accessible old-fashioned love story, and the plot is clear and easy to follow even for someone completely unfamiliar with the premise or new the art of dance.
Agudelo champions love. There’s no tragic ending, suicide or malevolence here; but a conflict of the heart where even the breakups are cordial.
And the ballet is so well-structured and executed with gravitas in the 1950s choreography that pays homage to Kelly and crosses into swing and modern movement, as well as the production’s melancholy mood and inclusion of live musical performances.
In the nightclub scene, audiences are treated to not one, but two, Edith Piaf classics – “Non, Je Me Regrette Rien” (“No Regrets”) and her signature “La Vie en Rose” – by an exotic torch singer, played by Converse alumna and noted soprano Eranga Goonetilleke, who looked stunning on opening night in a black scalloped sequin gown.
And “An American in Paris” features a crooning ballet dancer (a first for this writer indeed!) as Teague admirably belts out one of the Ira Gershwin co-penned compositions from the film, “I’ll Build A Stairway to Paradise.”
Every vignette in Agudelo’s ballet is phenomenal and attuned to the musical extremities and nuances of Gershwin’s symphony, from the spry whimsical opening to Lise’s initial content with Henri juxtaposed to the heartfelt strings and bouncy flute and oboe melodies, and Jerry and Milo’s topsy turvy relationship set to the heavier brass parts in another movement.
But the crowning achievement in this production, as in the film, lies in the surreal dream ballet at the end.
Like the “Jolly Holiday” sequence in “Mary Poppins,” the design aesthetics completely alter: the Paris backdrops become impressionist paintings (Manet, Van Gogh, etc.) and the glorious costumes designed by Melissa Kimbrell and Maxine Moehlenbrock switch to green and pink cotton candy colors, including plaid slacks for the gents.
Miss Mont, clad throughout in simple, floral print spring frocks, slips into a sultry blue dress here and Scott swaps his khakis and pop shirt for an all-black sinewy ensemble, as the two embrace in a sensuous, gorgeous exchange of emotions with supreme grace, exquisite technique, and clean, fluid lines. This segment alone is truly worth the price of admission
But how could one visit Paris without a experiencing a can-can at the Moulin Rouge? Agudelo solves that dilemma with an outstanding festive ensemble of 13 students from the Ballet Spartanburg Center for Dance Education that turn this notorious institution on its to the infections rhythms of Offenbach’s “Galop Infernal” from “Orpheus in the Underworld.”
And this top-notch gang dazzles us earlier in a sensational tap steppin’ number choreographed by Michelle Cuneo, all in suave tuxes and tails to an instrumental version of “I Got Rhythm, ” which they prove with aplomb in an impressive Rockettes-style kick-line.
The troupe here includes Katie Blackwell, Elli Boone, Dylan Brandemuehl, Kensley Brandemuehl, Charlie Carrouth, Catherine Chapman, Maria Cochran, Camille Fendley, Aurelia Fendley, Emily Hodge, Logan Evans, Luke Umphlett and John Roche.
The projected stills of Paris scenes and Peter Lamson’s subtle lighting go a long way in forging a cool atmosphere in every dance from the nighttime view from Milo’s apartment overlooking the Seine, to the city’s sunny sidewalks and a smoky nightclub. I especially liked the hot red hues for the Moulin Rouge sequence that accentuated the ladies’ red and black crinoline tutus and masks in the can-can.
Lona Gomez is the company’s Ballet Mistress. And Converse College’s Mildred Roche returns to Ballet Spartanburg as pianist for this production.
The sound engineer is Martine Aigner; Peter Lamson is also Production Manager; and Bethany Lancaster is Sound and Production Tech.
The ballet is also preceded by an adorable video thanking all of the generous sponsors of Ballet Spartanburg that have supported the many diverse programs at Ballet Spartanburg.
“An American in Paris” continues tonight Saturday, April 22 at 8 p.m. at Chapman Cultural Center, 200 E. St. John St. in Spartanburg. For tickets, visit http://www.chapmanculturalcenter.org.