Stunning ‘Serenade’ opens Ballet Idaho’s season

George Balanchine's "Serenade" received a warm Idaho welcome Friday night with cheers, applause and a long, standing ovation for Ballet Idaho’s sublime performance of his masterwork at the Morrison Center. The piece opened the company’s fifth season with a look to the company’s future.

The performance — which will repeat today at 2 p.m. — is noteworthy for several reasons, not the least of which is its high quality.

Balanchine created this neo-classical masterpiece in 1934. It was an immediate classic and has become one of the hallmarks of American ballet. Staged by former Balanchine prima ballerina Jillana with the permission of the Balanchine Trust, this company pulled it off beautifully.

The curtain opened on the breathtaking scene of 17 women bathed in the cool ice blue of John Torres’ lights. The ballet's iconic opening has long been a delight for audiences.

Set on the wide-open Morrison Center stage this was clearly the real “new” Ballet Idaho. It’s important to note that many of these same dancers struggled through the company’s first concert five years ago.

Here they soared.

They began with simple class positions — a sharp move from parallel first to turned out, then tendue and simple porte de bras — then they launched into a whirling display of ballet technique — arabesque, jetes, pique turns, in fluid lines and circles. Sometimes they rushed into the wings, fly across stage to create statue-like poses that offer hints of the narrative of love defeated by fate.

Bolstered by two excellent young dancers from the company’s academy — Christina Zimmerman, Laura Haller and a talented new hires — the company executed this masterwork with an impressive level of precision and elegance. It sets the bar high for the future.

Principals Phyllis Rothwell Affrunti and Angela Napier Gibson and soloist Lauren Menger, an excellent addition to the company, danced with a perfect blend of poise and refined strength, and each with their particular personalities. Affrunti was all innocence and
pathos; Gibson ethereal and polished; Menger flirtatious and playful.

Nathan Powell and Affrunti were a well-matched and lovely couple. He he lifted her as if she were made of air. James Brougham showed himself a strong and adept partner, working with this trio of women, and then in the thematic section where he is the dead lover returned to Affrunti then taken away by the Dark Angle (Gibson).

“Serenade” is the first time Ballet Idaho has tackled a Balanchine ballet, and according to the company’s artistic director Peter Anastos he plans to bring Balanchine into the company’s repertoire.

It also marks the beginning of the company’s first season that that will take place entirely on the Morrison Center stage, thanks to a grant from the center’s foundation.

With this venue to work with, the company will surely continue to grow. Last season they were hobbled by their concerts at the much smaller Special Events Center.

The concert also featured the debut of dancer Powell’s choreography in “Timepiece,” a fun character ballet with a sci-fi twist. In a speakeasy setting, a group of bank robbers discover they’ve stolen a devise that can slow down and stop time. The newest member (John Frazer) uses it to grab time with the leader’s (Andrew Taft, a born performers who gets plenty of action here) girlfriend (Menger).

The company really looked to be having fun with this one.

A worthy first effort, it was a bold choice for the program and offered a clever and delightful contrast to “Serenade.”

The closing piece was Anastos’ “Sweet Dreams,” a ballet that juxtaposes the music of Vivaldi and Patsy Cline. It basically works because both Vivaldi’s folk-based tunes blend with Cline’s country standards.

The ballet contains some fun moments, especially for the male corps — who work together well here. It also shows Anastos’ penchant for comedy, but it gets too cute at times. At one point the guys parody Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” to music by Vivaldi.

Here Powell and Gibson are paired, and somewhat awkwardly, simply because of the height difference. Gibson is well over 6 feet tall when she is en pointe, there were a few moments where Powell, the tallest man in the company struggled.

Both pieces felt under rehearsed, which makes sense with the obvious time and effort that went into “Serenade.” That’s the next challenge for Ballet Idaho: giving their talent company and artistic leaders more time together in the studio.

If you go: 2 p.m. Nov. 3, Morrison Center, 2201 Cesar Chavez Lane, Boise. $37, $42 and $57. Select-a-Seat. balletidaho.org.