Vail Dance Festival: Opening night bubbles with enthusiasm
Friday night’s audience welcomed Vail Dance Festival performers with great appreciation
Audiences and performers sorely missed last summer’s Vail Dance Festival, so Friday night’s enthusiastic return was no surprise.
New York City Ballet (NYCB), American Ballet Theatre and BalletX joined favorites like Lil Buck in the opening night celebration at Gerald R. Ford Amphitheater. Even the heavy rain just before the show didn’t stop lawn fans from filling the hill, albeit under a hardy cover of umbrellas and tarps. In fact, the weather added to the already stunning natural background of the amphitheater, as an impromptu rain waterfall, lit in blue, streamed down from the back of the roof.
As the show began, artistic director Damian Woetzel talked about how, throughout history, art has connected people and provided a sense of purpose.
“I wouldn’t say that we took that for granted, but boy, do we value that now,” Woetzel said.
A couple months ago, Woetzel forecasted this festival bringing “a spirit of tremendous pent-up energy that will be truly expansive,” and that vision definitely manifested through the audience’s applause and enthusiasm on opening night. Since Vail Dance Festival had been one of the first to open again, it attracted new patrons from across the nation, said Susan Campbell, the festival’s committee chair. And, locals like Jane Wisor, who usually attend most of Bravo! but typically just buy tickets for opening night of the dance festival, said she and her husband are going to come back for more.
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“It’s amazing,” Wisor said during intermission.
NYCB soloist Unity Phelan and this year’s artist in residence from the American Ballet Theatre, Calvin Royal III, kicked off the evening with an excerpt from “Apollo.” Phelan and Royal embodied choreographer George Balanchine’s piece with exquisite strength and balance; one of the most spectacular moments came toward the end, as Royal balanced Phelan on his back, and the two dancers created a gorgeous human sculpture. Throughout the piece, a live orchestra accompanied the duet, adding even more energy.
Just as Phelan had predicted a couple months ago, she and her peers came back stronger than ever, both physically and mentally, after spending the last year honing their techniques during shutdowns.
The second piece fully illustrated its title, “Reunion 2021,” as Memphis Jookin performers like Lil Buck melded with tap dancers and visionaries like Michelle Dorrance and former NYCB principals like Robbie Fairchild. “Footloose” and “Blindspotting” actor Ron Myles, renowned tapper and teacher Dario Natarelli, Ai Shimatsu (who has performed with artists like Beyonce and Madonna) and Byron Tittle (who has performed with artists like Janet Jackson and Nicki Minaj) joined in the celebration, which seamlessly fused white high-top footwear with tap shoes.
Woetzel and the dancers choreographed “Reunion 2021” just a day and a half prior to taking the stage, but you’d never know it. Dancers exuded pure joy — it was obvious they were both pumped and grateful to be back together. The playful piece combined contemporary and street forms of dance with live music, on stage, from violinist Johnny Gandelsman and cellist Michael Nicolas.
The third piece, “Fancy Me,” featured BalletX’s Andrea Yorita and Shawn Cusseaux dancing to “Groove Me” by King Floyd. Cusseaux’s movements flowed incredibly effortlessly as he partnered with Yorita. Each dancer’s particular movement qualities took precedence over a strict, twin precision, which allowed each personality to emerge more fully.
American Ballet Theatre dancers Isabella Boylston, James Whiteside, Devon Teuscher and Cory Stearns delivered polished excerpts from “Black Swan,” as powerful and extensive pirouettes masterfully contrasted tender, melodic moments.
After intermission, pianist Susan Walters accompanied 10 dancers in a much longer piece: “Dances at a Gathering.” When it premiered in 1969 at New York State Theater, choreographer Jerome Robbins had utilized the stage in a way no one had. Woetzel encouraged the audience to “breathe and feel the power of what it means to gather” as the 10 dancers formed various groupings, from unique male partnerships or two women and one man groups, to ensembles of five, six and 10. Light and airy lifts, leaps and formations complemented Frédéric Chopin’s often soft, yet sometimes dissonant, music. Simple hand gestures elicited a murmur of laughter from the audience, while a spectacular leap with a horizontal twist garnered plenty of awe.
Throughout the night, audiences showed their appreciation with standing ovations, as everyone seemed to revel in the return of dance.
“Vail Dance Festival is the perfect place because it celebrates and spreads the joy of dance,” Phelan said. “It’s a real partnership between the audience and the performers.”