From the moment I walked into the IMA lobby at Newfields Friday night on my way to the Tobias Theatre, aka “The Toby,” I could feel the undeniable energy in the air. It was opening night of Indianapolis Ballet‘s debut residency and excitement and anticipation were at a fever pitch. Due to the efforts of founding artistic director Victoria Lyras, a committed board, enthusiastic supporters, and a $500,000 gift from the Allen Whitehill Clowes Charitable Foundation, Indy’s newest professional ballet company was being introduced to the community. The evening promised something very special and I am pleased to report, expectations were not only met, they were exceeded.
Performing in front of a diverse, sold-out crowd, with many families and children present, the newly formed IB company presented an immensely appealing repertoire consisting of “Raymonda, Act III,” “Who Cares?” and “The Firebird.” Lyras could not have chosen a better repertoire to showcase her dancers and provide the audience with a sample of the artistic product they can expect to see with this new company in residence.
In a curtain speech, Lyras referred to the program’s theme when she said that IB wanted to “spread the love,” the perfect subject matter to explore so soon after Valentine’s Day. So what better way to start things off than portray a wedding celebration and in this case, one that takes place in “Raymonda” – Act III.? With choreography by Marius Petipa, and additional choreography by Lyras, set to music by Alexander Glazunov, the piece featured founding company members Yoshiko Kamikusa as the countess Raymonda and Chris Lingner as Jean de Brienne, the dashing crusader knight.
When the curtain rose, revealing the corps dressed in Hungarian-style costumes created by Lyras and her mother Loukia Finale, it was immediately established that here was a company to be reckoned with. In terms of technique and artistry, it was clear that IB had every intention of setting the bar high. Despite the fact that at one point, one of the young dancers (presumably an ISB student) fell, in the larger scheme of things, the unfortunate mishap was easily forgiven. As far as the IB’s previously mentioned high standards, they were no more evident than in the performance of Lingner, a frequent guest artist in Indianapolis School of Ballet productions and one of the two IB dancers hired first. Displaying a combination of athleticism and finesse, he danced a role that made the most of his leading man looks and charisma, and partnered splendidly with Kamikusa, who was the quintessence of poise, beauty and elegance in her enchanting solo.
“Who Cares?,” the piece choreographed by George Balanchine that followed, was my favorite in the program. I am a fan of George Gershwin, whose songs resonate with me, including the eight danced to in this piece which is the concert version. Reflecting warmth and charm as a happy-go-lucky character, British-born David Ward danced solos and pas de deux with IB founding members, Kamikusa, Kristin Young Toner and Camila Ferrera in front of a stylized image of the Manhattan skyline. Ward and his equally pleasing partners were each captivating in this lighthearted, romantic piece that reflected the range of emotions that Gershwin expressed in songs such as “The Man I Love,” “Embraceable You,” “Fascinating Rhythm,” and the program’s title song.
Anchoring the program and making for a fitting conclusion to the concert dance performance was “The Firebird,” choreographed by Lyras, to music by Stravinsky. Toner, starring as the Firebird, turned in a dynamic and compelling performance, darting back and forth with bird-like movement and dancing the role of Ivan, Lingner shined in his role as the heroic prince, as did Mary Ann Schaefer who was beguiling as the princess he loves. A highlight of the ballet was the grand entrance of the Firebird, who after being summoned by the prince through the magic feather she gave him for releasing her previously, arrives to rescue him from the evil sorcerer Katschel (IBS associate artistic director Paul Vitale) and his minions. It was one of the most breathtaking moments theatre I have ever witnessed.
Praiseworthy for turning in disciplined and focused performances in “Raymonda III,” and “The Firebird,” were talented IB founding members Jessica Miller, Katherine Sawicki and the equally gifted guest artists Cameron Auble-Branigan, Xavier Nunez,Sebastian Serra, Daniel Wagner. Joining all the aforementioned were promising company apprentices Rowan Allegra, Abigail Bixler, Abigail Rose Crowell, Sierra Levin and Sarah Marsoobian as well as the nine crowed-pleasing ISB students who danced in “Raymonda – Act III.”
Contributing to the ballet’s first-rate production values was the creative team of Lyras and her mother, Finale, who designed and created the sumptuous costumes with assistance from Louise Lingner. Production director James Leitner, designed the effectual lighting and Mark Smith designed the imposing “Firebird” set.
As a harbinger of things to come, the Indianapolis Ballet debut residency unquestionably proved that its addition to the Indianapolis performing arts landscape is one the public should be very excited about. And based on the enthusiastic audible response of the opening-night crowd, it is a development that portends well for a city that may finally deserve to be called world-class for a ballet company we can all be proud of.
For information about the Indianapolis Ballet 2018 season, visit Indyballet.org.