A dance showcase in the Colorado mountains

The Vail Festival has become the most important dance festival in the West. Here's a report on week one, where PNB's Carla Korbes was a standout.

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Charles 'Lil Buck' Riley performs with the Vail Valley Children.

The Vail Festival has become the most important dance festival in the West. Here's a report on week one, where PNB's Carla Korbes was a standout.

It’s August and the mountains are alive with the sounds of … pointe shoes pounding, ballet slippers sliding, bare feet stomping. The Vail International Dance Festival is under way, and if Vail’s toy-village center feels like a quiet Colorado mountain town by day, by night dance fans and local glitterati pack the stunning Gerald R. Ford amphitheater to watch an eclectic array of companies and dancers from around the U.S. and the world.

As a mark of how important the festival has become in recent years, New York City Ballet launched its traveling chamber troupe MOVES at the Festival last week. Apart from the visibility and critical acclaim the Festival now garners under Damien Woetzel, who took over the directorship in 2006, there’s an especially close connection between Woetzel and the New York company.  Woetzel was a principal with City Ballet until his retirement in 2008 and has consistently brought in City Ballet dancers as guest artists during each year’s annual two-week dance showcase.

The appearances by MOVES — including a dazzling lecture-demonstration by Woetzel and City Ballet's ballet master-in-chief Peter Martins on “Balanchine and the Male Dancer” — were the highlights of the first week of this year’s festival. There were many other delights as well and the second week should be equally exciting with premieres by some of America’s most innovative choreographers, including Christopher Wheeldon and Trey McIntyre. McIntyre’s company wowed Seattle audiences at Meany Hall last year, and Wheeldon’s work provides consistent high points whenever Pacific Northwest Ballet performs it.

Under Woetzel’s dynamic leadership, however, the Vail Festival is about much more than traditional concert dance. This year’s artist-in-residence is Charles “Lil Buck” Riley who has created a new form of hip-hop-inflected street dance called jookin’. Riley became an overnight sensation when he appeared on the Ellen De Generes TV show, and his YouTube videos have since drawn millions of hits.

Those videos don’t begin to do justice to Riley’s talent, however, which was on full view during last Friday’s "International Evening of Dance,” featuring solos and pas de deux by some of the dance world’s biggest stars. Riley didn’t just hold his own among the likes of City Ballet’s Wendy Whelan and Tyler Angle, American Ballet Theatre’s Herman Cornejo, Gillian Murphy, Misty Copeland, and Cory Stearns, and PNB’s Carla Körbes (who provided the most beautiful ballet moments of the evening): Riley was the runaway hit of the show. His version of the Dying Swan was as choreographically complex and emotionally powerful as anything classical ballet has to offer, and as he undulated his body or slid across the stage on pointe (in tennis shoes no less), he was a vision of elegance and charm (Skip to 2:15 in the video below to see Riley's solo).

Apart from Riley’s extraordinary solo, the other first-week offering that Vail audiences couldn’t stop talking about was the Martins-Woetzel lecture-demonstration on Balanchine’s choreography for the male dancer. Even for those with a reasonably broad experience of the Balanchine canon, there were revelations. Presented in the intimate, enclosed Vilar Performing Arts Center in nearby Beaver Creek, the lecture-dem featured engaging anecdotes and remembrances from Martins and Woetzel (who never danced under Balanchine but became a great interpreter of his groundbreaking style) in a survey of Balanchine’s male roles from his earliest in 1928 (Apollo) to one of his last (Mozartiana, 1981). All were illustrated by a fearless group of MOVES’ male dancers, who had learned some of the roles just hours before the show started and proved their mettle once again as they moved effortlessly through the various periods of Balanchine’s long career.

Not surprisingly, the Danish-born Martins provided the most entertaining moments of the evening, describing how Balanchine wouldn’t cast him in certain ballets (Martins wasn’t “American” enough) and where Balanchine found his inspiration (a Piccadilly Circus neon advertisement for gloves that provided a memorable move in Apollo). Martins and Woetzel challenged again and again the veracity of Balanchine’s famous quote that “ballet is woman,” insisting that his male roles, including the solo in the Divertimento from Le Baiser de la Fée (which Martins called the “most beautiful male solo ever”) are unforgettably demanding and powerful.

Among the dancers, principal Daniel Ulbricht provided the most thrilling moments, in excerpts from Prodigal Son and Rubies, with soloist Anthony Huxley demonstrating in an excerpt from Harlequinade that he has both the talent and the nerves of steel necessary for superstar status.  On the first go-round, Huxley flubbed the ending; Martins directed him to do it again and, with the full house rapt, Huxley nailed a perfect landing.

I saw only one of MOVES’ full-evening performances but by all accounts it was the more successful. The mixed-bill program featured two works by Christopher Wheeldon, Polyphonia and After the Rain (both of them in PNB’s repertoire), and Peter Martins’ exuberant Hallelujah Junction. It’s been a number of years since I’ve seen City Ballet, and MOVES comprises only 17 of the company’s 90-plus members. But based on the Vail appearances, it’s fair to say that the current crop is a confident and technically proficient group of dancers. Having said that, Carla Körbes (who danced with City Ballet before PNB) has an innate elegance and emotionality that set her apart even in such stellar company. On Friday night, she was a luminous presence in a pas de deux that Woetzel created for her and City Ballet’s Tyler Angle.

Besides the five world premieres and an appearance by the Trey McIntyre Project, during the Festival’s second and final week Woetzel has programmed an evening-long “Ballroom Spectacular” as well as a “Dance TV” show featuring performers from “So You Think You Can Dance," “Dancing with the Stars,” and “America’s Best Dance Crew.” Woetzel says he feels the TV dance phenomenon is too big to ignore. Based on the reception on Friday night to the two ballroom numbers on the program, it appears he’s right. Apart from “Lil Buck” Riley, international ballroom stars Liana Churilova and Emmanuel Pierre-Antoine got the biggest cheers of the evening.

There’s no question that holding a dance festival in the mountains of Colorado poses special challenges, not the least of which is an altitude of 8,150 feet that causes labored breathing even among the most athletic of dancers (and visitors). But as the only major dance festival west of the Mississippi and with the innovative Damien Woetzel at its helm, the Vail International Dance Festival provides a chance to see some of the most exciting dancers and choreographers working today — in a setting that dazzles almost as much as the action on stage.


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