Ballet SA performs "A Tropical Fiesta" during Ballet in the Park. March 2016. Photo by Page Graham.

Ballet San Antonio will take the stage for their final performance of the 2015-2016 season on Sunday afternoon at 2 p.m. at the Tobin Center for the Performing Arts. Ballet Alive is a program presenting five diverse works showcasing the Company’s versatility. Two of the pieces are new works by Artistic Director Willy Shives. Two more are choreographed by ballet legends Gerald Arpino and Frederic Franklin, and the last by a brilliant contemporary ballet voice, Dominic Walsh.

On opening night, attendance was disappointingly light. I am always puzzled by this phenomenon. There are enough contemporary ballet fans to fill the house at the cavernous Lila Cockrell Theatre when the Joffrey comes to town, but Ballet San Antonio often finds itself playing to a less than half full hall. Perhaps this is because San Antonio audiences are still unaware how far this company has come over the past several seasons.

No, Ballet San Antonio is not the Joffrey – yet. However, they are very good and hungry for success. There is so much potential here, and they deserve the support of the city. Shives has spent the past 17 years of his career with the Joffrey and his influence is already being felt. Across the board, the skills of the individual dancers employed by the company are getting more acute with each passing week. More than ever, this is becoming a company of equals. A true ensemble.

Shives is a répétiteur for the Gerald Arpino and Robert Joffrey Foundation and chose to open the program with Arpino’s Confetti. This divertissement is intricate and brash. Choreographed for three couples to music by Gioacchino Rossini, the piece is effervescent and exuberant, demanding of technique and speed. The ensemble carried the work admirably and the delicate Mai Uesaka particularly caught my eye. Currently a member of the corps de ballet, her footwork was spotless. She hovers like a hummingbird.

Mai Uesaka and Christopher McDaniel nail that a la seconde during rehearsal for "Confetti." April 2016. Photo by Tami Kegley.
Mai Uesaka and Christopher McDaniel nail that a la seconde during rehearsal for “Confetti.” April 2016. Photo by Tami Kegley.

Next on the program was a new pas de deux by Shives, Solace, choreographed to Cavatina by Stanley Myers and performed by classical guitarist John Williams. Shives says the piece is inspired by eternal love and our connection to others. “We never lose the people we love.”

Kate Maxted and Christopher McDaniel reprised their performance from the recent Ballet in the Park. The piece has a wistful, aching quality and an innocent sweetness to it. The partnership is well matched and the dancers captured the lyrical quality of the piece beautifully with its sweeping lifts and playful pairings. On Sunday, the audience will be sure to enjoy principals Sally Turkel and Ian Morris taking their turn at the piece.

Kate Maxted and Christopher McDaniel perform "Solace" at Ballet in the Park. March 2016. Photo by Page Graham.
Kate Maxted and Christopher McDaniel perform “Solace” at Ballet in the Park. March 2016. Photo by Page Graham.

The final morsel before the intermission was Dominic Walsh’s The Whistling, and this was the winner of the evening. I admit an affinity for contemporary ballet to begin with, but Walsh pushed these dancers to a place they haven’t been before. The Company is accustomed to working in a very traditional classical style, and this is decidedly not.

Choreographed to a compilation from the soundtracks Before Night Falls and Las Canciones de Almodovar, the music evokes the sultry heat of Cuba. Walsh is also responsible for the costume and scenic design. The setting is deceptively simple, working with lighting and smoke to create an evocative hole in time and space.

Where these dancers are typically defying gravity, in this case they have to yield to it. Push it around a bit. Walsh uses gesture, stillness, play and bravado in combination with an athletic, languid style that is intoxicating. In particular, Andres Angulo Castillo was taken from his upright, classical training and out of his comfort zone. He wowed the audience with his embrace of the performance. Sally Turkel was of neither heaven or earth, but a being somewhere between. Her performance was ethereal.

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To their credit, the company owned this piece and it was clear that they had surrendered to the technique required to deliver this work. Special kudos go to Sofie Bertolini for her sass and vinegar. She not only performed the work immaculately, she brought it alive with a toughness and humor that was sublime.

Tribute is another ballet for three couples, this time in the neoclassical vein. It was originally created for the Ballet Russe in 1961 by the legendary Premiere Danseur Frederic Franklin with music by César Franck. This is not a piece for the faint of heart. It is demanding with precision footwork and big jumps. The choreography is a veritable marathon. Again, the dancers did an excellent job of mastering a complex piece. If you are a fan of Balanchine, you will love this work.

The program was brought to a close with A Tropical Fiesta, choreographed by Shives to music by Louis Moreau Gottschalk. The arrangement is by Richard Hayman, best known as the principal arranger for the Boston Pops Orchestra for 30 years. The dance definitely has a pops flair, showcasing the entire company in a festive Latin celebration. The piece was originally done in 2010 and Shives expanded and re-choreographed the work especially for the San Antonio audience. It is fun and lighthearted without a serious bone in its body. No spoilers here, but it is the perfect finish to get everyone in the mood for Fiesta.

Artistic Director Willy Shives works a line coaching Arpino's "Confetti." April 2016. Photo by Tami Kegley.
Artistic Director Willy Shives works a line coaching Arpino’s “Confetti.” April 2016. Photo by Tami Kegley.

The bottom line is that Shives is pushing these dancers hard, working them to see what they are made of. He is a benevolent taskmaster, sure to guard the health and well-being of the dancers, make no mistake. He knows he has thoroughbreds on his hands and it is his desire and joy to make the most of them – personally and professionally.

My one suggestion for the company is to take a note from their artistic director and relax joyfully into this exertion, particularly in the most rigorous works such as Tribute or Confetti. To be completely self-assured and put doubt and the devil aside. They have it.

Tickets are available at the Tobin Box Office, 100 Auditorium Circle, by phone at (210)223-8624, or online via the TOBi Box Office. Individual tickets start at $29.

Top Image: Ballet SA performs “A Tropical Fiesta” during Ballet in the Park. March 2016. Photo by Page Graham.

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Tami Kegley

Tami Kegley has lived the life of an artist. Through multiple careers — dancer, percussionist, performance artist, sculptor, goldsmith, gallerist — she has pursued her need to create. The Great Recession...