City Ballet returns to live performances with Balanchine and ‘Rhapsody in Blue’

In bustling downtown Pacific Beach, a long, narrow staircase down an alley leads to City Ballet’s sunny top-floor rehearsal room.

It’s a vast industrial space, and one afternoon in mid-March the whole company was there to rehearse a trio of works – “Danses Concertantes”, “La Bayadère – Le Royaume des Ombres” and “Rhapsody in Blue” – which will be presented together during next weekend’s shows at the Balboa Theater.

“Rhapsody in Blue” is both the title of the event and the name of the contemporary ballet that resident choreographer Geoff Gonzalez created virtually last year during the pandemic.

The dance is accompanied by the familiar composition of George Gershwin, and after a year of being limited by digital presentations, the company is ready to perform “Rhapsody” in front of an audience.

The City Ballet of San Diego presents “Rhapsody in Blue”.

(Courtesy)

Gonzalez created her ballet with a playful theme that alludes to platonic and romantic relationships. The choreography marries the score’s floating clarinet solo with edgy, sensuous movement, and the music’s explosive symphonic climax is well-matched with the company’s athleticism and artistry. As they rehearsed, the dancers’ quick smiles expressed genuine pleasure in the work.

“There’s a family feeling on stage,” Gonzalez said. “We are all part of other people’s lives.”

The life of a City Ballet dancer is all about mastering the choreography of George Balanchine, the Russian-born artistic director of New York City Ballet, also known as the father of American Ballet.

The City Ballet is licensed to perform works by Balanchine in San Diego, which involves paying licensing fees to the New York-based George Balanchine Trust, an organization that guarantees that a company is capable of performing the works as Balanchine had foreseen it. There is also a separate fee for a Trust-approved ‘rehearsal’ or Balanchine trainer who assists in staging a production.

Resident choreographer and City Ballet co-founder Elizabeth Wistrich said she was looking forward to the premiere of Balanchine’s ‘Danses Concertantes’, an ‘ironic’ work to a score by Igor Stravinsky.

It’s the 20 of the City Balletand Balanchine production, with newly purchased sets and costumes from the Kennedy Center.

The costumes define groups of dancers in five vibrant colors and the choreography includes a series of whimsical yet athletic pas de trois, which is a dance for three. There is no script, but the dancers seem to be happily preparing for a performance, with movement that seems spontaneous, but is actually rigorous and precise.

“As a choreographer, I’ve always been influenced by Balanchine,” said Wistrich, who grew up in Boston. “When I was with the Boston Ballet and when I went to Europe and danced with the Stuttgart Ballet, we were exposed to Balanchine. He feels good. His style, his patterns, everything spoke to me.

The rehearsal was supervised by ballet mistress Natalie Test, who began her career with City Ballet in 2007 as an apprentice dancer. She became a company dancer in 2009 and for the past two years has participated in the direction of the dancers as a ballet mistress. As she watched the company rehearse, Test took notes, documenting details that would help perfect the upcoming show.

“Dancers eat this style because they love to perform,” Test said. “They come from different backgrounds but they are all capable of achieving the Balanchine technique. They are athletic, strong and intelligent and they are able to create the energy that the ‘Danses Concertantes’ needs.

The two optimistic works are accompanied by the second act of the poignant 1877 classic “La Bayadère”, by French choreographer Marius Petipa. The ballet’s opening scene begins with 16 dancers in white tutus performing 39 arabesques.

The dancers represent spirits from the Shadow Realm, and as they progress through a serpentine pattern, they create a hypnotic and ethereal scene that, in reality, is technically complex. The goal is to keep all members moving in unison with a critical eye on spacing.

The program includes a bittersweet pas de deux from City Ballet directors Lucas Ataide and Sumire Ito, who perform the roles of Solor, a noble warrior, and Nikiya, a temple dancer.

Test danced in “La Bayadère” when the City Ballet presented it in 2008.

“I remember it was tough, but also very rewarding,” Test said. “It was one of my dreams to perform this ballet. I love the music and also the classical style.

Test said the program’s repertoire appeals to diverse dance tastes.

“The program gives audiences the opportunity to sample and experience three very different genres of ballet in one evening,” she said. “It will take you on a journey through rapid movement, neoclassical and contemporary, and culminate in a captivating and romantic classical experience.”

Luttrell is a freelance writer.

City Ballet of San Diego: ‘Rhapsody in Blue’

When: 8 p.m. on March 25 and 26

Or: Balboa Theater 868 Fourth Avenue, San Diego

Tickets: $30 to $97 plus shipping

Call: (858) 272-8663

In line: cityballet.org

Kenneth T. Shippee