Arts The Pro-Ams 

The Ballet Conservatory of South Texas looks top-notch in an ambitious cross-cultural performance

When the Ballet Conservatory of South Texas announced itself as a newly formed company and academy last January, skeptics in the dance community wondered why San Antonio needed yet another pre-professional ballet ensemble. In a beautiful assertion of creative intent, the Conservatory's performance last weekend of East Meets West: Ballet From Two Cultures made it clear that the company is serious about presenting dance in a professional, artistically dynamic context.

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Dancers of the Ballet Conservatory of South Texas perform in East Meets West: Ballet From Two Cultures at The Carver Community Cultural Center. (Photos by Mark Greenberg)

Not content with re-hashing traditional repertoire, co-directors Judith Gani and Charlton O'Neal created original choreo-graphy that challenged their dancers while emphasizing individual strengths. The program began with "Children's Games," a work choreographed by Gani to the music of Georges Bizet, featuring the Conservatory's younger dancers and guest children selected by audition. The piece could have been just another cute recital with adorable little girls in tutus hopping around the stage. Instead, the performance proved that it is possible to get 15 or so giggly, wiggly little dancers to count, twirl, chassé, and gracefully move about the stage in more than orderly fashion.

In nine movements named for familiar games such as "Hide and Seek," "Red Rover," and "Circles and Lines," "Children's Games" presented a series of charming set pieces. The older children (10-15) and younger members of the corps de ballet (14-18) provided structure and dynamism to the staging and choreography, with younger children "Marching," "Galloping," and playing a fairly convincing pantomimed game of "Baseball," complete with bases, mitts, caps, strikes, and runs. The game gave way to a lovely pas de deux with corps member Gabriel Zertuche (the referee) and Conservatory soloist Melanie Lux in "Boy and Girlfriend."

If the Conservatory's goal is to simulate the experience of a professional company for its dancers, the corollary is to present professional quality performances for its audiences. In a city lacking a professional ballet company with a full performance season, that audience requires cultivation, and to this end, O'Neal isn't bashful about trotting out some of his more complex choreographic works for performance.

Indian superstar Ravi Shankar's landmark composition, "Concerto for Sitar and Orchestra," recorded in 1971 with André Previn and the London Symphony Orchestra, was one of the first major works to combine traditional Western structure and orchestration with Indian tonalities, rhythms, and momentum. It's a difficult and beautiful piece because the two musical systems are so intricately merged. To mold the work into a performance for Western ballet students is quite ambitious, requiring the musical and choreographic sensitivity to integrate the various elements. O'Neal and his dancers have done an admirable job on this point.

The company was joined in the first and last movements by two Indian dancers, Deepika Ram and Vedhanti Upadhyaya of San Antonio's Arathi School of Indian Dance, who performed an introductory passage and an interlude in the Bharatanatyam style, choreographed by Kausi Subramaniam. These two passages provided an appropriately Indian tone to the ballet concerto, accentuating the non-narrative capacity of both dance forms.

Without appropriating specific gestures from Indian dance, O'Neal's choreography references it beautifully. Many of the hand gestures and held poses were particularly effective, requiring the dancers to display a significant level of strength and control. Where a traditional Western musical phrase would suggest a fluid motion, Shankar's Indian syncopations suggested ever-so-slight hesitations in the dancers' movements, requiring the dancers to internalize the rhythms and tempos and be sensitive to changes in the musical phrase's direction.

Considering that most of the dancers are high-school students with little experience with Indian music, the performance was quite impressive. Melanie Lux, Bryn Schiele, and Paula Wolf worked beautifully together and as soloists. Schiele in particular seemed to have internalized the Indian flavor of the dance, with an intensity of focus, facial expression, and gestural precision typical of the Indian form.

Fourteen-year-old Kristen Kellogg and Jason Cox, in his early 20s, gave particularly noteworthy performances in the second-movement pas de deux. Cox, the company's most experienced dancer, gave a typically vibrant, athletic performance throughout. When paired with the elegant, paradoxically solid yet light-as-air Kellogg, the result was pure magic.

In less than a year, the Conservatory has given two impressive full performances and has appeared at numerous events around town. With a busy 2005-06 calendar for their dancers (see, they're coming on mighty strong. No, it's not a professional company - but they're sure starting to look like one.

By Diana Lyn Roberts



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