Community is the heartbeat of the Vail Dance Festival. The “International Evenings of Dance,” a mixed program spanning across two nights, features dancers and musicians from across the globe, culminating in an unmatched showcase of world-class dancing. Dancers gather from near and far, forging new partnerships and exploring different styles, all under the expert curation of Artistic Director Damian Woetzel. There is a comforting sense of familiarity between the dancers and the town. Each summer in Vail, Woetzel builds a family.
What better way to begin the celebration than with a performance by the young dance students of Celebrate The Beat? The nationwide program offers students the highest quality in-school and after-school dance lessons, nurturing the innate tie between the human body and movement. Lead by American Ballet Theater (ABT) principal dancer, James Whiteside, the well-rehearsed performance brought an impressive 130 children to the stage in an energetic display with a simple message: The joy of dance is powerful.
From there, the evening took off with a bang, as ABT’s Catherine Hurlin and Mikhailovsky Ballet Company’s Julian Mackay took on the renowned Act III Pas de Deux from Don Quixote. Demanding technical proficiency and strong artistic flair, this pas de deux is no small feat, but Hurlin and Mackay display their excellent training with control and poise. They bring a youthful glow to these rather mature roles, taking risks that clearly excite the audience.
Next up, we received a preview of a larger work to come in Act II, Merce Cunningham’s Antic Meet. The short solo, featuring Pam Tanowitz Dance artist Melissa Toogood, was interesting, if not a bit anticlimactic. Toogood traversed the stage in an organized rhythm of small steps, holding a black umbrella overhead. The larger ensemble piece, danced by artists from various companies including New York City Ballet (NYCB) and ABT, offered more of this distinct Cunningham style. The live music, provided by festival resident artists Brooklyn Rider, was composed in a slightly unsettling disjointed style. The choreography mirrors this, with black unitard-clad dancers darting from one end of the stage to the next, injecting comedic elements throughout.
A highlight of the evening, ABT’s Isabella Boylston and Cory Stearns twist and turn through the pas de deux from Manon, in their dreamy performance of the Kennth MacMillan classic. This pas de deux is celebrated for its romance, and these two dancers certainly delivered. Boylston’s impeccable lines and Stearns’ sturdy presence only enhanced what was clearly first and foremost a display of artistic expression. Their partnership was pure joy, exuding every aspect of young love, from tender sensuality to coquettish play. Sweeping, swirling, stunning.
A favorite festival partnership, NYCB soloist Unity Phelan and ABT soloist Calvin Royal III, took the stage next with George Balanchine’s Apollo. One of the most famous ballets of all time, Apollo is full of iconic moments, its sculptural elements lending themselves perfectly to these two statuesque dancers. Phelan and Royal have clearly gleaned wisdom and poise from Artistic Director Damien Woetzel since their partnership at the festival began just several years ago with another Stravinsky/Balanchine pas de deux, Agon. There is an obvious comfort between the two; Despite differences in their training styles, they emerge with exactingly clean, synced lines. Phelan’s portrayal of the muse Terpsichore is both light and firm as she approaches Apollo with a remarkably earnest will. Royal’s debut Apollo is equally balanced, displaying a quiet power perfectly suited to the role. Of course, their pas de deux is elegant and quintessentially Balanchine, ballet and story-telling stripped down to the bare essentials.
Act I continues with this year’s festival Artist-in-Residence, NYCB principal dancer Lauren Lovette, partnered by NYCB soloist Joseph Gorden, in the Act II pas de deux from Giselle. This was nothing short of exquisite. Lovette seemed to float across the stage with her never-ending port de bras, hauntingly weightless as Gorden sweeps her up and away. This pas de deux is an example of what makes this festival so special; The spotlighting of incredible lyricism from a dancer who typically performs an entirely different style of ballet. Lovette has gorgeously danced everything from Balanchine’s spritely Tarantella to young princess Aurora in Sleeping Beauty, but as Giselle, she will take your breath away.
Festival veterans Jookin dancer Lil Buck and tapper Michelle Dorrance closed Act I in a collaboration with pianist Jason Moran, jolting the audience with an infusion of fun we did not know we needed. Lil Buck and Dorrance wove together a mixed genre work, with subtle nods to everything from the Charleston to the moonwalk. The piece felt like a conversation between all three artists, light-hearted and high energy, a breath of fresh air and a boost of serotonin.
A welcome addition to the festival, world renowned English National Ballet principal Alina Cojokaru joined ABT’s Herman Cornejo in Frederick Ashton’s Rhapsody to open Act II. The pair performed with near technical perfection, but alas, the choreography left a bit to be desired. The grandiose score by Rochmaninoff begs for a series of climaxes, while Ashton’s choreography remains slightly underwhelming. Despite this, the dancing was immaculate, and the chemistry between the dancers was a real treat.
Another festival debut dancer, international ballerina Maria Kochetkova commanded in a made-for-her solo, Degunino by Marcos Morau. Outside the amphitheater the stars shone brightly over Vail, and the audience fell silent. This was the quietest the crowd has been then entire night, and with good reason; Kochetkova’s character was a curious combination of insect and alien, causing us all to collectively ponder the existence of this creature. Her odd, sharp movements were framed by an impressive exhibition of her extreme flexibility, without ever becoming over the top. I was still contemplating this piece as I fell asleep last night- the sign of a truly extraordinary performance.
Alvin Ailey’s Jacqueline Green performed Cry, a boisterous Ailey solo. The piece erupted with pure fun and joy, as Green’s extension and strength wove the dramatic costume into the movements with ease. The piece suited Green well, her freedom of movement allowing energy to flow out from every fingertip, matching the upbeat music.
The finale of the evening proved they really do save the best for last- NYCB corps de ballet dancer Roman Mejia took on a solo by Alexei Ratmansky, originally created at the festival for Wendy Whelan in 2010 and later danced by NYCB principal Sara Mearns. The Spanish-style solo featured live music onstage by guitarist Alberta Khoury, Brooklyn Rider, and percussionist Dario Natarelli. At just 19 years old, Mejia’s interpretation of Fandango made me question the fact that this solo was not, in fact, made for him, as he breezed charismatically from one impossible jump to the next. Especially remarkable was Mejia’s articulation in the hands, each finger separately defined yet flowing into a fluid, intentional expression. Mejia is certainly a force to be reckoned with, and a gift to the Vail Dance Festival family.