Known as the workhorse of San Diego dance companies, California Ballet has been building its repertoire and big ballet school for nearly a half century. Since the Johnson administration. They’ve had their highs and lows.
Fasten your seat belts. Jared Nelson, the new assistant artistic director, embraces bold blended styles and gives the company a blast of jet fuel.
The explosive energy pulsing through Jump Jive at the Balboa Theatre last weekend was a distinct departure from any recent production. A strong cast of dancers sparkled in performance, including several new men. Their faces and bodies had extra spark, obviously thrilled with this new direction and sophistication.
The program of four selections opened with Suite Vivaldi, a commissioned gem from 2003 marked by arcing port de bras. Jeremy Zapanta impressed with fouettes and power throughout the program. In six sections, men and women evoked leafless trees blown in the wind. Instead of white on white, costumes were velvety in pleasing shades of bronze and green. Perhaps it was nerves, but there were moments when arms seemed to twitch rather than press into open positions.
We first met Nelson last year when he danced the lead in The Great Gatsby for CBC. It was a big hit. Company founder Maxine Mahon loved his energy and asked him to take the company into the next 50 years.
Nelson couldn’t resist staging not one, but two Gatsby sections for this mixed production. Reka Gyulai as Daisy and Lester Gonzalez Ramos as Jay Gatsby were exquisite, as were Ana da Costa and Trystan Merrick as Myrtle and Tom Buchanan in “He May Be Your Man.” Nobody wears a long-tailed tuxedo as well as the limber Merrick.
The role of Gatsby was created for a Nelson by Septime Webre, the former artistic director of Washington Ballet. Nelson was still a teenager and principal dancing with Sacramento Ballet. Webre also gave him the lead role in Fluctuating Hemlines.
In this production, Fluctuating Hemlines was a wonderfully strange work with a Fellini film vibe and percussive score.
Nobody could make sense of the women dressed in fake fur mini dresses, or their kitten paw gestures, which made it all the more intriguing.
The couples, Gyulai and Ramos, da Costa and Merrick, sizzled in duets, and the combined cast had the audience grooving in their seats. The mystery questions on everyone’s mind: Who has heard of music by Tigger Benford, what’s up with the wigs, and how do they look so relaxed while spinning on one foot with the other flexed?
The jet blasted off the runway with Jump Jive, Nelson’s blend of pirouettes, mooch, and split jumps. Cal Bal has stepped into musical theater in the past, but this was a full-out boogie ballet. Nobody expected to see and hear tap dancing sailors. There was one steamy section set to Peggie Lee’s “Fever” but the rest was full throttle mindless fun.
Nelson’s Jump Jive sparks a new and bright season for CBC. His next challenge is to bring that energy, pacing, and new vision to The Nutcracker, a sweet yet stale treat that comes to the Civic Theater in December.