Audiences and performers sorely missed last summer’s Vail Dance Festival, so Friday night’s enthusiastic comeback was no surprise.
The New York City Ballet (NYCB), American Ballet Theater and BalletX have joined favorites like Lil Buck in the opening night celebration at the Gerald R. Ford Amphitheater. Even the heavy rains just before the show didn’t stop lawn fans from filling the hill, albeit under a sturdy cover of umbrellas and tarps. In fact, the weather added to the amphitheater’s already stunning natural backdrop, as an impromptu cascade of blue-lit rain poured down from the back of the roof.
At the start of the exhibition, art director Damian Woetzel spoke about how, throughout history, art has connected people and made them meaningful.
“I wouldn’t say we took this for granted, but damn it, are we enjoying this now,” Woetzel said.
A few months ago, Woetzel predicted that this festival would bring “a spirit of formidable pent-up energy that will be truly expansive,” and this vision was clearly manifested through the applause and enthusiasm of the audience at the evening of ‘opening. Since the Vail Dance Festival was one of the first to reopen, it has attracted new customers from across the country, said Susan Campbell, chair of the festival committee. And, locals like Jane Wisor, who typically attend most Bravo! but usually just buy tickets for the dance festival opening night, said she and her husband would come back for more.
“It’s amazing,” Wisor said during the intermission.
NYCB Unity soloist Phelan and this year’s American Ballet Theater artist-in-residence Calvin Royal III kicked off the evening with a preview clip of “Apollo.” Phelan and Royal embodied the piece by choreographer George Balanchine with exquisite strength and poise; one of the most spectacular moments happened towards the end, when Royal swung Phelan on his back and the two dancers created a magnificent human sculpture. Throughout the piece, a live orchestra accompanied the duo, adding even more energy.
Just as Phelan predicted a few months ago, she and her peers have come back stronger than ever, both physically and mentally, after spending the last year honing their skills during stoppages.
The second piece fully illustrated its title, “Reunion 2021,” as Memphis Jookin artists like Lil Buck mingled with tap dancers and visionaries like Michelle Dorrance and former NYCB directors like Robbie Fairchild. “Footloose” and “Blindspotting” actor Ron Myles; the famous upholsterer and professor Dario Natarelli; Ai Shimatsu (who has performed with artists like Beyonce and Madonna); and Byron Tittle (who has performed with artists like Janet Jackson and Nicki Minaj) joined in the celebration, which seamlessly fused white high-top shoes with tap dancing.
Woetzel and the dancers choreographed “Reunion 2021” just a day and a half before taking the stage, but you would never know it. The dancers were exuding pure joy – it was obvious that they were both excited and grateful to be together again. The playful piece combined contemporary and street dance forms with live music, on stage, by violinist Johnny Gandelsman and cellist Michael Nicolas.
The third piece, “Fancy Me,” featured BalletX’s Andrea Yorita and Shawn Cusseaux dancing to King Floyd’s “Groove Me”. Cusseaux’s movements went incredibly effortlessly as he teamed up with Yorita. The particular movement qualities of each dancer took precedence over a strict and double precision, which allowed each personality to emerge more fully.
American Ballet Theater dancers Isabella Boylston, James Whiteside, Devon Teuscher and Cory Stearns delivered exquisite snippets of “Black Swan,” as powerful, sweeping pirouettes masterfully contrasted tender, melodic moments.
After the intermission, pianist Susan Walters accompanied 10 dancers in a much longer piece: “Dances at a Gathering”. When it premiered in 1969 at the New York State Theater, choreographer Jerome Robbins used the stage like no one else had. Woetzel encouraged the audience to “breathe and feel the power of what it means to come together” as the 10 dancers formed various groups, ranging from one-time male partnerships or two-woman and one-man groups, to sets of five, six and 10. Light and airy lifts, jumps and formations complete the often soft but sometimes dissonant music of Frédéric Chopin. Simple hand gestures elicited a murmur of laughter from the audience, while a spectacular jump with a horizontal twist elicited much admiration.
Throughout the night, the audience showed their appreciation with standing ovations, as everyone seemed to revel in the return of the dance.
“The Vail Dance Festival is the place to be because it celebrates and spreads the joy of dancing,” says Phelan. “It’s a real partnership between the audience and the performers.