DANCE REVIEW : USIU Ballet Shines Despite School’s Woes

United States International University’s International Ballet launched five new works during a three-performance weekend run at the Lyceum Theatre. It was the first concert of the 1989-90 season for the University-based ensemble (two scheduled dates were canceled in a desperate cost-cutting measure by the beleaguered institution).

But despite the dark clouds that continue to hover over the university, there was a surge of creativity in the dance department during this tumultuous year--judging from the bounty of ambitious new works unveiled at the Lyceum.

Friday’s program alone featured three major premieres, all with strong dance values. Among them was an emotion-charged work by James Kelly, titled “Elgar Cello Concerto,” which probed the devastating impact of AIDS on the family.

An austere approach to set and costume design for all but one of the premieres was the only serious reminder of the company’s financial crunch. Black-and-white Balanchine-style leotards and tights dressed the new balletic offerings, and Kelly’s dance drama was played out with only a mere suggestion of decor.


Fortunately, the mournful mahogany tones of Edward Elgar’s Cello Concerto were enough to set the mood for this urgent elegy to the extended victims of AIDS. This complex study of grief and pain focused on relationships--mother and son, boy and lover, even other siblings--as it unfolded in an evanescent series of changing groupings on the near-empty stage.

Kelly resisted the obvious temptation of wallowing in mimed movement and melodrama to tell his tale. Instead, he let the dance vocabulary spell out the tragedy on its own terms. Edgar Zendejas (as the son), and the choreographer himself were standouts in this mixed cast.

Elizabeth Rowe Wistrich, who choreographed three of the four works on Friday’s roster, came out of retirement to lend her dramatic presence to the heart-wrenching role of the mother. And she gave a riveting performance, although Rowe Wistrich is well past her prime as a dancer.

Unfortunately, a troubled sound system marred the music that drove the impassioned work to its inevitable conclusion.

Not all the dancers in Rowe Wistrich’s “Piano Concerto 2" were fleet- footed and technically secure enough to keep up with the choreographer’s unflinching demands. But the well-rehearsed ensemble never flagged in its attempt to stay on top of the mercurial rhythms of Dimitri Shostakovich’s score. And several of the dancers showed laudable promise and performing brio as they whizzed through its neo-classic moves.

A male shortfall brought artistic director Steve Wistrich into the act Friday night to flesh out the ranks and partner Cindy Ricalde in the lyrical second movement. Wistrich too has traded in his ballet shoes for a teaching role. Happily, vestiges of his expressive movement style remained beautifully intact as he played porter to the aspiring ballerina.

Rowe Wistrich challenged her young charges again in the enigmatic “Straw Feet,” set to an original percussive score by Brian Kohn.

This inspired kinetic work was chock full of invention, and the ensemble was at its best in the 12-part ballet. A predatory solo for long-legged Angela Rivera--etched against an eerie green projection on the backdrop--set the wheels of the dance in motion.

Following closely on Rivera’s heels was a series of hurried duets that echoed the ominous undercurrent in the music. Jeanne Uy and Hugo Carreon were particularly well suited to the organic moves of the Third Theme.

Zendejas showed his stuff to excellent advantage as well, spinning like a top to the percolating rhythms with the outstretched finger motif that ran rampant through the piece.

Rowe Wistrich made no concessions to the cast’s student status in “Straw Feet,” and created a work worthy of any serious dance troupe.

The finale on Friday’s program, Rowe Wistrich’s staging of the classic “Raymonda Variations,” was danced with a live orchestra in the pit. Despite some obvious weak spots, USIU’s International Orchestra (under the careful baton of Kerry Duse), was a welcome improvement over the poorly-delivered canned music heard during the rest of the concert.

This standard repertory work featured a tutued corps in complex designs, juxtaposed with the glorious sounds of Alexander Glazounov’s ballet music.

Anna Wilcoxson--a pixie of a dancer--is not quite the temptress the role demands, and Kelly lacks the line of a classic danseur but they made an appealing pair in the Grand Pas de Deux.

Too bad the troupe could not muster a more sinewy dancer for the sensuous female variation. However, the spritely folk dancing by four lively couples was delightful, and the opening waltz was well danced.

The International Ballet Company has come a long way this year, even if most of the growing took place out of sight of an audience.