The small North Miami-Dade-based troupe Arts Ballet Theatre has been soldiering on since 1998. Led by Vladimir Issaev, the artistic director, choreographer and head of the company’s school, Arts Ballet Theatre’s previous performances have sometimes included so many students that they seemed more amateur than professional.
But the company currently has 11 full-time professional dancers and eight accomplished apprentices. And two additions to their first program this season, “Ballets With Latin Flavor,” which opened Saturday night at the Aventura Arts & Cultural Center, lift the company up another level. One is the presence of former Miami City Ballet principal Mary Carmen Catoya, who trained with Issaev in her native Venezuela, on the roster. The other is the presentation of two ballets by Alberto Mendez, a veteran Cuban choreographer who is one of the island’s leading ballet makers, marking the first time his work has been danced professionally in the United States.
Combined with a nicely schooled and rehearsed group of young dancers, who mostly make up in earnestness and spirit what they lack in technique or the finer points of balletic style, Arts Ballet Theatre’s “Latin Flavor” becomes an enjoyable evening of ballet.
The high point of Saturday evening’s performance (the program repeats this weekend at the Broward Center for the Performing Arts) combined Catoya with Mendez in his Eros Game, which he remade from an earlier work for her, Ramil Bagmanov and Fabrizio Montenegro. Catoya’s forte at Miami City Ballet was classical and neo-classical ballets, and it was fascinating to see her in this gymnastic, sculptural contemporary trio that would have looked at home on Pilobolus. The dancers, in pale grey unitards, move to unidentified music by Haydn and Handel. Mendez sets Catoya twisting and climbing around, between and above the two men, using her sharply sculpted line, extreme flexibility, and tiny size to create startling physical tangles. Some of the images are striking — such as when the men hold Catoya high overhead for a deep-lunging “walk” in the air, or when she crouches on Montenegro’s shoulders, hunching around and over his head like a mask.
Eros Game pushes Catoya. Her intensity and physical commitment power the dance, but her expression is distractingly melodramatic at times. The theatrical flirtatiousness of the final segment, with Catoya fluttering like a 19th century soubrette, is in jarring contrast to the somber, straightforward expression in the rest of the piece. The ending divides Eros Game between an abstract physical metaphor for emotional entanglement, and a more conventional romantic triangle. But overall, Eros Game remains compelling.
Mendez’ 1973 Tarde en la Siesta, which opened the program, is a portrait of four Cuban sisters in the early 1900s, character types repressed by convention. The women, in lacy white dresses, danced to a recording of Cuban composer Ernesto Lecuona playing beautifully nuanced renditions of his own piano pieces, in a series of finely delineated solos and group dances that reveal their characters and the tensions between them and over their oppressive situation. The sweetly yearning, occasionally uncertain Johana Crick was the innocent Esperanza (Hope), while Mai Nakazawa was the passionate, if sometimes stiff outcast Soledad (Loneliness.) Lillian Hill was appealingly expressive as the smiling Dulce (Sweet), and Renee Roberts was striking as the severe, controlling Consuelo (Comfort), whose name was in contrast to her disciplinarian role.
Issaev’s Suite of Waltzes was a lyrical, sweeping piece to piano music by Teresa Carreno. Six women, in floaty pale pastel dresses, swept through simple but satisfyingly constructed sextets and trios, in cascading, overlapping patterns, bookending a series of solos. The most striking of these were playful, arching Yasmin Haghayegh; the quick clarity of Hinano Eto, and the vivacious, accomplished Kayci Rodriguez.
Fuga Con Pajarillo, also by Issaev, was a conventional and somewhat repetitive but energetic tribute to Venezuela, with a few fleeting folk dance references. (Pajarillo is a kind of Venezuelan folk music.) Jorge Gallardo put the women in bright orange and red ruffled dresses, and the only man, Kazuya Arima, in a colonial white suit. Arima, a naturally athletic if slightly raw dancer, was impressive in a series of big split jumps and whizzing turns a la seconde, while soloists Aya Baba and Rodriguez also sparkled. Issaev’s pas de deux La Traviata (Adagio), to music from the Verdi opera, for Hill and Bagmanov, featured her sky-high extensions but was unconvincing emotionally.
Two other dances seemed meant to showcase Catoya’s considerable classical technique and finesse. One, an excerpt from the celebratory final section of Laurencia, a rarely seen, Spanish-themed 1939 Soviet ballet by Vakhtang Chabukiani, sounded intriguing. But without the theatrical context of the full story and production, we’re left with repetitive and heavy-handed choreography. While Catoya’s beautifully articulated line remained impeccable, the tiny Aventura theater meant you could see her straining in a long series of arching jetes, while Hernan Montenegro struggled to power through bravura jumps and turns.
Catoya was at her exhilarating best in the finale, as Kitri in an excerpt from the exuberant ending of Don Quixote, her trademark role. From her exquisitely sculpted attitude poses, triumphant balances, sharply snapping fan and pointe work, and a thrilling whirl of pirouettes and fouettes, she was a joy to watch. Even her vivaciously calibrated bows were a lesson in ballerinadom.
If You Go
What: Arts Ballet Theatre in "Ballets with Latin Flavor"
When: 7 p.m. Saturday and 3 p.m. Sunday
Where: Broward Center for the Performing Arts Amaturo Theater, 201 SW Fifth Ave., Fort Lauderdale
Info: $30 at browardcenter.org or 954-462-0222