Ballet luminaries join forces for show coming to the Garde
Sara Mearns is a New York City Ballet principal dancer and one of the most esteemed dancers around — and she’s become a periodic guest with the East Lyme-based Eastern Connecticut Ballet.
Specifically, Mearns has dropped in to dance the role of the Sugar Plum Fairy in ECB’s “Nutcracker” each December since 2013. And she has taught workshops to the ECB dancers, too.
The connection grew out of Mearns’ friendship with Gloria Govrin, the former New York City Ballet soloist who is now Eastern Connecticut Ballet’s artistic director. When she was 16, Mearns took classes with Govrin at a San Francisco summer program.
Mearns says, “I admire her very much as a teacher and loved her classes and (her) as a person when I was there in San Francisco. We kind of kept that relationship, and she followed my career when I got into City Ballet. Then it was kind of a very easy thing for her to just ask me to do ‘The Nutcracker’ at her school when she got to Connecticut.”
When Govrin asked Mearns if she'd put together a show to help celebrate ECB's 25 anniversary in 2017, Mearns had a better idea. Her fellow New York City Ballet principal dancer Daniel Ulbricth occasionally tours a show featuring NYCB luminaries. What if, Mearns suggested, Ulbricht brought that show to New London for the anniversary? He was happy to, and so "Stars of the American Ballet" will grace the Garde Arts Center on Saturday.
How ‘Stars of American Ballet’ came together
Ulbricht created and directs “Stars of American Ballet,” which grew out of a travelling production he put together for his mother nine years ago.
“My mother was ill, diagnosed with cancer at the time, and she couldn’t come to New York, so my idea was to bring the show down to her in Florida,” Ulbricht says. “I learned very quickly how much work goes into this (developing and staging a traveling show), from flights to hotels to the choreography licensing to casting it and programming it, but I also fell in love with it.”
He says that this show is a way to reach places that don’t have access to professional ballet in the way that big cities do.
“As an artist who performs in New York on a regular basis, I love New York — it’s the dance capital of the country, of the world. But when you get outside of New York and go to these smaller communities, I feel like our impact goes much further. That is such a thrilling thing and a great reminder for these communities and also (for) the artists to see their work is appreciated on such a deep and genuine level.”
The line-up and thus the pieces for “Stars of American Ballet” change with different dates and locations. At the Garde, the dancers will be Jared Angle, Amar Ramasar, Lauren King and Teresa Reichlen, along with Mearns and Ulbricht.
The program, meanwhile, will feature a range of works. Choreography by the legendary George Balanchine, who co-founded the New York City Ballet, is represented in three of the five numbers — including the opening “Tarantella.”
“‘Tarantella’ is a wonderful showcase of the speed and agility of what Balanchine’s technique is known for,” Ulbricht says. “It’s very musical. It’s also what we would say in the industry is a puffy piece — it does challenge the dancers (and their breathing) quite a bit. … It’s always a joy for audiences. It really helps engage the audience at the very beginning of the show.”
Next up is a piece choreographed by New York City Ballet’s current ballet master in chief, Peter Martins, to Samuel Barber’s Violin Concerto, opus 14. It contrasts a classical female dancer and a modern male dancer.
“He doesn’t wear shoes, she’s in pointe shoes. He’s wearing tights, she’s got a skirt on. So there’s some interesting combinations that happen visually as well as choreographically on how they can complement each other,” Ulbricht says.
Then comes a shot of Americana as the dancers perform “Stars and Stripes,” which Balanchine choreographed to John Philip Sousa music.
“Balanchine was a huge fan of America, despite being from Russia, so many times, he was in awe of these parades and festivities and the patriotism of this country,” Ulbricht says. It features a pas de deux that Ulbricht says shows “American charm” and features a couple that have “a really endearing exchange, a beautiful pas de deux.”
Closing the show’s first half is Ulbricht’s choreography set to the famous Big-Band tune “Sing Sing Sing.”
“The piece is a little bit of a different feel for the evening. So in other words, there’s no tutu, there’s no pointe shoes. It’s two dancers taking the score and really charging themselves into it. We’d call it another puffy piece on the bill,” he says.
The show’s second part focuses on Balanchine’s “Who Cares,” set to the songs of George Gershwin, including “The Man I Love,” “Fascinating Rhythm” and “I Got Rhythm.” All six dancers will be part of it.
Ulbricht points to Balanchine’s “sophistication and musicality … He was a musician, and I think he could find the entertainment, the rhythm, the pulse in American music, which would then translate to his choreography.”
Using different music — as opposed to, say, traditional Tchaikovsky — allows a unique energy to come through, Ulbricht says.
“I think that’s really where Balanchine differentiates himself. It’s not standing in a line onstage. It’s not posing. Every piece on the bill is requiring the dancers to illuminate or showcase or highlight the accents in the music. That is such an exhilarating thing for the dancers to perform and, I think, ultimately for the audience to appreciate,” he says.
Mearns sees Govrin as a role model
Earlier, we said that Mearns was one of the most esteemed dancers around, and here’s an example: Alistair Macauley, the chief dance critic of The New York Times, wrote a piece extolling Mearns’ virtues in June 2015, calling her a “glowing powerhouse” and praising “her musicality, her incisiveness, her glamour and her intensity, all of which are exceptional.”
Mearns, meanwhile, greatly admires Govrin, who danced for Balanchine for 15 years. He, in fact, created a number of roles specifically for her.
Mearns says, “She’s a definite role model for me, absolutely, with the roles that she did and that were created for her and all the stories she has, that she tells about Balanchine and the times and what she went through when she was a dancer. It’s really awesome to know her and to be such a close friend of hers. As a tall dancer as well … I really relate to her in that way, too. She admires my dancing, I obviously admired her career and everything. So it’s a pretty awesome relationship.”
As for her time with the ECB dancers, Mearns says, “I could immediately tell when I got there that they were trained by Gloria … (because of) their discipline, their technique, their commitment to class and to improving and to performing as well. They take it so seriously, and it’s so inspiring to see that because Gloria takes it very seriously, and I see it in her classes. She doesn’t give them any slack. It’s very strict, which is really, really great, but she’s also very giving and very nice and very patient … It really inspired me to go and keep performing with them. I love watching them when I’m waiting to perform.”
Of course, she has been teaching those dancers in workshops as well as performing with them.
“They’re so responsive,” Mearns says. “Every year I went back, I could see the improvement. They really, really try to pay attention to what I’m saying and what I’m showing. They pick up easily. They’re just really a joy to work with.”
“Stars of American Ballet,” 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Garde Arts Center, 325 State St., New London; $34-$64 adults, $26-$34 children; (860) 444-7373.
The dancers that will be featured in “Stars of American Ballet” — Sara Mearns, Jared Angle, Amar Ramasar, Lauren King, Daniel Ulbricht and Teresa Reichlen — were on a two-part series that PBS aired on “Great Performances” in February called “New York City Ballet in Paris.”
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