One of the most admirable things about the Charleston Ballet Theatre is the grand effort they consistently make to entertain their Charleston fan base with new ideas. This Piccolo-Spoleto season, they opted for a show that nods to the mid-20th-century jazz legend, Duke Ellington. CBT choreographer Jill Eathorne Bahr has stepped outside the box once again with the concept for The Ellington Experience to bring us a series of dances set to the smooth, deep tones of Ellington's jazz music. Danced against a colorful, backdrop of neon lights with deliberate and, at times, textured lighting effects, The Ellington Experience had a cutesy vibe that sometimes turned soulful.
In "Mt. Harissa," Andrea DeVries, Jonathan Tabbert, and Alexander Collen made great use of the stage's depth and DeVries agility. The men switched off gliding DeVries around the stage as she coyly played to her audience. Those three had chemistry that would have been nice to see in some of the bigger numbers. Later, in "Squatty Roo," Jennifer Balcerzak Muller elegantly commanded the stage with her crisp foot and arm work and flawless chainé turns. Muller is consistent in her mastering of ballet technique, and her dedication is always evident in her performances. Alexander Collen may have been the standout dancer Saturday night, and his solo, "Harlemmania," showcased his ability to give each new moment and accompanying movement a sense of spontaneity that makes him a joy to watch. The choreography had him adeptly alternating between high jumps and low levels, and he happily pulled out some sets of second turns throughout several numbers.
Act II began as a scene from what appeared to be a crowded train station. Brandishing suitcases, the CBT cast did their best to weave around each other and everyone's respective luggage, but this song employed more acting chops than dance technique. There were many picture-perfect moments of cutesy group poses, but it would have been nice to see more technique and synchronization in the ensemble numbers.
"Bluebird of Delhi (Mynah)" was one of the best parts of the program with Collen adeptly lifting Balcerzak with one arm in beautiful lifts, including one that appeared very technically challenging where he held her upside down with two arms above his head. It is satisfying when the skilled dancers of CBT practice daring tricks like these, and the audience also appreciated it.
In "Isfahan," DeVries once again was torn between a bevy of male ballet suitors. As they took turns dragging her around the stage backwards and forwards with her legs in splits, her sensual, deliberate movements matched the slow jazz notes of the song. DeVries is quietly sexy and seemed to understand, in both body and mind, the mood of her pieces.
The men's bright, neon vests were worn open with matching ties, adding thoughtful cohesiveness to the presentation aspect of The Ellington Experience. The women's flirty leotards didn't work as well, but as an ensemble, the dancers looked great and embodied a crowd-pleasing attitude. Ballet Master, Stephen Gabriel, looked especially debonair flaunting his fedora-style hat. By the end of the one-hour show, a storyline seemed to come full circle and Saturday night's audience was pleased with their show.