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Austin Welcomes Ballet East at the Dougherty Arts Center

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Ballet East Dance Company has opened its new show, Turning Point at the Dougherty Arts Center in central Austin. The company performs new work semiannually, usually at the city-run Dougherty Arts Center. Ballet East is the longest running dance company in Austin; it was founded in 1978 by its current artistic director, Rudolfo Mendez. Mendez and co-artistic director Melissa Villarreal have created dances and taught classes almost without interruption over this time. Their work in modern and ballet technique continues to show the freshness and innovative possibilities of these movement styles.

Turning Point was highlighted by a tribute recreation of “After the Rain,” a dance by Fred Benjamin. Benjamin was a student of Talley Beatty, and Benjamin was one of the innovators of a fusion form termed ballet-jazz. He also worked on Broadway and internationally. “After the Rain” is a good anthology example of his work, well-executed by the Ballet East dancers. The up-tempo second half of the piece was especially exemplary.

Another guest choreographer was Andrea Ariel, whose star is still rising in the world of dance and performance. Her longterm work as a solo choreographer defies categorization, witness last fall’s The Bowie Project. Here, with the Ballet East dancers, she presented “In the Rat Race” a dance made with modern technique, ballet technique, and gestural technique. The combination held together well in keeping with Ballet East’s standard approach. Her musical accompaniment was by Peter Stopschinski, one of the key composers on the Austin music scene. The musical piece featured Stopschinski’s trademark beehive hum among the bass strings and perhaps even the keyboards. Ariel’s movement included a lengthy floorwork section; Ariel finds expressive content in her dancers moving on the floor where other choreographers usually place dancers on the floor merely as punctuation or transitions between sections.

Melissa Villarreal finished the program with her showcase piece, “Eleven,” featuring all the company dancers. The piece was indeed worthy of Ballet East, and choreographic credit was given to the company. The company as currently configured is well worthy of this attention now and in the future.

Additional pieces by company members filled out the program, led by Juan Pablo Flores’ “Luz Eterna,” a solo performed by himself. A surprising treat was “Spring Wax,” performed by four youngsters in the Ballet East school company. The girls, for whom the term “adorable” was coined, performed their work enthusiastically. Their sheer happiness at being onstage was evident throughout, with no stage fright at all. Clearly, these are the dancers of the future.

The remaining pieces showed their young choreographers in the midst of their explorations of ballet technique. “Heroes” was largely a miming tribute to America’s military heroes.

Nowadays, young dancers try out for Ballet East after finding the company on the internet. Artistic Director Rudolfo Mendez described this situation as one of the principal changes he has seen in the company since he founded it in 1978, and it has been entirely unexpected. Future changes and trends may also be surprising. Turning Point has shown that in the midst of this change, what has continued is Ballet East’s success in creating new and memorable performances from traditional techniques.

Turning Point continues through May 11, 2014 at the Dougherty Arts Center in central Austin.

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