After the second of two shows on the first weekend of the Ballet Arkansas Professional Dance Co.'s first performances as a company, new artistic director Arleen Sugano professed an emotion somewhere between triumph and relief. It had been a dozen years, Sugano said, since Ballet Arkansas supported a true dance company beyond merely rounding up mercenaries each autumn for the annual offering of “The Nutcracker.” The Saturday and Sunday shows at Wildwood Park for the Arts were some of central Arkansas's only homegrown professional ballet, sans Sugar Plum Fairy, in quite a while.
Not that you'd immediately guess it. Now, with a half-dozen dancers under contract from August to April, the company can actually coalesce.
Aside from an opening selection, “Counterpointe,” that conscripted the junior company — a still green collection of lithe young women — the dancers showed the benefit of having rehearsed together five hours a day, five days a week since the summer. (Offhandedly after the show, the father of dancer Case Dillard remarked that he'd never before seen his son in such great shape.) The timing and spacing were largely pinpoint, while missteps were rare and minor; energy was high; the selections pulled the audience closer.
This could be construed as faint praise, but allow that there is often a moment before a new theatrical venture when the Arkansas arts patron holds his breath and says a silent prayer that the coasts have not in fact siphoned off every available iota of talent and heart and discernment, and that beauty can still flourish here, underfed though it may be. Fair or not, art here must first prove itself credible — and Ballet Arkansas first did exactly that.
Set aside the transcendent moments of the performance: Dillard and Kelsee Green in a sensual pas de deux from “Don Quixote”; a darker, slightly menacing and engrossing final number, aptly titled “Risk,” that featured five dancers in minimal sleek black costumes. Throughout the afternoon, the dancers succeeded in that overlap between art and athleticism — that is, to make the very difficult appear smooth. You could see that in the blue glow of stage lights on Lauren McCarty's damp, bare back as she was carried aloft, and in the sinews of Jonathan Bostick's straining shoulders, and in the sweat that slung off Green like a sprinkler as Dillard spun her en pointe. Ballet Arkansas if nothing else has made it safe for Arkansans to put their faith (and entertainment dollars) in dance.
Further, credit Wildwood and the company with pacing the performance to suit a distractible audience, even if the latter was populated with girls still in the stage of life when they could want to grow up to be ballerinas and mean it.
Perhaps with a mind toward spelling the dancers, the five ballet selections were interspersed with a guitar interlude by Danny Fletcher, two opera numbers, a piece by composer/pianist Clark Erickson (who cheekily primped in the reflection on his music rack before lowering it and playing gorgeously by memory), and not one but two 15-minute intermissions.
Along with an hour-long reception that showcased local artists and the post-recital meet-and-greet, ticketholders had no fewer than four different opportunities to avail themselves of complimentary Heineken and Pinot Grigio.
With that sort of culture fuel flowing, it is impossible to see ballet not finding its audience in Little Rock.