Pittsburgh Ballet dances Balanchine: leaps of labor

When a regional company includes a Balanchine ballet in its repertory evening , as did the Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre two weekends ago, the knotty problem always arises:

Where do you put it?

If you aren't up to the micro-exactitude and technical brilliance required in Balanchine's work - and what regional company is? - leading with the piece means you won't be putting your best foot forward. Placing it second puts you in jeopardy of setting a choreographic mountain between two molehills. And using it last means that everything that went before will be judged by how well you executed the Balanchine.

The Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre chose to get through the really tough part of the repertoire first, cut its losses, then settle down to business.

Not that Balanchine's ''Serenade'' didn't draw a great deal out of this artistically and fiscally growing company. The piece is so moving, with its tender strength and sweeping emotionalism, that it commands a certain leap of aspirations from any group of performers. But the Pittsburgh Ballet was not up to the technical demands of the work: The labor showed. There was a sagging shoulder here, a tardy foot there - also a tendency for phalanxes of dancers to arrive seriatim, instead of magically appearing at once and all together. All of which was mercilessly exposed in the tension and structure of the piece.

Domy Reiter-Soffer's ''Yerma'' came closer to the heart of this company's potential for intertwining drama and dance. The musical and choreographic elements provided a better springboard.

Early in his career, composer George Crumb latched onto the work of Federico Garcia Lorca, the Spanish poet and playwright, and plumbed it for everything he could find. Often, the result was Crumb trying to wrap himself in a surreally Spanish mantle. In ''Yerma,'' however, he seized upon something dark and essential in Garcia Lorca's writing, and Reiter-Soffer's choreography embodies the undercurrent - a Moorish longing for love and death in both poetry and music.

This is a muscular and brooding work, and the Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre seems to possess both the sinew and dark palette to put it across.

Tamar Rachelle danced the title role with only a dash too much Ole in her gestures. Vasile Petrutiu and Ernest Tolentino both provided suitably macho matches for her smoldering femininity. The work builds on physical prowess, and Pittsburgh's remarkably virile male corps made this aspect work well. If only the costumes hadn't come across like a Life Saver's rainbow, the piece might have been all of one cloth.

The presence of August Bournonville's ''La Ventana'' gave Pittsburgh a chance to show off its technique in something less obviously demanding than the Balanchine. The dance is light, airy, and flowing.

To its credit, the company was able to go with the flow.

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