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Glory to Dance in the Highest

Publication: 
Theater Jones

Fort Worth — Against an ominous brown sky, soldiers in Brodie helmets and nurses in tattered dresses loom like ghosts as they make their way down a hill. They move ponderously, heads down, arms shielding their mud-spattered faces.

Created originally for The Royal Ballet in 1980, Gloria made its North Texas debut Friday night performed by Texas Ballet Theater.So begins Sir Kenneth MacMillan’s Gloria, his powerful lament about the ravages of war. It could be any war, but for Sir Kenneth the loss of so many soldiers in World War I resonated: his father suffered for years from the effects of mustard gas. He was also inspired by Vera Brittain’s autobiographical Testimony of Youth, a cry out for lost lives from a woman who had lost both brother and fiancé.

While the music—Frances Poulenc’s Gloria in G minor—is in praise of God, the suffering, anger and despair expressed in the dance make an ironic contrast.

The setting is a bleak hill full of jutting poles, making if all the more treacherous to maneuver. Men trudge, defeated, and in a repeated sequence, lift aloft a woman or carry her like a plank, or else hold her listless body. But the women also represent hope, for both Leticia Oliveira and Carolyn Judson skirt the grounds with bold leaps and turns.  They are also tenderly partnered by Carl Coomer and Lucas Priolo. In a striking sequence repeated twice, Mr. Priolo sweeps Ms. Judson up, revolves her around so their backs meet as she stands in arabesque. When he lifts her, she has one leg in arabesque and the other forms a V shape so that the image is that of a figurehead on a ship’s bow.

The mood ranges from anger to resignation and sorrow. Soldiers collapse on each other, watch one another fall to the ground, offer comfort and support. At the end they all disappear in the background while Mr. Coomer makes one last leap, legs straight, and falls to his death.

The program opened on a serene note with Balanchine’s Serenade, set to Tchaikovsky’s Serenade for Strings in C, Op. 48. Against a moonlit background, 17 dancers in pale blue gowns stand still in a diamond-shaped grid, right arms lifted to the heavens, heads tilted. The dance brims with tension until at last the arms drop, the feet snap open into first position, and the dancers fan out with a flurry of motion. The diamond pattern repeats in various forms, as do ever-changing patterns of geometric clarity expressed in a breathless rush. In that first mass of dancers, Ms. Judson darts through their midst like a zephyr, setting the stage for all that is to follow.

If Serenade idealizes women, Ben Stevenson’s L—a tribute to Liza Minnelli—gave 12 men a chance to shine. They did more than that, however, fueled by the bracing jazz/percussion trio stationed at the back of the stage. They shoot across stage like arrows, spin like tops, slide and rebound, always with an uncanny connection to the beat of the music. In one glorious finale, they explode like fireworks, each man trying to outdo the other. The exuberance was intoxicating.