Dance

New works from young choreographers bloom in Miami City Ballet’s ‘Winter Mix’

Written By Guillermo Perez
January 31, 2024 at 12:18 PM

Francisco Schilereff, Mary Kate Edwards, and Sean Miller rehearsing Miami City Ballet’s “PAGANINI, In Play” with choreography by Durante Verzola, part of the company’s “Winter Mix” program in February. (Photo courtesy of Alexander Iziliaev)

Follow the music and find the dance emerges as the maxim of two young choreographers who bring the vigor of spring to Miami City Ballet’s “Winter Mix.”  Intimately associated with the company, Durante Verzola and Margarita Armas are adding fresh works to the program, which also features the well-seasoned command of enshrined creators: George Balanchine and Jerome Robbins, giving “Firebird” flight to Stravinksy, and Alexei Ratmansky, witty and wily in “Concerto DSCH,” to Shostakovich.

The second mixed program of its season and the first of 2024, “Winter Mix” is at the Kravis Center in West Palm Beach on Saturday, Feb. 3, and Sunday, Feb. 4, arrives at the Arsht Center in Miami on Friday, Feb. 9 through Sunday, Feb. 11, and then finishes at the Broward Center in Fort Lauderdale for two shows Saturday, Feb. 17 and Sunday, Feb. 18.

The premiere of Verzola’s “PAGANINI, In Play” is a dearly homegrown product from the 28-year old Filipino-American who trained at MCB School, had his first choreographic effort staged there, and now works as part of its faculty. Last year, his mainstage MCB premiere “Sentimiento” sprang from company artistic director Lourdes Lopez’ encouragement and benefited from the musical direction of in-house pianist Francisco Rennó.

Miami City Ballet’s Jasmine Perry rehearsing “PAGANINI, In Play.” Choreography by Durante Verzola. (Photo courtesy of Alexander Iziliaev)

Studio time with MCB dancers—among them former classmates and students and long-time idols—has remained special for Verzola, who can mine their shiniest attributes as he works through his choreography.

“It makes it so easy,” he says. “I have an understanding of how they move, how far they can go. I feel I know how to get the most out of them. And, acquainted with their personalities outside the studio, I play with that and capture those qualities in a more pristine way—it’s just more fun. Nowadays when I make a piece, I try to have the dancers find a kind of freedom. If that happens, I can let go more because it feels safer. And here we’re always a couple of steps ahead.”

Miami City Ballet’s Jennifer Lauren, Francisco Schilereff, and Brooks Landegger rehearsing “Concerto DSCH.” Choreography by Alexei Ratmansky. (Photo courtesy of Alexander Iziliaev)

As Verzola walks the halls of MCB, his schedule taking him from the ballet classes he teaches to rehearsals, he cherishes the connection between pedagogy and creative pursuits in the place that for so many years has harbored his striving and aspirations.

“My work as a teacher directly relates to my work as a choreographer,” he says. “Whenever I am in the studio choreographing, I feel like I’m teaching, and whenever I am teaching, I feel like I’m choreographing. It kind of blends together, especially since my vocabulary is so classically based. I’ll give combinations in ballet class that can later morph into phrases in rehearsals.”

Left, Durante Verzola who choreographed “PAGANINI, In Play” and, at right, Margarita Armas, the choreographer of “Análogo.” Both pieces will be performed by Miami City Ballet in its “Winter Mix” program. (Photos courtesy of Michael Kerschner and Dance Lab NY)

That holds true as he crisscrosses the country on freelance assignments—a burgeoning career spotlighted this January in one of the Guggenheim Museum’s Works & Process presentations, “A Choreographic Portrait.” This included, among its excerpts, a pas de deux Verzola created at DanceLabNY for men on pointe and culminated by sampling “PAGANINI . . .” with MCB principal Renan Cerdeiro and corps member Mary Kate Edwards—all to show the choreographer’s development, as he puts it, in “playing with and challenging musicality and phrasing.”

Miami City Ballet Dancers rehearsing “Análogo.” Choreography by Margarita Armas. (Photo courtesy of Alexander Iziliaev)

Says Verzola, “Whenever I go off on these trips—for example, at Ballet Memphis where I’ve been choreographing a new piece—I ask to teach company class as much as possible. Starting in the studio with the dancers, with the first steps they take as a group that day, just leads to better work in rehearsal time. I feel better connected that way and can make something out of it.”

The choreographer recognizes this allows him to present the performers not just as technicians but in their full humanity—the musical landscape, which is always his primary inspiration, as a panorama that stirs their hearts along with his. Sounds to sights, 19th-century composer Niccolo Paganini’s String Quartets No. 2 and 3, in two movements from each, let the casts scale on crests and brave vertiginous turns, some expectantly approached, others precipitous.

Dawn Atkins and Cameron Catazaro rehearse “Firebird” for Miami City Ballet’s Winter Mix. Choreography by Jerome Robbins and George Balanchine. (Photo courtesy of Alexander Iziliaev)

“I was already preparing for this when working on ‘Sentimiento.’ That was centered around the piano, so I wanted to work with strings and was drawn to Paganini for his virtuoso qualities,” says Verzola. “I structured this a bit more traditionally, with the different groups of dancers individually capturing the essence of the music while part of the same family.”

Thus, the dancers can reflect the back and forth between the piercing prominence of a violin and the buzzing mergers of the ensemble. Throughout, Verzola heard “a friendly competition as musicians continue to one-up each other,” which gave him the title and generated movement—often a regal display, punched up by the peacock-feather palette of costumes designed by his long-time artistic ally Martha Chamberlain.

“In certain passages it seems Paganini is trying to put in as many notes as possible,” Verzola contends, “and I want to show that arranging steps. I also thought that elevating the musicians at the back of the stage would add drama, giving the image of music as the life force to what’s happening on stage.”

Miami City Ballet’s Dawn Atkins and Stanislav Olshanskyi rehearsing “Concerto DSCH.” Choreography by Alexei Ratmansky. (Photo courtesy of Alexander Iziliaev)

Evocative sounds also seem to regulate life forces—sap and sunlight, pulse and breath—in “Análogo,” where Armas delves into the networks of nature. In this tripartite work, the music for the last section—Nina Simone at the piano for “You’d Be So Nice to Come Home To,” the thirst of her singing eventually breaking through—resonated first with the choreographer. It led her to an overarching theme fortified by the other instrumental choices: Aukai’s “Forest Scene” and “Tones of Longing” from Miss Meadow—like currents, both encircling and underlying, flowing into each other.

“My piece has to do with relationships we see in the world. There are a lot of analogies—from fauna, to flora, to humans,” says the 23-year-old Miami native of Peruvian background, now residing near Seattle, about her second premiere for MCB, where she trained in ballet and has found her creativity nurtured.

Armas explains how “Análogo” opens with moody lighting, by renowned designer Mark Stanley, as if filtered through trees — a woodland setting where intertwined plant life awakens. She discovered a kindred spirit in costume designer Andrea Spiridonakos, a former MCB ballerina, who draws from organic forms and colors. That lushness already stamps the dance before the second section takes up animal instincts, the partnerships among five men and five women evermore complex until they evolve into the jazzy closing interaction, its humanity redolent of hard-won romance.

The choreographer is so sensitive to the environment, be it stormy South Florida or the green-curtained Pacific Northwest — “I get inspiration just looking outside and taking in all the trees and vines and moss,” she says—that her new piece is steeped in biophilia (how people seek connections through all forms of life). She acknowledges her heritage and the bond with her parents, who are Peruvian folk dancers, helped shape this.

Anna Greenberg and Hannah Fischer rehearse “Análogo.” Choreography by Margarita Armas. (Photo courtesy of Alexander Iziliaev)

“A lot of their presentations deal with storytelling and the elements of the Earth,” she says.  “It’s seen in the colors of the costumes, the music. And that comes about very naturally in my choreography.”

In the course of her scenario, she also urges the interpreters—for authenticity in feeling—to keep their individuality afloat.

“At the end,” says Armas, “the dancers are sitting together in the front of the stage. It’s a representation of the power of observance, that there’s so much beauty in the similarities among all types of relationships.”

(Above: Miami City Ballet Promo For “Winter Mix”)

WHAT:  Miami City Ballet’s “Winter Mix”

 WHEN: 2 and 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 3; 1 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 4,

 WHERE: Kravis Center for the Performing Arts, 701 Okeechobee Blvd.,West Palm Beach 

 ADDITIONAL PERFORMANCES:  Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts, 1300 Biscayne Blvd., Miami, 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday, Feb. 9 and 10; 2 p.m. Sunday, Feb 11.

 Broward Center for the Performing Arts, 201 SW Fifth Ave., Fort Lauderdale, 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 17; 2 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 18.

COST:  $39, $40, $79, $115, $189, depending on showtime and venue.

INFORMATION: 305-929-7010 or miamicityballet.org

ArtburstMiami.com is a nonprofit media source for the arts featuring fresh and original stories by writers dedicated to theater, dance, visual arts, film, music, and more. Don’t miss a story at www.artburstmiami.com.

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