In her remarks at the O'Shaughnessy for St. Paul Ballet's recent performance of "Bella Luna," Executive Director Lori Gleason expressed gratitude that the company was around to make its O'Shaughnessy debut. "We were close to putting the company in mothballs three years ago," she said.
So much the better for the lucky audience that got to experience Peter Davison's charming and heartbreaking work. "Bella Luna," which premiered in 2014 and was presented at the O'Shaughnessy on Friday, hit all the right marks, weaving an enchanting tale with a sense of wonder.
The work draws on commedia dell'arte characters, which the dancers embodied beautifully. As the menacing rich suitor, Scarache, Preston Stockert employed his long limbs to full effect, slinking about the stage in long strides with his dastardly plans. Jarod Boltjes, meanwhile, brought a childlike playfulness to his role as Arlo, the bicycle-riding street urchin who falls in love.
For her part, Zoé Emilie Henrot, the troupe's artistic director, propelled the story along as the central character. Beginning as a carefree ingénue, Henrot's portrayal of Izzy deepened as the story progressed and she seemed to discover the joys and sorrows life has to offer. Her final solo, which was really a duet with the moon shining above her, brought the audience to tears.
The piece straddled contemporary and period styles. The accordion and other vintage instruments were evident in the music, composed by Yann Tiersen (who composed the music for the film "Amélie") and edited by Davison, but there's a contemporary, jazzy sound to it as well. The costumes too, were a mix of modern dress and emblematic commedia costumes, with the two lovers, Izzy and Arlo, wearing white face paint.
The dancers made the story come alive. They showed commitment both to their characters and the emotional arc of the piece, something less evident during the first half of the program, where the company performed excerpts from "Don Quixote," restaged by Lirena Branitski after Marius Petipa's original choreography. Mostly composed of a series of solos, the showcase favored technique over truly dancing and dragged as a result.
"Locked Key," a new work by Henrot, premiered as part of the evening, and while the angular piece was a bit melodramatic in tone (there was quite a bit of tortured head holding), it loosened the dancers up and became more than simply a presentation of good form.
Sheila Regan is a Minneapolis arts writer.