Now celebrating its 15th year, State Street Ballet is known for stretching audience expectations of the art form. Its most recent program, a series of shorter works inspired by the swing dance era collectively titled Ballroom, took as its mission melding two very different dance forms: classical ballet and swing dance.
Historically speaking, ballet and swing are about as dissimilar as two dance styles could be. Ballet originated in 15th-century Renaissance Italy and then in the court of Louis XIV in 17th-century France; swing dance was popularized in North America in the years following the Depression, when a great number of African Americans moved north to New York and Chicago in order to escape the American South, bringing jazz music and syncopated partner dancing with them. In short, ballet was a courtly dance; swing was the dance of the masses. The developing style and the aesthetic of each was in keeping with its place in social life: ballet was codified, technical, and elegant; swing exuberant, defiant, rough-edged, and wild.
No surprise, then, that they don’t make for the most natural union. Six different choreographers approached the task, with varying degrees of success. The opener, Victoria Simon’s “Salute to Sinatra,” replaced the spontaneity and exhilaration of swing dance with a more stilted, stagey version of Dancing with the Stars. More enjoyable was Diana Law’s jazzy, Broadway-inspired “Love’s Avalon,” which gave the dancers space to strut their stuff and cop some attitude-an essential element of swing. Brand new to the company and already making waves, Spencer Gavin stole the show in this piece with his no-holds-barred show-off solo. UCSB faculty members Christopher Pilafian and Nancy Colahan collaborated on “Dream Dancing,” a duet danced in bare feet and silk pajamas, giving the dancers a welcome chance to move with greater freedom. In every piece, the dancers’ technical execution and total commitment to the work was outstanding-a standard that has become the norm for State Street Ballet. Let’s hope their next appearance on the new Granada stage gives these dancers space to really swing out.