The Edinburgh Festival: Dance: By George, a jewel in the Miami showcase

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WHEN THE former New York City Ballet star Edward Villella took on the challenge of starting a ballet company in the cultural backwater of southern Florida, he stressed that it would take at least a decade to create a first- rate troupe of dancers. Yet in just eight years, Villella's Miami City Ballet has become one of America's finest ensembles, lauded for its stylistic coherence and meticulous stagings of ballets by George Balanchine, New York City Ballet's founder choreographer.

Some of the works selected by Villella for the company's Edinburgh Festival debut were once showcases for his own phenomenal talent as a dancer. One of these, Jewels, graced the first of MCB's two, all-Balanchine programmes at the Playhouse. Like nearly all of Balanchine's works, this triptych of ballets - 'Emeralds', 'Rubies' and 'Diamonds' - is dazzling in both speed and effect. Each section provides an illustrious setting for the precious gems that are MCB's dancers. But these settings are also geographical and chronological in character. The dreamy 'Emeralds', set to Faure, alludes to the France of a bygone era of chivalry; 'Rubies', with its showgirl costumes and swanky posturing, transports you to the America of jazz and Broadway; and, finally, in 'Diamonds', the choreographer travels back in time to the Imperial Russia of Tchaikovsky and Petipa.

Of the three, 'Emeralds' is the most elusive, the stories contained in its filigree gestures and swooning extravagances remaining only half-revealed. Sally Ann Isaacks makes every detail of her solo variation intelligible - the twisting, folding, sculptural arm movements in which references to the Romantic ballet and Imperial school suddenly inhabit the same orbit as flashes of early-American modern dance. In 'Rubies', Maribel Modrono and Marin Boieru, dancing the bravura pas de deux, capture its vital quality of speed and danger. Less thrilling to behold are the recreated Karinska costumes, with their jewel-encrusted bodices; and Robert Darling's intergalactic constellations of rhinestones.

While Jewels illustrates Balanchine's eclecticism, it hardly prepares you for the wonderful, if bewildering contrasts of MCB's second programme, a quadruple bill of works which span the period between 1934 and 1960. Twelve years separate Serenade, which was the first ballet Balanchine created after his arrival in the States, and the Four Temperaments, made in 1946 to a commission score by Hindemith. But both show the choreographer at his most inventive, continually exploring the range of movement. Over and over again Balanchine defines the reciprocal relationship between turned-out and turned-in positions of hips, legs and feet.

While the Tchaikovsky pas de deux, a show-stopper duet performed by the husband and wife team Iliana Lopez and Franklin Gamero, proved only a brief distraction between works in which MCB's dancers performed with all the attack, energy and sense of daring that one associates with Balanchine's ballets, Western Symphony was far less digestible. The company squeezes every drop of Yankee Doodle cowboy flavour from this Bronco Billy adventure, but it is a vernacular that, perhaps, means more to an American audience than a British one. The most difficult thing to believe is that the choreographer responsible for the pristine beauty of Four Temperaments went on to make a ballet like Western Symphony.