Tulsa Ballet's International Language

July 19, 2007
Company class. Torsos plunge to the floor and arch back into the horizontal. With intense concentration and unwavering attention, about 30 dancers from 15 countries work at a level of expertise one would expect to see in a major coastal city or in Europe. Perfect placement, open port de bras, expansive sweeps of the legs, speedy footwork, and rapid direction changes.
Corrections are clear and precise. Artistic director Marcello Angelini gives a general correction, makes direct eye contact with a dancer, then perhaps a little joke. While he respects the dancer’s art, his authority is absolute.
Since Angelini began directing Tulsa Ballet in 1995, he has built a company strong enough to perform the classics and versatile enough to do contemporary work by well-known choreographers. The Italian-born, Kiev Institute-trained director expects dancers to achieve a technical level and artistic range comparable to that of the major companies he danced with (Deutsche Oper Berlin, Les Grands Ballets Canadiens, Ballet West). To grow a company, Angelini says, you have to stretch the dancer one way, then the other.
Angelini believes different styles—classical, modern, and contemporary —are parts of the same language. “It’s all dance,” he says, forming a large circle with his arms. “It’s like my shoulder connects to my arm which connects to my hand. You can’t separate them.”
Tulsa Ballet’s current success is built on a solid foundation. During the 38 years Roman Jasinski and Moscelyne Larkin directed the company, the couple established and maintained high standards formed in the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo tradition. The quality of work drew some of the finest choreographers and repetiteurs of the classical repertoire to Tulsa. But after Jasinski’s death, politics and temperaments nearly caused the company to implode. [See “The Italian Tornado,” DM, September 1999.] 
When Angelini assumed directorship in 1995, he began a mission to bring a wider range of high-caliber choreography to Tulsa. Works by Nacho Duato, Val Caniparoli, Paul Taylor, and Lila York have pushed the dancers’ limits. The new styles challenge audiences to accept contemporary choreography alongside their cultivated taste for the classics. Revivals by Jerome Robbins, Antony Tudor, and Birgit Cullberg have bridged the historic gap. The repertoire has attracted an extraordinary pool of talent and has put this mid-American company in the international eye.
In 1997 Val Caniparoli staged
Prawn Watching
on the company and later became Tulsa Ballet’s resident choreographer. The San Francisco Ballet dancer/choreographer was initially impressed with the dancers’ technique and versatility as well as Angelini’s clearly established authority. “You know he’s in charge, you know he means what he says. I’ve worked with a lot of different companies, and I really feel he’s one of the best.”
When Sally Bliss, executor of the Antony Tudor Ballet Trust, saw the company in its mixed repertoire, she immediately knew they could perform Tudor ballets. She started the company with
Leaves Are Fading
in 2003 and continued with Gala Performance in 2004. Bliss noted the dancers’ respect for Tudor, sense of humor, and sense of individual style. She said, “They have the perfect mix—and dancers from all over the world.”
As a repetiteur for both the Balanchine and Robbins Trusts, Judith Fugate was impressed with the dancers’ willingness to delve into the style and character of
Fancy Free
, which delighted audiences last spring. Fugate saw that Tulsa dancers had the maturity to perform Robbins’ In the Night, to be staged this spring.
“My first impression of Marcello was how well he balanced his position of authority and discipline with a positive sense of camaraderie with all of the dancers,” Fugate said. She was also impressed with Daniela Buson, principal dancer and Angelini’s wife. “Despite her long, distinguished career, she still had such a hunger and willingness to learn.” Fugate said Buson makes “a great role model for the others.”
Tulsa Ballet owes much to Buson’s refined artistry and uncommon versatility. From
to Duato’s barefoot ballets, Buson commands the stage and infuses movement with resonant emotional qualities and a rare sense of dramatic timing.
On the basis of Buson’s talent, commitment, and artistic maturity, Angelini convinced several choreographers to take a chance on Tulsa Ballet during the couple’s first two seasons with the company. Nacho Duato gave them permission to perform
Jardi Tancat
, and Frederic Franklin staged Coppélia and the pas de deux from Sylvia.
With ever-challenging principal roles—plus the added dimension in her life of having 6-year-old twins—Buson consistently upholds the company standard. Like Buson, Tulsa Ballet dancers must be technically strong and driven to improve. In an audition, Angelini can spot company members from the first or second exercise.
Angelini looks for a dancer with balanced muscle tone, flexibility and a harmonious way of moving. He also looks for positive personal interaction and an ability to adapt to new aesthetics.
One of those who more than fills the bill is Alfonso Martín, who has risen to the level of principal dancer. With solid technique, determination to succeed, and a passion that nearly lifts the roof off the Tulsa Performing Arts Center, Martín entered the company in 1998 as a demi-soloist and was immediately cast as Buson’s partner. Since then, Angelini has meticulously taught Martín every possible nuance of the great classical roles.
Eight years ago in his native Spain, Martín auditioned for Duato, but was told he was too young. “How funny is the world,” said Martín, that 10 months later he was halfway around the world in Tulsa rehearsing Duato’s Jardi Tancat.
Martín’s offstage partner, soloist Ashley Blade-Martín, chose Tulsa Ballet because of Angelini’s straightforward style and the challenging repertoire. “For a small company, it had an amazing variety,” said Blade-Martín. “It was what I felt I needed to grow as an artist.”
Cecile Tuzii recently joined Tulsa Ballet after years as a soloist with the Deutsche Oper am Rhein in Düsseldorf, Germany. While the repertoire and training give her the challenge she desires, Tuzii enjoys living in Tulsa. “You don’t feel so much stress here, because everything is so spread out,” said Tuzii. “There is this kind of quietness that I love.”
Tulsa has attracted another international talent—Ma Cong, who left the National Ballet of China in 1999 to dance Tulsa Ballet’s mixed repertoire. Cong has thrilled audiences with his push-to-the-limit athleticism and his infectious love of dancing. With an eye on the future, Angelini has spotted Cong’s budding ability for choreography. Last year, Angelini asked the principal dancer to choreograph for students in the Tulsa Ballet Center for Dance Education. Cong will premiere his first professional work with the company next month.
The troupe made its international debut in August 2002, at the Ballet Nights Festival in Sintra, Portugal. In response to the quality and range of the programs Tulsa Ballet submitted, festival artistic director Armando Jorge gave the company two weekends of performances instead of the standard one-weekend engagement. European dance fans and critics hailed the troupe as an exciting new presence on the international dance scene. Three years ago, Cong recalled, Europeans asked, “Where’s Tulsa?” Now, they’re saying, “Oh, Tulsa Ballet—great company!”
But maintaining an international presence is another challenge. Last March, tours to Spain and Israel were canceled after the bombings in Madrid. Like many small dance companies, Tulsa’s base of financial support has to stretch to meet the repertoire’s monetary needs. Angelini has frequently persuaded choreographers to lower their fees, once they see the company’s level of artistry. But ballets like Christopher Wheeldon’s
A Midsummer Night’s Dream
come with a price tag.
By constantly expanding the repertoire and attracting dancers who are up to the challenge, Angelini keeps the company and the community connected to the dance world at large. “Even as isolated as we are in Tulsa,” said Buson, “We don’t feel isolated at all. We have the best of Europe, the best of the United States. When you are working inside the studio, you don’t know where you are. You know only that you are working with a great choreographer.”
Cynthia Bond Perry teaches dance history and technique at the University of Oklahoma.