“Fresh and fierce” was the billing of Miami City Ballet’s April program, an eclectic mix of modern works ranging from a George Balanchine set piece to the dance suite from Jerome Robbins’s balletic adaptation of Leonard Bernstein’s musical West Side Story, to a world premiere by the twenty-seven-year-old Filipino American choreographer Durante Verzola, a recent graduate of the Miami City Ballet School, where he now teaches. 

West Side Story, the program’s biggest draw due to its overwhelming celebrity, dominated the promotional material. At intermission, audience members were invited to draw graffiti on an improvised brick wall adorned with a mock New York–subway sign directing imaginary passengers to “Downtown & Miami Beach” via the N, Y, C, M, I, A lines. As frightening as the prospect of a New York takeover of Florida transit might be, the promotional gambit belied the value of the first two works, which demanded attention before the West Side Story selections unfolded in the third and final part.

Ellen Grocki and Ariel Rose in West Side Story, with choreography by Jerome Robbins. © The Jerome Robbins Rights Trust. Photo: © Alexander Iziliaev.

Balanchine’s Divertimento No. 15 draws from Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s piece of the same name for two horns and strings in B-Flat Major. It was composed in 1777 by the twenty-one-year-old Mozart to celebrate the birthday of his Salzburg patroness Countess Maria Antonia Lodron, a family friend whose daughters Mozart and his father instructed in music. Balanchine arranged it for sixteen dancers—thirteen female and three male, with eight billed as principals (five female and three male) and eight contributing as an ensemble. Balanchine originally used Mozart’s divertimento for his ballet Caracole, a confection of 1952, but four years later he designed a whole new choreography, apparently after realizing that the Caracole dancers had forgotten it by then. Divertimento No. 15 unfolds in five movements and, per Balanchine’s description, “there is no story.” Premiering at the American Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford, Connecticut, in 1956, it triumphed in New York later that year and soon achieved global fame.

Called “a ballet of the aristocracy” by the dance historian Nancy Reynolds, the main draw of Divertimento No. 15 is the exquisite use of movement within the confines of neoclassical composition. The costume designs by the Russian émigrée fashion designer Barbara Karinska from the 1956 premiere maintain a certain dignity, but their powderpuff shapes seem a bit dated in the realm of modern dance. The soloists on stage did well, though the orchestra’s tempos lagged a bit.

What Divertimento No. 15 lacked in emotive power was easily compensated for by Verzola’s premiere, a series of nine vignettes set to jazz compositions by the prolific Cuban composer Ernesto Lecuona, many of whose six-hundred-plus works are considered classics in the tradition that followed Lecuona into exile in Florida after the Cuban Revolution. For anyone familiar with that culture, which endures in Miami’s nightlife today, the rhythms are overpowering delights. Francisco Rennó’s exquisite playing of his own piano arrangements of Lecuona’s songs emphasized their suitability for setting to dance.

Nathalia Arja and Steven Loch in Sentimento with choreography by Durante Verzola. Photo: © Alexander Iziliaev.

Five of the nine vignettes are for duos, and these aptly conveyed ideas of love, connection, and passion. Jennifer Lauren and Chase Swatosh were arguably the best in “Siempre En Mi Corazón,” though Juliet Hay and Taylor Naturkas did well in “Burlesca (Danza Cubana),” a spoof on vaudeville conventions. The ensemble piece “Aragón” presented a full complement of dancers in a delightfully rollicking waltz. Esteban Cortázar’s costumes recalled Havana in its heyday as well as the romance of old-school Cuban Miami. They contributed much to Verzola’s overall effect, which proves that modern expressive art can indeed be beautiful and even nostalgic without losing a scintilla of inspiration and creativity. This is the type of modern dance that will hold the stage and, one hopes, delight audiences for years to come.

The evening’s main event sustained that hope with a tasteful rendering of the best dance sequences in West Side Story. Robbins distilled his work for the original musical into this shorter suite in 1995, nearly forty years after the musical’s premiere. It entered Miami’s repertoire in 2014 and has endured despite recent popular trends to reimagine it (for example, Ivo van Hove’s unfortunate “update” of 2020 on Broadway, which among other controversies, jettisoned Robbins’s choreography in favor of a modern “hip-hop” idiom). Oliver Smith’s sets and Irene Sharaff’s costumes, designed for the 1957 stage premiere, delivered a grittily believable New York set on the streets around what is today Lincoln Center. Gary Sheldon did his best to convey Bernstein’s score. The dance pieces largely stand on their own, though the dancers have spoken dialogue and minor outcries, like “Mambo!” in “Dance at the Gym.” Soloists standing at the side of the stage were entrusted with full songs. Zoë Spangler topped them all in “Somewhere.” Swatosh reappeared as Tony and conveyed his plight with muscular determination. In her role debut as Maria, Isadora Valero captured sweet innocence. The Miami City Ballet ensemble returned to kaleidoscopic effect as the rival gang members and their molls. 

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