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New Orleans Ballet Theatre leaped high and landed in heaven with 'Summer Solstice'

A scene from the world premiere of Diogo de Lima's 'Wisp,' presented by New Orleans Ballet Theatre, June 19, 2015. (David J. L'Hoste)

A magic act for 12 exceptional dancers: That's whatNew Orleans Ballet Theatre staged at the Civic Theater on Friday (June 19).

The magic came from fleet feet and surging athleticism, but also from the vision of three commanding New Orleans choreographers – Diogo de Lima, Marjorie Hardwick Schramel, and Gregory Schramel. Their startlingly different styles made this compact, ad hoc troupe feel like a company of 50 performers.

For this "Summer Solstice" program, both De Lima and Marjorie Schramel presented world premieres; Gregory Schramel, the NOBT artistic director, revived two of his past works for the troupe.

De Lima's new piece, "Wisp," was a potent reminder of the range expected from contemporary dancers – in this case a mix of talents from San Francisco's Smuin Ballet, Atlanta Ballet, Royal Winnipeg Ballet, and Marigny Opera Ballet. De Lima, a Tulane University professor who landed on our 2015 list of New Orleanians to watch, also danced in his creation.

Set to a buzzing, percussive electronic soundtrack, "Wisp" conjured a world of powerful contrasts, where dancers dressed in black or white, moved from shadow to spotlight, and froze in angular poses that often suggested the pent energy of combatants ready to charge. From those compact, off-balance poses – squatting, hunched, arched and tilting – De Lima's seven dancers released with whip crack energy, matching the music with sudden directional shifts, semaphoric arm signals, shoulder shrugs, head tosses and balletic extensions. At times, their movements echoed the capoeira tradition of De Lima's native Brazil – a potent mix of dance and martial arts – but the New Orleans choreographer goes way beyond it.

De Lima was well served by his fellow dancers, who understood how to build long phrases from staccato movements; how to raise tension and release it even in extended adagio passages. Dancer Josh Reynolds was especially at ease in De Lima's world of contrasts, shaping an organic solo in which the upright carriage and feather light footfalls of ballet played against stabbing gestures, clenched fists and an undulating torso.

Gregory Schramel showed his choreographic strengths — and storytelling instincts -- in "My Friend," a sextet that served as an elegy to dead man. Set to excerpts from Mozart's Requiem, the dancing matched the drama of the music as Schramel's dancers formed processional lines, and conjured a ritual atmosphere from canonic turns and crisscrossing patterns. A solo from Miguel Angel Montoya was a particular highlight: It's rare to find a ballet dancer who can gracefully link upright dancing with passages of floor work, but the Colombian dancer made it look natural.

Gregory Schramel's opening piece didn't come off so well. Set to music by Handel, his "Occasional Suite" seemed under-rehearsed and tentative, with the dancers going through their paces but never catching fire. Perhaps they were worried about collisions: Schramel deployed nine dancers in stage-spanning patterns, and, at times, the Civic seemed too small to accommodate the energy.

Marjorie Hardwick Schramel brought the concert to a triumphant close with her "7 Mose Pieces," a dance suite set to music by jazz pianist and singer Mose Allison. The new work, a world premiere, expanded on a brief piece, "Seventh Son," that debuted to acclaim in 2014.

She talked to | The Times-Picayune about the inspiration for the piece -- and shared a video of the 2014 teaser.

As a choreographer, Marjorie Schramel has a way of making difficult things look natural: blending swing dance partnering with ballet point work, for starters. She has a knack for interweaving small, graceful details – a dancer petting her leg like a cat, a jete battu set to a bouncing bop rhythm, a sexy hip shake, a breakneck leap into a partner's arms – while building long, fluid dance phrases that carry performers across the stage. And Schramel is just as good no matter the scale of the dance. On Friday, she made everything plain to the audience, whether crafting an athletic solo for Josh Reynolds, a smoldering duo for Christian Clark and Alessa Rogers, or a rambunctious closer for 10 dancers who looked ready to take on Broadway. She may have saddled this dance with a Plain Jane working title, but it blossomed like a natural starlet under the stage lights: sexy, theatrical, silly and fun.

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