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Preparing a Premiere

Dancers practice for the first performance of the season.

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Upstairs in a large, quiet corner studio away from the clamor, grown-up dancers, members of Richmond Ballet's professional company, are finishing up an intensive rehearsal with guest choreographer Val Caniparoli, whose new work they'll premiere in the spring. Caniparoli has dismissed most of them, except for two men who stay to work out a tricky section. The rest lug their bags, shoes and warm-up clothes to a smaller studio downstairs, where they'll switch gears for a dry run of another new work they've just learned — this one by former Lim┬ón dancer and, by now, Richmond Ballet regular Colin Connor.

"Into The Air" will be the fourth piece Connor has set on the company, and it anchors Richmond Ballet's season opener, running Sept. 20-25. Conner's funky, Celtic-inspired "Streets and Legends" was among the works performed at the ballet's New York debut at the Joyce Theater earlier this year.

"Into The Air" is one in a series of three world premieres slated for the ballet's studio series (in addition to such classics as "The Nutcracker" and "Sleeping Beauty"), continuing on Artistic Director Stoner Winslett's bold course to prove that the art of ballet continues to be relevant, even vibrant, in our modern world.

Connor may be just the man to prove such a thing. His work marries the best elements of classical form with the freedom and expressiveness of modern dance. And, as he explains from his home in Altadena, Calif., he doesn't heed any barriers between the "beautifully traditional" and the avant-garde.

Richmond Ballet is particularly suited to the task of breaking boundaries, Connor says: "I love working with them because it's a company in which … Stoner is always taking a risk doing new work, and the dancers are always getting better. They're never complacent. They're very greedy to try new things."

For this outing, Connor takes inspiration from the frescoes of 18th-century Italian master Giambattista Tiepolo and from a common life experience. "We go through so much of our lives just taking care of the things we need to take care of …," he says, "and every now and then the world just opens up for us."

He describes an epiphany that lifts us from the ordinary way of seeing the world into a moment of clarity that he describes as a "violence of joy."

Connor spent two weeks working with two casts of six dancers — three men and three women in each — before returning to the West Coast. Richmond Ballet resident artist Igor Antonov has been rehearsing and cleaning the work in Connor's absence.

In the studio, Antonov stands with his back to the mirror as the dancers mark through some of the movements for "Into The Air" before a full-out run.

"Up, up, up," Antonov says, snapping his fingers with each accent as one of the dancers practices a series of jumps. "Hipssssss," he says, drawing out the "s" to emphasize the desired swivel in one movement.

The dancers clear the "stage," and Antonov cues the recorded music. The piece begins in silence, and the dancers appear one by one with controlled, almost sculptural motions. The soundscape takes shape with the clamor of what sounds like a mall or a bus station — chaotic voices and noise. It melds into a Gregorian chant and finally into the gloriously uplifting strains of Vivaldi's "Magnificat."

The movement belies the thematic and musical transformation from the mundane to the lucid — as will Charles Schoonmaker's costumes; the dancers begin clad in drab, semiecclesiastical garb and end up in brilliantly colored flesh-baring swathes.

In one section, dancer Valerie Tellman is separated from the group downstage, where she twists her long legs and torso slowly, almost imperceptibly, into a contorted backbend, the toe of her right pointe shoe feeling for the surface like the spindle of a sea urchin spiraling against itself.

In another, dancer Thomas Garrett bounds fluidly from floor to midflight in an athletic fit that is part ecstasy and part terror.

Although choreographer Connor clarifies that he is not trying to show people going through a transformation — but rather what the world looks when we experience that transformation — it's difficult not to engage in the dancers' personalities, to identify with their emotional performances.

The piece is full of physical and psychological drama: muscular leaps and turns and lifts — men lifting women, men lifting men, women lifting women. Moments of stillness — groupings of four or five dancers in painterly, organic formations — are juxtaposed against frenetic hops, grand, sweeping lunges and repeated small motifs, such as the cradling of the dancers' heads in their own hands. The dancers' faces are impassioned, and their eyes and arms are raised to the sky in a "V" of supplication.

The overall feeling for the observer is one of exhilaration and awakening.

The result for the dancers is exhaustion.

"OK, that's good. Catch your breath," Antonov says in his Ukrainian accent after they hit the final pose.

It's hoped that audiences will feel the need to do the same. S



Richmond Ballet's Studio 1, featuring "Into The Air" by Colin Connor and "Surfside" by Michael Lowe, runs Sept. 20-25 at the Studio Theater, 407 E. Canal St. Tickets are $15-$22. Call 262-8003 or visit www.ticketmaster.com.

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