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Richmond Ballet's Studio I gives a taste of a promising season

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If baroque music were a sandwich, it would be dense, chewy and delicious. Choreographing and dancing to baroque music, then, demands meat, seasoned by technical skill and some daring. All this is to say that choreographer Jessica Lang's new work for the Richmond Ballet, "La Belle Danse," provides the audience with a tasty morsel, but leaves us still a little hungry.

Set to music by Handel, Corelli, Des Prez and Mozart, "La Belle Danse" opened with an ensemble of 10 dancers in a bright-lit world (designed by MK Stewart) moving graciously through circular patterns, gentle partnering, and double lines -- glancing references to folk dances. A men's trio followed the opening, with Igor Antonov, Jesse Bechard, and Fernando Sabino in the cast I saw. Choral music set the tone for some introspective solo moments, one for each man as the other two moved in chorus behind. All three danced with strength and clarity, and Sabino's performance, in particular, brimmed with earthy intensity.

The dance's five sections alternated pleasingly between allegro and adagio (and secular and sacred, it seemed). Lang's choreography in the faster sections nodded to the quick footwork and precisely carried upper body of baroque dancing, and then cheerfully tossed it aside with high-fives, swooping lifts, and scissoring legs. Cecile Tuzii circled and spiraled within herself as the ensemble paced behind her during a slower, devotional section in cool, quiet light.

The final section returned to the opening brightness -- almost too bright, as the dancers in their pale, neutral costumes (nicely designed by Tamara Cobus) nearly faded away after the darker, richer middle sections. With their claps and jumps and saucy smiles, they were not ethereal beings but flesh and blood and of the earth. The trick, for this piece to truly blossom, may lie in getting both Lang and the dancers themselves to dig a little deeper and know that in their bones.

Stoner Winslett's "Other Places" (1990) provided a short palette cleanser in a romantic duet performed by Anne Sidney Davenport and Igor Antonov to music by Dvorak. In diaphanous costumes on a stage lit like a dusky sky, the couple performed perfectly Winslett's tender embraces and pretty lifts.

Colin Conner's "Terra," created for the ballet in 1996, closed the show. It had the ingredients for success -- interesting music, colorful costumes, creative partnering -- but the piece lacked dynamic range and a through-line that could have carried it beyond a series of engaging moments.

All three works, however, were well suited to the intimate Studio Theater, and the company's commitment to commissioning new works and maintaining a repertory of contemporary dance art is to be commended. S

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