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Richmond Ballet kicks off its new season in a new home, the largest stage in Richmond.

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Richmond Ballet designed its new home with the intention of creating a stage to replace the need to continually find a performance space around town. The 60-by-60-foot Studio Theatre stage ranks as the largest one in all of Richmond, a feature the dancers and choreographers relish. The 2001-02 season kicks off on the spacious new stage Oct. 9-14 with works by Philip Neal and George Balanchine.

Studio Theatre impresses with its immense windows overlooking the Downtown Expressway and the James River; the view will be blackened by drapes for the performance. Philip Neal, principal dancer for New York City Ballet, regular guest dancer for Richmond Ballet and alumnus of the Richmond dance school, claims the room rivals anything available in New York. "The space is truly incredible. Superlative. … There's so much room, I keep telling the dancers to go big, bigger, bigger. They really get to fly all over the place."

Neil returns to Richmond Ballet in a different role from previous occasions, as choreographer for "Astormix." Though he loves to dance and has no intention of quitting, he welcomes this second opportunity to choreograph, his first being for City Ballet's Choreography Institute.

"This piece is more complex, with four couples instead of one. But it's also easier. I'm more relaxed and less inhibited on home turf. The dancers are quick to learn and readily offer suggestions, which I welcome. They're so willing to try anything."

The large moves he encourages for "Astormix," with music by modern tango master Astor Piazolla, is an unusual, lighthearted mix of tango, karate, kung fu and ballet, divided into sections. Each section differs in mood and movement, from traditional and romantic to aerobatic and comical. An abstract dance inspired by Piazolla, "Astormix" also borrows a few moves from the unforgettable movie "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon."

Neal works as ballet master for the other work of the program, Balanchine's "Who Cares?" Using a melange of songs by George Gershwin, Balanchine matches the upbeat music with similarly carefree, syncopated movements that include tap and ballroom. Between the spirited music and the dance, this piece struts with pure Americana.

These two optimistic and mirthful works couldn't have been better timed to take us away from the gravity of world and national events. Richmond Ballet opens with the joy of motion and the chance for Richmonders to see flights of ballet in a new space with risers reconfigured since last year to ensure no view is obstructed.

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