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The creative joy in Richmond Ballet's New Works Festival

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Of the six engaging, varied pieces shown last week in Richmond Ballet's New Works Festival (each having been recently set over three weeks during 30 hours of rehearsals), two took hold and would not let go: Viktor Plotnikov's "Touched," and Eloy Barragan's "Y Por Ti..." both displayed high levels of gorgeous dancing from the company, and of expert choreographic craft from the visiting artists.

"Touched" opens with three men leaning onto their forearms, legs out to the side, a variation on the yogic "crane pose" in growing light. Three women emerge from the wings, and the dance begins -- quirky, intricate movement in spare black costumes (by Tamara Cobus) under spare lighting by M.K. Stewart. You could almost see ribbons curling and straightening as the dancers swung through the space, often propelled by the energy of centrifugal force alone. Partnering forms the crux of the work: Dancers spin across each other like hoops -- in contracted curves, on bent legs, in unexpected configurations. A man might dart in, skim low beneath his partner and brush her leg aside with his head. Or he might lift her from arabesque so her bottom leg swings briefly like a pendulum. One moment stuck in my mind -- all three women lifted by their middles from standing, and carried backwards, heads swiveling, feet twitching, arms straight down with hands patting thighs, as if the men held big fish just caught. Plotnikov's juxtapositions (to delicious music by Bach, Mendelssohn and Mozart) struck perfect balances between fast and slow, spare and ornate, abstract and specific.

In luscious red costumes (also by Cobus, who made sweeping, flamenco-style skirts that came on and off the women, layered over red shorts), eight dancers perform Barragan's "Y Por Ti..." with an infectious joy. With a light, deft touch, Barragan mingles traditional Spanish forms with classical vocabulary: swiveling hips, stamps, and flicks of wrists ornamenting sprightly, loose movement full of air. Certain pairings offer glimpses of passion in all its breadth. Lauren Fagone with Thomas Ragland yearn and struggle, grip and release. Sudden swinging lifts or sharply angled limbs interspersed with quieter moments -- Fagone standing on one leg in arabesque while Ragland kneels and turns her slowly by the thigh. Maggie Small and Jesse Bechard smile almost to themselves as their arms interlock, heads face each other then turn away -- confident, flirtatious, utterly convincing. From big jumps through the warm light, a group might assemble upstage and then turn to advance on the audience, chins titled down, faces lit by knowing smiles. Delicious.

Keeping up the variety, Theatre VCU's David Leong and Patti D'Beck set the comedic "Morning Overtures" on four company members and 16 younger dancers from the ranks of Apprentices and Trainees. Richmond Ballet's own Malcolm Burn's "A Tribute (To Marcel Marceau and Bip)" present Angela Hutto as a rather frosty Muse, with Fernando Sabino, Kirk Henning, and Thomas Garrett as Pierrot, The Little Tramp, and Harpo Marx respectively. Gina Patterson's "Silence," to a score by Arvo P„rt, includes beautiful dancing by 11 company members -- curved backs, rippled spines, limbs flicked out in high lifts -- but perhaps echoes too closely in movement and gesture the highly pitched emotion of P„rt's violins. Norfolk-based Todd Rosenlieb created a charming, if self-conscious, all-male sextet, "Chance Favors the Prepared Mind," to music by Arcangelo Corelli -- what a pleasure to see men take the stage for themselves, especially this mix of company members and apprentices.

The first New Works Festival -- a resounding success! Let's hope Richmond Ballet can continue the series into the future, picking up more plums for their repertoire as they go.

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